Georges Braque, French (1882-1963)

Georges_Braque,_1908,_photograph_published_in_Gelett_Burgess,_The_Wild_Men_of_Paris,_Architectural_Record,_May_1910Georges Braque was one of the important art innovators of the 20th century, together with Pablo Picasso, Braque is considered the pioneer of Cubism. His paintings consist primarily of still lifes that are recognized for their construction, color harmonies and distinctive techniques.

Early life

Braque was born seven months after Picasso in a small community on the Seine River near Paris. This was one of the centers of the Impressionist movement in the 1870s. His father and grandfather, both amateur artists, were the owners of a prosperous house painting company. In 1890, the family moved to Le Havre which had also been home to Eugene Boudin and the young Claude Monet sparking an early center of Impressionism.

At the age of 15, Braque enrolled in an evening course at the Le Havre Academy of Fine Arts. He left school at age 17 for a year of apprenticeship with his father and grandfather in the family business. This apprenticeship gave Braque unique techniques such as being able to imitate wood grain that he would frequently utilize in his artworks. Georges served in the military for one year and during this time he decided to make a career in the art world. His true love was painting and print making. From 1902-1904, he studied at a Paris private academy and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In his free hours, he frequented the Louvre, where he especially admired Egyptian and Archaic Greek works.

Braque’s early paintings reveal, as might be expected from his childhood surroundings, the influence of the Impressionists in particular that of Monet and of Camille Pissarro. He experienced a revelation as he studied the firm structures and union of color and tonal values in the works of Paul Cezanne.  Braque can be said to have begun to find his way in 1905 when he visited the Paris Salon d’Automne and saw the violent explosion of arbitrary color in the room occupied by the paintings of the group nicknamed Les Fauves (“Wild Beasts”). During the next two years, he became a rather prudent and tradition minded Fauvist; working for a while at Antwerp, Belgium and then on the French Mediterranean coast near Marseille, at L’Estaque and La Ciotat.

In the spring of 1907, Braque exhibited and sold six paintings at the Paris Salon des Independants. Later that year, he signed a contract with a dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who had recently opened a small Paris gallery destined to play an important role in the history of modern art. Kahnweiler introduced him to the avant-garde poet and critic, Guillaume Apollinaire, who in turn introduced him to Picasso. Braque was first disconcerted by Picasso’s recent work, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). “Listen,” he is reported to have said, “in spite of your explanations, your painting looks as if you wanted to make us eat tow, or drink gasoline and spit fire.” Despite the reservations, Braque painted his Large Nude (1908), a somewhat less-radical take on Picasso’s use of distorted planes and shallow space. The two artists became close friends and, within a few months, they were engaged in the unprecedented process of mutual influence and collaboration from which Cubism emerged.

Cubism

It is impossible to say which of the two was the principal inventor of the revolutionary new style since they exchanged ideas daily at the high of their collaboration. Picasso provided, with his proto-Cubist Demoiselles, the initial liberating shock, but it was Braque, largely because of his admiration for Cezanne who provided much of the early tendency toward geometric forms. During the summer of 1908, in southern France, Braque painted a series of radically innovative canvases of which the most celebrated is Houses at L’Estaque. These works reflect the influence of Braque’s idol, Cezanne; this influence is seen most obviously in the fact that L’Estaque was a favorite painting site for Cezanne, but also in the fact that Braque emulated the older painters use of colorful titled planes and his reduction of form to geometric, often cylindrical shapes. Braque’s works abstracted the landscape beyond the work of Cezanne. The slab volumes, sober coloring and warped perspective in his paintings from this period are typical of the first part of what has been called the Analytical phase of Cubism. After these radical works were rejected by the Salon d’ Automne, that fall Braque had a show of Kahnweiler’s gallery and provoked a remark about “cubes” from the Paris critic Louis Vauxcelles that soon blossomed into a stylistic label.

The works Braque and Picasso created during these years are practically interchangeable. The artists broke down planes and eliminated traditional perspectival space, which resulted in crowded canvases of subjects depicted so broken apart that they were nearly impossible to perceive.

In 1912, Picasso and Braque entered Synthetic Cubism, the phase in which subject matter became more central as the artists moved their forms out of the confusion of contrasting planes. That year, Braque crated what is generally considered the first papier colle by attaching three pieces of wallpaper to the drawing Fruit Dish and Glass. He also began to introduce sand and sawdust onto his canvases. This work significantly strengthened the idea, full of consequences for the future of art, that a picture is not an illusionistic representation, but rather an autonomous object.

International acclaim

By the 1920s, Braque was a prosperous, established modern master and a part of the well-to-do cultured circles of postwar French society. Working again much of the time is Paris, he transferred his studio from Montmartre to Montparnasse in 1922 and three years later moved into a new Left Bank house designed for him by a modern minded architect, Auguste Perret. In 1923 and again in 1925, he had commissions from Serge Diaghilev, the great ballet impresario, from the design of stage sets. In 1930, he acquired a country residence at Varengeville, a group of hamlets on the Normandy coast near Dieppe. His painting during these years can be most easily classified, given its stylistic variety, on the basis of subject matter.

In 1931, Braque undertook a new medium of expression: white drawings, incised on plaster plaques painted black, reminiscent of ancient Greek pottery designs. During World War II, he produced a collection of small, generally flat decorative pieces of sculpture in a style recalling again ancient Greece and centering on vaguely mythological themes.

After the war, Braque resumed his practice of executing a number of paintings on a single subject: first a series of billiard tables, one of studio interiors and one of large, lumbering birds that seem charged with some forgotten archaic symbolism. During the last years of his life, Braque was honored with important retrospective exhibitions throughout the world and, in December 1961, he became the first living artist to have his works exhibited in the Louvre.