LONDON — Why is this show by Georges Braque such a quiet, hole-in-corner sort of affair? I find myself wondering as I wander around The Poetry of Things, a new exhibition at Bernard Jacobson Gallery of 14 magnificent still life paintings (and a single collage) by the man who is best known as the co-creator, with Picasso, of Cubism.
They span 30 years of his steady output, from the middle 1920s to the middle 1950s, enabling us to root out at least a partially satisfactory answer to a question that seems to be on so many lips: Whatever happened to Braque after Cubism had had its moment in the sun?
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There is no one else in the gallery during my visit barring the director, who is leaning too deeply into his reading matter even, it seems, to notice that another human being is currently sharing this basement gallery space with him.
Is it not a little odd that the first significant show by Braque in London for decades should be so lightly attended at 1:30 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, in such a well-placed West End Gallery as this one, at the top of Duke Street St James, London’s oldest dealing street?
After all, Fortnum and Mason, recently crowned luxury retailer of the year, is directly across the road, and the Royal Academy just 50 yards away. If this were a Picasso show, half the world would have been made to sit up and notice by some well-greased publicity machine. If they had known about the Braque, and been told that it cost nothing to look, would they have come?
Twenty minutes later the director and I are in conversation, and even looking at a photograph of Braque’s studio (taken by Gillian Vaux on June 15, 2019) that he has pulled out of the back room. Braque died in 1965. The studio, in Varengeville in the South of France, where he lived, looks gently abandoned. Has nothing really happened to it since his death then?
It certainly looks that way. We admire the two black, wall-climbing tuyaux of the wood-burning stoves, and the gentle lean of the tall, slightly befogged windows, against which the trees are eagerly pressing. Otherwise — nothing but a yawning emptiness.
Those muted greens are Braque’s colors. We can see them in a painting here called “La Caisse Verte” (1952). He did nothing other than snatch them from those trees. Nothing other?! That makes it all sound so easy. The question that seems to be begging for an answer as we look at the photograph is this: Why was this space not transformed into a museum years ago?
And how odd that it should be a scene of such apparent neglect! After all, was Braque not the very first modern artist to have an exhibition at the Louvre? And did not André Malraux, that great showman/critic, organize a state funeral for him?
The fact is that Braque’s afterlife has been rather neglected. Henri Laurens inherited the estate, but has enough really been done to keep him in the public eye? And if not, why not? The fact is that his reputation has not been nurtured, massaged, and noised abroad — not when compared, for example, with the afterlife of Picasso. Was Picasso lucky? He had luck and skillful management, you could say. He was certainly a tremendous self-publicist in a way that Braque was not. Think of the Catalogues Raisonnés that he created with Christian Zervos, for example, and how early all that started. The first volume was published in 1932. Picasso knew what it was to be looked at. He also had the advantage of being perpetually, eye-catchingly restless. What transformations he underwent! And the Picasso story has been so effectively told and retold under the careful custodianship of the Picasso Foundation.
Is a Citroen Xsara Braque even imaginable?
Braque looks and feels like a quietist by comparison, a swimmer against the currents. He did not have that lubricious Catalan stare. He did not rise up in indignation against any eye-catching war. He merely got on with it, year after year, making still life paintings of such restraint and subtlety, and much else too. None of the paintings on these walls shouts at us. They speak of self-containment, of a quietly impassioned, ongoing dedication to the task at hand. If anything, they seem to live and breathe, and even be in defiance of any easy notion of modernity.
Are these dark ones of the early 1940s dark because the shadow of war hangs over them? Far too facile a supposition. These still lifes are engulfed by darkness at all periods. And their darkness feels not so much gloom-struck as rich and almost velvety. The poet Pierre Reverdy wrote a text about Braque which asserts that his art was a “methodical adventure.” Unfortunately, Braque did not think that Reverdy really understood what he was up to. And to call Braque methodical does feel reductively calculating …
So did they get on, Braque and Picasso, in the aftermath of those extraordinary years when the invention of Cubism seemed to have joined them at the hip? The very question puts me in mind of a conversation I had about 20 years ago at the Fondation Maeght. I had been staring at one of Braque’s late paintings of birds above a fireplace.
“Did they see much of each other later on?” I asked my French companion. “They were never seen in the same room together in later life,” he replied.
Human beings are such complicated mechanisms.
Georges Braque: The Poetry of Things continues at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery (28 Duke Street St. James’s, London, England) through December 23.
Georges Braque: A Methodical Adventure by Pierre Reverdy, excellently translated by Andrew Joron and Rose Vekony, is available from Black Square Editions.