“Braque: The Late Works”

Sharing the prejudices of most New York art people, I had always located Braque on some remote and far too comfortable French planet, where, together with the likes of Bonnard, he went on cultivating his own beautiful gardens but could never do anything risky enough to make my pulse beat faster. For me, even his most audacious Cubist work, when seen beside Picasso’s, often looked like a genteel and redundant counterpart to his significant Spanish other’s macho drama and daring. As for what he did after the First World War, this could be quickly banished in the category of the unadventurous, all-too-pleasurable painting synonymous with the later School of Paris. I still recall how bored I was some twenty-five years ago by Douglas Cooper’s provocatively titled show “Braque: The Great Years,” at the Art Institute of Chicago. Cooper’s selection began with work from 1918, when, for me, Braque went off the screen; and knowing the Francophile curator’s combative hatred of post-1945 American painting (his French answer to what he considered this transatlantic outrage was another practitioner of “belle peinture,” Nicholas de Staël), I wrote off the whole show as a feeble effort to undo the values of formalist progress that Clement Greenberg had instilled so deeply in my generation. And when the Guggenheim Museum mounted a soup-to-nuts Braque retrospective in 1988, I paid little attention to anything but the Cubist work, feeling again that what happened later was just the predictable run of pretty variations on an already overrefined French sauce.

It was therefore mainly professional duty and a personal loyalty to John Golding that got me to see his show “Braque: The Late Works” at the Royal Academy in London last March, a show that now reduced the focus to the artist’s last paintings, beginning in 1941 and ending just before his death in 1963, at a time when Pop and Minimalism had made the French old master seem light-years removed from anything relevant. What a shock, then, for me to discover that this work suddenly did matter. From Braque’s bell-jar universe, Golding created a solemn sequence of shrines, where various series of related paintings had room to expand in quiet spaces that enforced a mood of slow concentration. What once seemed superficially seductive but basically empty now looked troubled, the densely layered products of long meditation. The contemplative mode was surprisingly contagious, slowing my usual presto to an adagio and making me wonder why these pictures looked so timely. Was it perhaps the retrospective tenor of so much late-twentieth-century art that at last made the artist’s final reveries accessible?

The pictures, in fact, kept reawakening, from a Proustian distance, whiffs of a once-fresh Cubism. But instead of looking like diluted, overworked formulas (which is how I once saw them), they evoked a remembrance of things past in a manner that paralleled the nostalgic, mellow self-quotations found in the later work not only of Picasso but also in that of so many recent American artists—Johns, Warhol, Lichtenstein. Throughout, Cubist ideas and imagery are resuscitated. There are words quoted from early works (“sonate,” “L’Echo”); there are wittily ambiguous interchanges between trompe l’oeil frames and the images they purport to enclose; there arc virtuoso weavings of painted patterns and textures that recall how useful Braque’s craftsman training as a peintre-décorateur must have been for the rapid-fire virtuosity with which he juggled pasted paper swatches; and there are ghosts, too, of Cubist figures, whether of a Corot-like woman holding a book or a man playing a guitar.

But if the first appearance of these themes in 1910–14 was marked by youthful, staccato energies, their light chamber music, reconsidered by the aging artist, is transformed into weighty, cumulative orchestrations that imply not swift bursts of invention, to be dated by a newspaper clipping, but prolonged introspection of a kind familiar to Cézanne’s layered reworkings over months and years. So it is that Braque’s late works usually have dates like 1947–49 or 1953–56.

Man with the Guitar, painted mainly in 1942, but retouched nineteen years later, is a particularly haunting example of these backward glances; for the guitarist of Cubist days, once fractured to twinkling, crystalline bits, has now become a lonely, seated shadow, seen from behind and stealthily observed by a barely noticeable female figure at the extreme left, whose hieroglyphic features are camouflaged by the pervasive darkness. Although Braque’s dealings with the human figure were usually awkward (his stylized Picassoid women with their frontal-plus-profile physiognomy evoke the vapid, rhetorical modernity of such official French decorative painters as Jean Souverbie), this strange canvas turns weakness into strength by creating a melancholy domain of figural shades. And as private as this world may seem, Braque’s specter of a Cubist guitarist turns out to have a surprising afterlife, first in Picasso’s cast-shadow self-portraits of 1953 and then in Johns’ even more bodiless reincarnations for the “Four Seasons” series of 1985–86.

