Lovers of 20th century art will all have heard of French-born artist Georges Braque. Of course I’ve heard of him too, renowned as he is for being co-founder of cubism along with the artist with whom he was thick and thieves in early 20th century Paris, Pablo Picasso. But my acquaintance with Braque has all too often occurred because, seeing a cubist masterpiece hanging in a modern art gallery, I have confused it with a Picasso, only to discover that the work was by Braque. It’s an easy mistake to make – the two artists were practically indecipherable from one another when they started out on the cubism road, a likeness of style which must be put down to the fact that they would discuss one another’s work endlessly day after day, night after night. And Braque was, purportedly, inspired into cubism by his glimpse of Picasso’s now world-famous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which few understood at the time, Braque being the exception.
So while Braque has, for me, existed solely in the shadows of the far glossier art historical existence of Picasso, I have never had the chance to discover how truly consistently brilliant he was as an artist. That is until this autumn, thanks to the latest blockbuster exhibition of Paris’ Grand Palais, which dedicates two floors of its palatial surrounds in retrospective homage to this French artistic great. I say consistently brilliant, because this show was one of those rare exhibitions where I literally loved almost every single piece, finding myself almost breathless with admiration as I strolled from painting to painting literally in love with what was on the walls before me.\
The show starts with early Braque, whereupon he dabbled largely in the fauvist epoque, with the result that his sunny landscapes of Southern France are imbued with scintillating bright colour which can not help but make the viewer yearn for the summer. But soon enough, after this initial embrace of colour, Braque discovers the more subdued shades of cubism, finding his own when fragmenting a scene into colourless, cubist dimensions. Seminal in cubism’s development was a chance visit to a wallpaper shop when Braque saw a reproduction wood-pattern paper in the window. Purchasing the wallpaper by impulse, it soon inspired Braque to set about creating a series of paper collages, which included, as well as the wallpaper, cardboard, newspaper cuttings – anything he could get his hands on. The effect of this geometric fragmentation was to create the cubist look, and soon enough Picasso was doing the same.
Into cubism, collage and then back to paint
After several years of collage experimentation, Braque returned to paint, but using the medium to create what were almost pastiches of the collage look – still fragmented, full of geometric shapes, but differing in their progressive return to the bolder colours of his fauvist age, a return which was no doubt eased along by the weakening of his relationship with Picasso, and his strengthening bond with spirited Spanish artist, Juan Gris.
Thus it was that as the 20s and 30s ticked by, Braque’s work moved the cubist spirit further and further, as the artist pushed the boundaries of the movement he had helped to create, until such a time as his works become progressively more figurative, but all the while maintaining the multi-dimensional expression which was central to cubism. Take his billiard table series for example – seen from various angles, Braque’s bold green billiard table is shown from all kinds of impossible angles, and yet there is no mistaking what Braque was trying to depict.
I would be selling the show short to suggest that it all ended there. From colour-drenched fauvism to colour-collected cubism, Braque’s mastery extended to every avenue of life, as he used his pioneering imagery to depict portraits, artist’s studios, landscapes, still life and even greek mythology. From room to room we see an artist who never failed to be inspired, and to inspire his countless followers in response. Never again will Georges Braque be in Picasso’s shadow as far as I am concerned, but level pegging as a genius of 20th century art.
Georges Braque is showing at the Grand Palais, Paris until 6 January 2014.