The 'third' master

different strokes

The 'third' master

Known for his pioneering work with Picasso, Georges Braque had a long painting career that continued beyond Cubism, writes Giridhar Khasnis.

“Georges Braque is the third man of modern art,” wrote English critic and biographer Alex Danchev (The Guardian/May 7, 2005). “Matisse and Picasso rule over all. Braque stands in the shadows, as if draped in his own colours: Braque-brown, green, black…It was said of his hero Cézanne that he did not paint ‘Look at me’ but ‘Here it is’. So it was with Braque, who thought nothing of meditating on a painting for 10 years or more. His boldness was as deceptive as his slowness.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Braque (1882 – 1963), one of the greatest artistic pioneers of the 20th century and a progenitor of Cubism, an avant-garde art movement which he pioneered with Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973).

Braque had an extraordinarily productive collaboration with Picasso in the first decade of the last century. He is even credited to have been the only artist ever to sustain a relationship with the Spanish genius. Picasso would say that he and Braque were roped together like mountaineers. The collaboration was so intense that often their works looked similar. “We would get together every single day,” Braque was to recall, “to discuss and assay the ideas that were forming, as well as to compare our respective works.”

Braque, who also invented the technique of collage or papier collés with Picasso, steadfastly adhered to Cubist rules about depicting objects from multi-faceted perspectives in geometrically patterned ways. He explored how objects looked when viewed over time in different temporal spaces and pictorial planes.

Historians have often wondered how two great artists with such radically different temperaments, beliefs, politics, personal habits and social tactics could ever come together. Deliberate and contemplative, Braque was the opposite of mercurial Picasso.

Some critics believe that although subdued in his approach, it was Braque who led Picasso to many of his new challenges in Cubism; and it was Picasso who “pursued Braque as relentlessly as he did any woman... over a far longer period.” Braque supposedly even taught Picasso how to grind colour, and how to make his papiers collés stick.

In his biography on Braque, Danchev paints a pretty picture of his personality and avers that Picasso indeed became jealous of Braque.  “That Braque could do what he could not was a puzzle and a provocation. That Braque could be what he could not was a regular torment. Morally and metaphysically, Braque had a stature that was beyond rivalry, unapproachable… He had an almost mystical aura about him, but he was the least delusional of men.”

Picasso’s fame and flamboyant lifestyle clearly overshadowed the quiet life of Braque. “It is Georges Braque’s colossal bad luck to be forever linked by art history to his partner-in-Cubism, to perpetually play hedgehog to the Spaniard’s wily fox,” writes Brian A Oard, literary blogger and author of Beauty and Terror: Essays on the power of painting.

“(While) Picasso stands astride modern art like a colossus… Braque, by contrast, is a more restrained, focused, self-limited artist. While Picasso’s life after Cubism is characterised by frequent metamorphoses, Braque spends the rest of his life cultivating the Cubist garden, creating canvases of great, harmonious beauty and sometimes mind-boggling complexity.”

The collaboration ended in 1914 at the start of World War I when Braque was listed in the French army. Picasso, who once declared “Braque is my wife,” also liked to emphasise that it was he who took Braque to the station at Avignon in 1914 (and never saw him again). The war, besides keeping Braque away from his easel for four years, also left him severely wounded. 

Death in Paris

Braque achieved great artistic success in his later years but also became increasingly withdrawn. His death in Paris on August 31, 1963 was characterised by ‘a calm achieved through self-mastery rather than apathy.’ He is said to have died ‘without suffering, calmly, his gaze fixed until the last moment on the trees in the garden, the highest branches of which were visible from the great windows of his studio’.

Towards the end, even as he was slipping in and out of consciousness, Braque is supposed to have called for his palette. His final palette consisted of raw umber, burnt umber, raw sienna, burnt sienna, yellow ochre, lamp black, vine black, bone black, ultramarine, orange-yellow, and antimony yellow.

Braque was accorded a state funeral; the ceremony, conducted by torchlight, was attended by several thousand people braving heavy rain; a brass band played Beethoven’s Funeral March for the Death of a Hero. The following day his body was buried in a small country church in Varengeville, Normandy.

“Georges Braque was simultaneously a revolutionary and a conservative,” recalled poet, novelist and biographer Edward Lucie Smith. “His paintings were an evolving, constantly revised statement of his ideas concerning the nature of art. Though he remained fiercely anti-academic throughout his career, he was one of the leading modern advocates of the value of craftsmanship in painting.”

Long career

Although Braque’s name is intrinsically linked to cubism, he had a long painting career that continued beyond Cubism. In his later years, he showed an increased freedom and poetic quality in his works even while remaining truthful to the principles of Cubism. At the very end of his life, he painted birds frequently, as the perfect symbol of his obsession with space and movement. All through his artistic career, he consistently pushed the boundaries in perception of space, form and depth. He loved metaphors and explored space and not objects. He painted forms advancing towardsthe viewer rather than receding.

Braque had and knew his limitations; for instance, he was not known to draw well and his figure representation was hardly inspiring. “Progress in art,” he wrote, “does not consist in expanding one’s limitations, but in knowing them better.” He also believed that “the only thing that mattered in art is what cannot be explained.”

Braque also displayed some unusual traits and habits. He regularly scavenged dustbins and was known to be a seasoned collector and recycler of rubbish. In his studio he hung slowly spinning mobiles bearing scraps of metal, appearing and disappearing, tracing their fine and delicate silhouettes in midair.

He hated the Mona Lisa and the Renaissance art. He had a taste for fast and expensive cars. He loved his hats, and on his trips to London, preferred to visit his bootmaker and not the National Gallery. He disliked museums and liked sitting on the steps rather than entering them. When Tate Britain reopened after the war and put on a two-person (Braque and Georges Henri Rouault) show in 1946, he chose to attend its closing rather than its opening.

Last month, at Sotheby’s New York auction of Impressionist & Modern Art, Braque’s painting titled ‘Paysage à La Ciotat’ set a new auction record for the artist when it sold for $15,845,000.   

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