Georges Braque at the Phillips Collection

When Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso joined forces in 1909, the two young painters were in their late twenties. The artistic landscape in Europe had already been razed, scoured and rebuilt many times over the previous century, starting with Impressionism and continuing through Fauvism and the fractured perspectives innovated by Paul Cézanne. The cultural atmosphere was roiling, disparate and wild. For Braque and Picasso the iron was hot, and they had the collective vision and sheer force of will to strike.

Cubism was a style of painting that synthesized the artistic innovations of the previous century and blasted them like a human cannonball through a steel grate. Working side-by-side in the early 1910s, they produced hundreds of canvases, many of them still life studies, that are nearly indistinguishable between one artist and the other. The pursuit of their ambition was a gamble that required the hubris and stamina of youth, and an unusually clear vision for a new era. This pictorial language, the folding surface planes and abrupt shifts of shadow and light, living in a space both intricately dimensional and completely flat, forever altered the course of art.

At the Phillips Collection through Sept. 1, “Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life” examines Braque’s career from 1928 – 1945, a time between the two World Wars when the artist honed his cubist innovations and individual style through the motif of the still life.

While Picasso enthralled audiences with his reinvention of the human figure and a sort of animal wildness, Braque upheld the quiet poetry of landscapes and still life studies. The act of painting for Braque was the ultimate expression of intellectual and corporeal fulfillment, and it is easy to get caught up in this sensation—the catharsis of his thickly slathered brush strokes across the canvas. However, the still life is a bizarre subject for early 20th century Europe.

First, take a moment to really consider the still life. It is the utmost depiction of vanity, an ode to stuff, effects and amenities. Owning a gold-plated tea set or a Greek vase is a gentrified privilege, let alone hanging an homage to those goods on your wall.

Meanwhile, Europe was ravaged by the Great War; President Wilson and Herbert Hoover, under the American Relief Administration, had been spearheading humanitarian efforts across central Europe and Russia to prevent entire populations from starvation.

Yet Braque was painting vases, woven silk tablecloths, plates of fish and lush mountains of fruit, pulsing with thick colors and self-sustaining mythos.

It is an anachronism that Braque’s focus moved against the social tableau, but it is unlikely that he was unaware of the implication. Coming from a working class family—his father and grandfather were housepainters, with whom the artist trained as a young man—he was not immune to the effects of war. He abandoned his prolific partnership with Picasso in 1914 to enlist in the French Army, where he suffered a severe head wound in combat.

Art is a unique form that is capable of succeeding in presenting and exploring a problem without a clear resolution—artists spend their entire careers trying to crack the foundation, not repair it. This might be why Braque was comfortable painting the trappings of luxury while so many suffered. To quote the artist in a 1939 interview with the French literary journal Cahiers d’Art, “The painter lives through the age. But his work depends too much on the past for him to accommodate the changes of the hour… Let us distinguish categorically between art and current affairs.”

Of course, all of this assigns a hefty and misleading political bent to Braque’s paintings, as if they are commentaries on the very indulgences they exhibit. If anything, Braque did seem to get occasionally distracted by his own success. Some paintings throughout the exhibition feel like they were made more for stylistic branding than the pursuit of an artistic agenda. His colors and compositions get richer and bigger through the show’s timeline. Wallpaper and carved table legs are paid increasingly more attention. Even his explorations of light and shadow, while usually rendered with the exploratory reverence of Cubism, become densely refracted by irrelevantly ornate wall molding.

Not that the work isn’t beautiful. It is just worth deciphering the real painting in the show from the more decorative, because the real stuff is truly breathtaking.

“Pitcher and Newspaper (The Greek Vase)” is largely void of Braque’s usual patterned flourish, with a green-grey composition that showcases his style with masterly sensitivity to tonal balance. Much like the objects in the painting—lemons, a pipe, a cup, a newspaper and a vase—the canvas feels simple and lived in, beholden to a particular moment. It strives not to be grand but content as an étude (a French word meaning “study,” frequently used in music), which is lovely.

“Fruit, Glass, and Mandolin” is a triumph of color. Mixing his paint with sand to add texture, the delicate shades of pink that fill the canvas seem plucked from the hem of a Raphael “Madonna” or a breezy Rococo scene by François Boucher.
In “Vase, Palette, and Mandolin,” a black background frames in blocks and fragments a still life with loose and flowing pastel colors, which dance as if split from a prism, broken by thin lines and intricately distorted objects.

There is the rough discordance of line and color in “Pitcher, Candlestick, and Black Fish,” the exorbitance of “Mandolin and Score (The Banjo)” and the blocky coarseness of “Blue Guitar.” These are the works where Braque seems to turn his full attention toward an unfettered love of painting.

A photograph of his studio at the entrance to the gallery perfectly captures Braque’s devotion to his work. Thick drapes blanket the walls and stacks of paintings lean against them among a few large empty frames, while others hang on the wall. The wood floors are dark and clean, and a rocky landscape of half-used paint on a wide palette sits upfront on a table among jars of solvents and linseed oil and countless brushes. It is hedonic in painterly richness, a masterpiece in itself. It looks like Henri Matisse’s 1911 portrait of his own studio.

Braque never painted a seminal canvas to rival the cacophonous grandeur of Picasso’s “Guernica” or “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” His masterpiece is his oeuvre, perfectly complete in itself, even in considering occasional distractions by the very id of his subject. Here his paintings come together as one fluid movement, just as they must have in his studio amidst the swell of creation. ?
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