Stop, Look and Listen

Falling in love with Georges Braque: MFAH exhibit chronicles artist's revolutionary journey

Come out with it: When you, the art lover, think about French painter Georges Braque, do you associate his life and works in relation to that of his Spanish counterpart, Pablo Picasso?

While the two artists' aesthetics converged at one point in their careers — influencing and playing off one another to develop what would eventually be coined Cubism — this creative dialogue was only one aspect of  Braque's ever evolving style.

An exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston  Georges Braque: A Retrospective, on view through May 11, deservingly chronicles the journey of an influential and innovative painter who for too long, even in the eyes of the art cognoscenti, has lived in the shadow of another. The exhibit includes more than 75 pieces on loan from the Centre Pompidou in Paris and from public and private collections in the United States and Europe. Houston is the only city show the exhibit outside of France.

Here we have an audio photo essay with insightful and entertaining commentary from Alison de Lima Greene, MFAH curator of modern and contemporary art. Greene illustrates just how important Braque was in shaping a path that would reimagine a genre that for centuries had been an illusionist window.

Let's begin by getting to know Braque, an athletic 6-foot-tall man. as photographed by Man Ray, an American avant-garde painter and photographer who spent the majority of his career in the City of Lights.

Man Ray, Georges Braque, 1922, gelatin silver print, Musee National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France.

There's no denying the influence of Impressionism on this painting. The subject, the perspective, the painterly brushwork on the evocative sky and the reflective waters — there's an uncanny resemblance to Gustave Caillebotte's Factories in Argenteuil of 1888.

What's changing here from what's traditionally considered Impressionistic is the use of anti-natural color to evoke a certain mood. These hues aren't what one would observe when walking by the the Canal Saint-Martin, a waterway that runs through Paris to the river Seine. 

Fauvism, the last stage of Impressionism, Alison de Lima Greene explains, was a term coined by French art critic Louis Vauxcelles after he saw paintings by Henri Matisse, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. Vauxcelle chose to describe this clique of painters as "the wild beasts."

Partly influenced also by the approach of Vincent van Gogh — who had died 16 years prior to Braque painting this work — Braque developed a liking to the way Fauvism liberated art for the sake of heightened emotion.

Georges Braque, Le canal Saint-Martin (Canal Saint-Martin), 1906, oil on canvas, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Audrey Jones Beck.

Whereas in the previous painting the viewer is affected by the weighty gray skies and somewhat gloomy ambiance — because isn't it always a rainy day in Paris? — this Georges Braque landscape, although clearly rooted in a similar aesthetic, is a significant departure from the former Modernist setting.

The colors have changed. The texture is lighter. The Mediterranean landscape has a sun kissed feel that's uplifting.

Braque had left Paris for L'Estaque, a quaint port village west of Marseille. L'Estaque was a popular destination for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists. Paul Cézanne had set up his studio in L'Estaque in the late 1870s. Henri Matisse and André Derain returned there as well.

"Just like when Llewyn Davis goes to Greenwich Village to be a musician, you had to go to L'Estaque to be a Fauvist artist," de Lima Greene explains.

Georges Braque, Paysage de l’Estaque (Estaque Landscape), L’Estaque, 1906, oil on canvas, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris.

Let's make an artsy wager: Is this the work of Paul Cézanne or Georges Braque?

It's by no accident that Braque was influenced by Cézanne, whom scholars consider to be the connector between Impressionism and Cubism. Braque, alongside Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, regarded Cézanne with high esteem. Painted between 1882 and 1885, Cézanne's Mont Sainte–Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley explores the simple geometry that's found within natural landscapes.

It's as if Braque's Le viaduct de l’Estaque (Estaque Viaduct) zooms in Cézanne's painting to magnify a particular detail, accentuating the lines and angles while continuing to use the kind of loose, painterly brushstrokes preferred by his colleagues. Braque returned to Paris from L'Estaque after finishing this work and showed it to Matisse, who described the work as resembling "little cubes."

When the painting was exhibited publicly, art critic Louis Vauxcelles complained about the Cézannesque quality of the composition — not the most graceful way to describe Braque's artistic adventures.

Then again, neither is the term Cubism.

Georges Braque, Le viaduct de l’Estaque (Estaque Viaduct), 1908, oil on canvas, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris, 1984.

One could argue that it was Picasso who first roused Braque to experiment with the geometry associated with Cubism, and one could argue that it was Cézanne's style that prompted this exploration.

Both were important, de Lima Greene says.

Picasso was already famous in Parisian art circles by 1907. However, he did not exhibit in salons as André Derain and Henri Matisse. One had to visit Picasso's studio to view his works.

When Picasso and Braque finally met at the end of 1907, in Picasso's workshop was a striking painting created that summer. From looking at Braque's Grand Nu, it should not come as a surprise that this work was Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon), which portrayed, in somewhat primitive style, five prostitutes from a bordello in Barcelona.

But if one were to change the color's of Braque's nude and turn it sideways, it could be interpreted that there was something and someone else influencing Braque's creative impulses.

Listen to the audio as de Lima Greene explains.

