Monday, 28 September 2015

Cubism: The Forgotten Painter

by Hattie Hammans

Just over 100 years ago, Picasso painted his breakthrough work, ‘Les demoiselles d’avignon’ and went on to develop, in partnership with Georges Braque, the most influential movement in art of the 20th century: Cubism. Encompassing new concepts of geometry and fragmentation and C├ęzanne’s use of simultaneous perspective, this movement is known worldwide for its radical break from traditional form, its bizarre representations of mundane objects or figures in structured chaos. This challenge of convention was not initially received well in Paris. "Braque has just sent in a painting made of little cubes” announced Matisse, before rejecting ‘Houses at L’Estaque’ from the 1908 Salon d’Automne. However, it was not long before the movement gained momentum and became significant by the 1910s. But why, out these two collaborators, is Picasso so often favoured? Why, despite the close similarity in the work they produced, is Braque considered marginal? 

Picasso, Demoiselles d'Avignon

Georges Braque was a quintessential Frenchman, quiet and methodical. Born in a northerly suburb of Paris, his father was a house decorator who taught him the skills of his trade. Unlike Picasso, he was no child prodigy but studied Fine Art in Le Havre and later, in Paris. The first influence we notice in Braque’s work was that of the Fauvist Painters, a pre-war movement of bright colour and shapes, led by Matisse and Derain. Braque had a friendship with both Fauvists Raoul Dufy and Othon Friesz, who were also from Le Havre and greatly influenced his early work. However in 1907 Braque was deeply affected by a posthumous exhibition in Paris of Cezanne’s work and, upon seeing Picasso’s dynamic ‘Les demoiselles d’avignon’, he began to expand on Picasso's roughly-formed ideas through his own painting. Exploring Cezanne’s use of simultaneous perspective, his work caught the attention of Picasso, and the two painters increasingly began to visit each other's studio, inspiring and challenging the other. Picasso was a Spaniard, changeable and talented, of wildly contrasting temperament to reserved, poetical Braque. Despite this, the two men became creatively inseparable and by 1911, their work was almost indistinguishable. Painting in neutral palettes of grey and silver to give all emphasis to form, Braque and Picasso gave birth to analytical cubism. Yet the companionship was to be short-lived, with the outbreak of World War One in 1914.

Braque enlisted with the French army, leaving his studio and companion in Paris. During service, in 1915, he sustained a major head injury leaving him unable to paint until late the next year. When Braque finally returned to his easel, he found Picasso engaged to a new woman and adopting a new life. The Spaniard's work had changed dramatically to a seemingly conservative neoclassical style, miles from the disjointed canvasses of cubism. Braque, perhaps left behind, persevered with cubism privately. A slow and deliberate worker, it has been said his genius lies in what has been done, not what is seen. He had few rivals as a master of still life, and despite Picasso's progression, the cubist concept was by no means exhausted. The two men were never close again, paying infrequent, suspicious visits to each other's studio throughout the remainder of their lives.

Braque, Violin and Candlestick

Braque said of the time they spent together it was like ‘being roped together on a mountain’. There was certainly a contrast in their conception of greatness. Picasso was perplexing throughout his career, constantly chasing new fascinations with a consistent desire for relevance. This never seemed to worry Braque, who seemed to hold a disparate attitude towards modernity, focusing on the development of an already-formed idea. 

So why was Braque ignored? 

Was cubism irrelevant by 1917? Was his cubist art simply not as ‘good’? Or was it a result of the life he led, again a dramatic contrast to Picasso’s, private and humble? He had little celebrity interest, working in the same studio for 37 years and remaining married to the same woman for his entire adult life. Picasso's love life was famously explosive, and with each new woman it has been noticed his art changed considerably. This creative-emotional connection was not so apparent in Braques work, and it is ostensible that Braque did not have the talent of Picasso. However, he consistently followed his carefully formed cubist system of division and complication to create his masterpieces, and his assiduous attitude shines through in his artwork.

Posthumously, we can observe his work today with a sense of fascination, because it seems there is still more to discover within his work. A man left in the shadow of Picasso’s brilliance should not remain this mystery in the art world. His works post-Picasso show a ‘quiet intelligence and patient craft’. Let his obscurity feed a renewed interest in this painter, for he certainly should not be forgotten in Picasso's wake.

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