By the time Georges Braque’s first retrospective opened, at the Kunsthalle Basel in 1933, the most important period in the artist’s career had already run its course. From 1909 to 1912, Braque and Pablo Picasso had worked feverishly to rethink painting through the lens of Cubism, an invention that Picasso gave to the world in 1907 with “Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon.” As David Cottington recounts in his 1998 history of Cubism, Braque was one of the first painters to receive Picasso’s revolutionary message and incorporate it into his own work. For four years, the artists spoke on a nearly daily basis. Braque described their working collaboration as “two climbers roped together on a mountain.” Picasso referred to Braque as “my wife.”
They divorced, so to speak, in August 1914, as war broke out on the continent, and, according to Picasso, never saw one another again. Picasso didn’t return to the discoveries of analytic Cubism, despite the fact that both he and Braque had been so immersed in this project that at times they declined to sign their paintings, letting their mutual investigation of space speak for itself. Braque, on the other hand, never really gave up the style—pushing its possibilities even as the world, and in particular, World War II, led Braque’s peers to veer into newer realms.
“Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life: 1928–1945,” on view at the Phillips Collection, is a survey of the painter’s later accomplishments, in the years after the Cubist still-life had come to symbolize a generation of Parisian avant-garde paintings. The 44 works in the survey—co-organized by the Phillips Collection and the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in St. Louis—include several paintings from Duncan Phillips’ own collection, one of them being Braque’s 1929 masterpiece, “The Round Table.” The exhibit documents Phillips’ preference for Braque over Picasso (expressed through his correspondence regarding his acquisitions) for the former’s ability to “refine upon the amazing innovations of Picasso, giving them the consistency and quality of French genius for style.” Yet the exhibit inadvertently makes a case against Braque’s retreat from the world in the pivotal war years.
Much of the exhibit emphasizes the period that historians describe as the “return to order”: a reflexive rejection of the heady ambitions of Parisian masters, Picasso and Braque in particular, during the years preceding World War I. Even as artists such as Piet Mondrian, Vladimir Tatlin, and Marcel Duchamp had begun to spin out the lessons of Cubism in radical new directions, artists like Braque took a less reactionary posture. (A curious position, in that it meant that Braque was responding to Braque’s own radical achievements.) The four paintings on display that compose the Rosenberg Quartet—still-life paintings from 1928 and 1929 that served as models for the dining-room floor of the home of Paul Rosenberg’s apartment in Paris—reflect the creeping inflection of classicism and the embrace of belle peinture in Braque’s painting. (This made the painter all the more attractive to Phillips, whose taste in modern art veered toward the conservative and painterly.)
The difference between Braque’s early work with Picasso and his later work without him is Paul Cézanne, whose work loomed large over all the great work before World War I. It was Braque’s struggle with Cézanne’s notion of passage—a signature hatching mark that Cézanne used to blend foreground with background, feature with landscape—that drove some of the best experiments in Cubism. The clash with Cézanne is absent from such later works as “Pitcher, Lemons, Fruit Dish” (1928) or “The Crystal Vase” (1929), paintings in which Braque wrestled with surface treatments instead. Braque’s Cubist still-life paintings are less Cubist and more still-life for it: He employs different kinds of brush strokes, for instance, to more accurately depict the various surfaces of marble, glass, and so on—techniques honed when he was a house painter.
Braque’s admirers will adore the Phillips Collection for its close, technical look under the hood of these still-life paintings. The museum brings a variety of tools to bear to demonstrate how Braque employed powdered quartz and fine gravel, for example, to achieve the surface of such paintings as “The Pink Tablecloth” and “Fruit, Glass, and Mandolin.” Yet the museum’s historical chronology of Braque’s career and events across Europe reveals alarming details about Braque’s work at the time. The museum notes that Carl Einstein—the art historian who tirelessly advocated for Braque, to the point of organizing Braque’s first survey, in Switzerland, in 1933—committed suicide on July 5, 1940, unable to escape the Nazis.
There is virtually no acknowledgement of pre-World War II anxiety in Braque’s still-life paintings—except, possibly, for the emergence of a skull in some still-life paintings in 1938. (Braque himself said that he was simply interested in the skull as form.) If Braque was suffering from any continental dread, he rarely acknowledged it—accepting only grudgingly any relationship between art and politics. “The painter lives through his age,” Braque offered in an interview in 1939. “But his work depends too much on the past for him to accommodate the changes of the hour.” In 1937, Picasso painted “Guernica,” one of the great works of lament and protest of all time. In 1942, Braque painted “Washstand Before the Window”—a wonderful still-life that precedes by six years the composition of Matisse’s masterpiece, “Interior with Egyptian Curtain” (on view in the Phillips Collection’s lobby), but a strictly academic accomplishment, given the circumstances.
It’s tempting to cast a critical eye on Braque’s place of honor in the Salon d’Automne in occupied Paris in 1943: He was historically radical enough to merit the honor, but at the time traditional enough so as to not offend anyone’s sensibilities. There is another way to think of Braque: as an obsessive. Once exposed to the possibilities of Cubism, he could not be diverted. The Phillips Collection exhibition makes the case for Braque as avant-guerre, if not avant-garde: the artist who never left one moment in time, the singular prewar concern with space, motion, and simultaneity, even as the world around him refused to stand still.