Georges Braque, Grand Nu (Great Nude), 1907–1908, oil on canvas, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris, 2002.

By 1909, Braque was no longer in the sun-drenched landscape of the Mediterranean, evident also in the return of somber hues and somewhat limited colors in the painting Fishing Boats.

No longer do Braque's paintings reveal a Cézannesque quality.

Instead, Fishing Boats marks a departure to a more autobiographical personal style that could be confused with Picasso's own trials with Cubism, a time during which Picasso and Braque visited one another's studios frequently.

"I am not sure Braque and Picasso would have said that they were inventing Cubism or pioneering Cubism, but they were dedicated to re-thinking how to make a painting and to literally shattering 500 years of tradition," de Lima Greene says. "The painting was no longer a window that you looked through. Traditional perspective no longer had meaning."

The breakthrough was not achieved easily. Braque wavered between abstraction and figurative clarity. This aesthetic trajectory wasn't strictly linear.

Georges Braque, Fishing Boats (Barques de pêches), 1909, oil on canvas, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Audrey Jones Beck.

Braque's Fruit Dish and Glass of 1912 is one of the first radical experiments that furthered the departure from traditional illusionist painting. Papier collé, French for paper cut outs, saw the inclusion of other materials pasted directly onto the canvas.

As Braque was walking toward his studio, he passed by a shop that showcased faux bois (paper that was painted to look like wood) on a display window, which he incorporated into Fruit Dish and Glass.

While collage is an accepted medium today, the melding of 500 years of traditional painting with everyday objects was nothing short of revolutionary.

"Braque and Picasso almost felt like they painted themselves into a corner by 1912," de Lima Greene says. "Synthetic Cubism begins with the introduction of collage. You find Braque doing it first, one of the first times that you could argue Braque was ahead of Picasso."

Whereas Cubism plays with perspective on a single plane, the inclusion of external elements adds yet another plane.

With this newly discovered freedom, what could they do next? 

Georges Braque, Compotier et verre (Fruit Dish and Glass), September 1912, charcoal on paper, woodgrain pasted on paper, The Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Trust, New York.

The beginning of World War I marked the end of Picasso and Braque's working relationship. Braque enlisted with the French Army while Picasso, as the Spanish remained neutral during the war, wasn't called up to service.

Braque suffered a life threatening head injury in 1915. He was left for dead overnight on the battlefield and rescued a day later. His wounds caused temporary blindness. After recovering physically, it still took two years for Braque to return to his studio.

What happened in the next two decades is fascinating. Braque took the conceptual plane of Cubism in a different direction, experimenting with transparency and form to create increasingly sonorous and deeply felt paintings, de Lima Greene says.

"There's a sort of thoughtfulness and density to Braque's later work that is beautifully captured in Large Interior with Palette," she adds. "You see in the center the artist palette with the brushes. Braque almost never paints the human figure again. Instead, he becomes very good at suggesting the human presence by the objects that surrounds us.

"The palette becomes Braque."

Georges Braque, Grand intérieur á la palette (Large Interior with Palette), 1942, oil and sand on canvas, The Menil Collection, Houston.

At the end of World War II, Braque started The Billiard Table series. Three of the six paintings are on view at this exhibition.

One could consider these works as fairly straightforward renditions of corners of pool tables. As Braque progresses from one painting to the next he doesn't advance from natural to more abstract depictions. Instead, it's the complexity of the story within how the images are portrayed that adds interest to this journey.

"Remember if you've ever played pool, you lean down over a table that seems to tilt up at you," de Lima Greene says. "You stand back and you walk around. The table becomes different planes.

"Just like the way painting over a piece of paper pasted over another piece of paper creates two planes, now he's looking at the billiard table as an indeterminate plane in a space that you walk around."

Georges Braque, Le Billard (The Billiard Table), 1945, oil and sand on canvas, Tate, London.

With Braque spending more time on the Northern Coast in France, he was able to observe the bird migrations and visited bird sanctuaries. The appearance of the bird image — a poetic symbol of the imagination, of the spirit and of the holy trinity — develops in Braque's works with a commission to decorate the ceiling of the Etruscan gallery at the Musée du Louvre in 1953.

Similar to The Billiard Table as an indeterminate plane, the bird in A tire d'aile is also spatially vague.

"Are we looking at a bird flying above us or are we looking at a bird flying passed us?" de Lima Greene questions. "We don't know."

As for the mysterious, ominous black unidentified object adjacent to the bird, Braque scholars have not been able to discern its meaning. Is it a thick cloud?

The bubbly texture is a result of five years of painting layers atop of layers, a representation of the cliffs that surrounded the seaside landscape of Northern France. It's how Braque chose to synthesize landscape into the work without necessarily depicting it.

"That's finally what we learn most from Braque, a most incredible poet of the canvas," she adds. "He suggests so much more than he illustrates.

"I have fallen in love with Georges Braque while working on this show. These paintings are magic. Some are among the most powerful works of his generation."

Georges Braque, A tire d’aile (Winging), 1956–1961, oil and sand on canvas rubbed on panel, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris.