Towards the end of his life, Georges Braque described his vision in the following terms: ‘No object can be tied down to any one sort of reality; a stone may be part of a wall, a piece of sculpture, a lethal weapon, a pebble on a beach… Everything is subject to metamorphoses.’ Since then, set ideas of Braque’s oeuvre have crusted over like dry impasto: Braque the cubist, Braque the inventor of the papier-collé, Braque whose blue birds soar on the ceiling of the Louvre. The Grand Palais now hosts the first retrospective of the artist’s work to be held in Paris for 40 years, setting those metamorphoses back in flux.
A retrospective demands a narrative of progression. Yet Braque’s paintings are so layered with traces of past styles and forms that there is no means of mapping his work except chronologically — and what a tangled, saturated, protean chronology it is. The first half of the exhibition charts Braque’s work from his early fauvist period, through the development of Cubism with Picasso, to the opulent style of the interwar years. Then comes the dark weight of the works painted at Varengeville during the Occupation, the purged simplicity of the late landscapes, and complex studies of singular subjects — birds, billiard tables — and the monumental ‘Atelier’ paintings in which Braque simultaneously inventoried and joyfully reinvented the contents of his own studio.
The visitor surfaces for air at islands of biographical documentation featuring photography, correspondences and works of illustration. We come to know that face, from the early photographs casting Braque as the action hero of his own show (‘Braque boxing’, ‘Braque playing the flute’), down to death-mask drawings by Giacometti: sketches stripped of style or expression in the simple contemplation of a friend, lost. Although Braque was considered the most important living French painter by the time of his death in 1963, his reputation gradually slipped under the rising tide of Abstract Expressionism, as French artistic prestige ceded to America.
The paintings in the exhibition act as a network of what Braque termed ‘rapports’ — visual synapses with the wordless power of music — whether between colours and forms within a painting, or between styles across decades. A particular example can be seen in the still lifes of the early 1920s, painted after Braque’s return from war. Here, Cubism’s ‘tactile space of nature’ is updated with an uninhibited ornamentation that peaks in the still lifes and interiors of the late 1930s. Paintings such as the ‘Fruits sur une nappe et compotier’ (1925) apply the textured planes of colour discovered in the papier-collés, combined with the vertiginous, portrait-form elongation and absent horizon characteristic of Analytical Cubism. The tablecloth tumbles down an ornately marbled surface: you can’t help but see one of Braque’s birds latent in its swoop.
The overall effect amounts to an exhilarating, exhausting odyssey, highlighted by two standout curatorial decisions. One is the exhibition’s emphasis on the interwar years as a time when Braque’s style was at its most creatively volatile and richly receptive, and the second is the greater emphasis placed on the influence of Cézanne than on the association with Picasso. Previous exhibitions featuring Braque, such as MoMA’s pivotal Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism in 1989, have made it their duty to ‘do justice’ to the French painter, making the assumption that Braque worked in Picasso’s shadow. This exhibition dismisses the cliché by demonstrating Braque’s simple virtuosity of innovation: the oval frame in response to the awkward empty corners of early cubist paintings, the papier-collé compositions disassociating colour from form.
Above all, the exhibition engages with the difficulty of Braque’s work. The show’s featured image may be the airy ‘L’oiseau noir et l’oiseau blanc’ (1960), flat forms in harmonious symmetry, but once inside the exhibition Braque’s birds turn out to be mercurial creatures. Whether tangled amid the wiry lines of a ‘Theogony of Hesiod’ engraving, presiding over the joyous tumult of an ‘Atelier’ painting, or splashed naively across a watercolour postcard to a friend, these birds carry the weight of Braque’s force of enquiry, his refusal to rest on the wing. Indeed, in the final room dedicated to the bird canvases the motif becomes one of portentous weight, sombre colours, and paint heavy with sand and grit. It is here that the visitor’s journey ends; not with the comfortable finality of a chronology, but mid-flight. The fall is full of reflection.