review by Rachel Pafe
Georges Braque can often seem like an afterthought, eclipsed by the enormous shadow of his best friend, confidante and co-founder of Cubism, Pablo Picasso. The duo became decidedly less close after their development of Cubism around 1907 – 1912. Later, the painters chose different directions: Picasso rethought Classicism, while Braque reinvented the still life with bold experiments in color, texture and scale. While Picasso’s subsequent work is well documented, there is has been little attention given to Braque’s prolific post-1912 period. The Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928 – 1945 exhibition at the Phillips Collection (June 8th – September 1st) provides a rare look at this time of immense artist growth leading up to and during World War 2.
The show walks through various stages in Braque’s development, illustrating his use of interior space to analyze the ideas he had originally explored within Cubism. A late 1920s series of four painting, The Rosenberg Quartet, depicts different versions of a dark-hued still life of lemons and napkins adorning a table, which were eventually turned into marble floor panels. It illustrates not only the influence of his early experience as a house and decorative painter, but his working method of working on several pieces at a time with perfectionist care that led to visible layers that document re-painting of the subject matter. The subsequent works from the early 1930s reflect a stark shift to larger dimensions and a lighter palette combined with surreal, biomorphic images. Braque delighted in the ambiguity of forms; he stated that he liked the idea that one images could have multiple meanings for multiple parties.
A timeline connects these earlier works with ones that stretch into the 1940s and additionally provides a historical background to Braque’s activities. It juxtaposes his biography and work with the German occupation that swept Europe, which greatly influenced his later works. While his paintings from the mid-1930s focus on highly ornamented bourgeois interiors, his output from the late 1930s sharply shifted to the artist’s studio. Upon a cursory glance, this seems incidental, but a closer look reveals preoccupations with mortality, evidenced by Braque’s frequent use of the motif of a skull. Although he vehemently denied any political undertones or themes in his work, it is likely that the turn inwards towards his solitary room reflects an effort to escape the outside horrors of the war. This is exemplified by Studio with Black Vase (1938), which depicts the studio from the artist’s point of view and focuses on a skull and cross juxtaposed with a palette.
The exhibition depicts Braque’s navigation through classical still lifes to passionate, detailed homes of the rich, to the minute details of his personal life and studio. Braque stated that, “The viewer retraces the same path as the artist, and as it is the path that counts more than the thing, one is more interested in the journey”. The Phillips excels at creating a path in which the viewer is free to interpret, examine and explore previously un-trodden territory.