Georges Braque at Acquavella Galleries

Georges Braque, The Billiard Table

Georges Braque, The Billiard Table (1945), oil and sand on canvas, 35″ x 45.9″; courtesy The Tate, London

* * *

The French painter Georges Braque (1882–1963) exists in the popular imagination primarily as an adjunct to the life and art of Pablo Picasso. The role they played in the advent of Cubism, arguably the 20th century’s most important and far-reaching art form, guaranteed that their names, if not fortunes, would be bound together like mountaineers.

That was Braque’s estimation of the relationship he and Picasso played in upsetting and, by fiat, extending pictorial tradition. Picasso drummed up a different analogy, likening Braque (or so legend has it) to being his “wife.” It’s easy to glean the Spaniard’s condescension—we know his take on women. The shadow cast by Picasso’s bullying genius is all but obliterating. Getting a sense of Braque as Braque has been difficult.

Georges Braque: Pioneer of Modernism, an exhibition at Acquavella Galleries on the Upper East Side, should contribute much to our understanding of the painter’s accomplishment. The show isn’t definitive—it skips out entirely on the last 13 years of Braque’s art—but what it lacks in breadth it gains in concentration.

Borrowing key works from major institutions—among them MoMA, The Met, Pompidou and The Tate—along with paintings, drawings and collages from private collections, Acquavella has orchestrated some kind of coup. In doing so, it has performed a mitzvah for New Yorkers devoted to the vagaries of modernist art.

Georges Braque, Woman at an Easel (Yellow Screen)

Georges Braque, Woman At An Easel (Yellow Screen) (1936), oil and sand on canvas, 51.5 ” x 63.9″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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From the early fauvist landscapes to the invention and refining of Cubism to the darker, more equivocal works of the 1940s and ’50s, Pioneer of Modernism elaborates upon Braque’s oeuvre with surprising depth. He emerges as a gentle temperament with tenacious gifts, a painter given to poetic and often moody reveries.

That, and he’s a stick in the mud—a loner given to duty rather than pleasure, to musty habits and re-heated tropes. Studio V (1949–1950) pulls apart the conventions of Cubism in the service of dry melancholia; Studio IX (1952–53/56) does something similar, albeit in a more scattered manner. In both cases, gravity stifles vitality, leaving the viewer with masterworks burdened by modesty.

Vulgarity isn’t necessarily a coefficient of great art, but it goes some way toward explaining Picasso’s genius and the more politic nature of Braque’s. Pioneer of Modernism is an event, absolutely, but one whose upshot doesn’t quite overturn the received wisdom.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the October 26, 2011 edition of City Arts.

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Comments

  • vanrijngo  On November 3, 2011 at 3: 54 am

    Yes, Modernism and early fauvist artist paved the way for most up and coming artists of the twentieth century, but you cannot beat the old masters. Good article.

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