For all its hermetic intensity, the exhibition, in fact, helped to establish Braque’s connections with other artists of his own and of later generations, so that at times the dense interiors of the late ’40s, with their volatile interlacings of spatial ribbons that slice through solids, voids, and colors with equal ease, can even remind one of Pollock’s simultaneous assaults on gravity and a once-palpable world. Braque also challenges the textbook polarity between the French pastry chef and the Spanish tragedian of life, love, and death; for the claustrophobic and at times overtly lethal mood of Picasso’s work during the war years is often shared by his old Cubist friend who, one world war earlier, had presumably gone off on what was to be a totally Gallic track. It is not only a question of the recurrent pall of lugubrious gray tonalities that mute the light of these interiors, but of the very choice of objects depicted—the cross and grimacing skulls of the memento mori still-lifes; the unexpected importance of a stove and coal scuttle as a source of domestic warmth at a time of chilling austerity; the meager presence on a kitchen table of a single fish, a reflection, as Golding tells us in his consistently revealing catalogue essay, of the food rationing introduced to Paris in May 1941. And in a far different time zone, late Braque, as David Sylvester first suggested at a MoMA symposium last November, has surprising affinities with late Johns in the way both artists created an ever more complex and cryptic fusion between ambient space and commonplace objects contemplated in solitude, as if these ordinarily inanimate corners could be endowed with a secret life. (A hat and scarf hanging on the wall in one of Braque’s interiors with billiard table take on an eerie, surrogate human presence that foreshadows the mysteries of Johns’ pegboard clothing.) The language of Cubism, to be sure, had already challenged the fixed identities of objects as well as the boundaries between them and the spaces they occupied; but in these late works, the marriage of disparate forms and the meltdown of solid objects reach a new level of dark enchantment. In one canvas from the “Billiard Table” series, 1944–52, this clumsy piece of furniture becomes magically fluid and translucent, its wood moldings and baize cover now taking wing like the fictional birds of the wallpaper, which unexpectedly fly toward us with the force of Van Gogh’s crows. Braque, we learn, never had a billiard table to paint. Did he let his imagination seize upon Van Gogh’s billiard table, along with its cue and trio of balls (one red and two white)? And far more overtly, Van Gogh looms large in a startlingly direct series of Normandy landscapes begun in 1955, a response, perhaps, to the exhibition “Van Gogh et les peintres d’Auvers-sur-Oise,” held at the Orangerie in the winter of 1954–55. One of these poignantly simple paintings, Landscape with Dark Sky, is virtually a re-creation of the Dutch master’s Wheatfield with Crows, not only in theme and format but in its heavy impasto, a bit of pictorial therapy whose outdoor air and expansive horizon offer a temporary respite from the sequestered visual and emotional intricacies of the studio paintings.

And then there is that famous bird, even more imaginary than the billiard table and even more capable of levitating within the most confining studio walls. Swooping like an elusive dream through these shredded, tapestry-like spaces, it elevates Braque’s shadowy interiors to exalted, luminous heights. In Studio V of 1949–50, its soaring flight can even set into uplifting, vibrant motion the goldfish bowl and its watery prisoner in the lower right corner; and as the poet Pierre Reverdy observed, the shape of the generic bird seems to rhyme with that of the still relatively earthbound palette below it. An informative catalogue essay by Sophie Bowness relates Braque’s work to such contemporary poet-friends as Jean Paulhan, Francis Ponge, René Char, and St. John Perse, for whose L’Ordre des Oiseaux (1962) Braque provided modest illustrations. But Braque’s bird, it seems to me, has deeper affinities with the Symbolist birds that flutter through Mallarmé’s poems with their pathos of “vols qui n'ont pas fui” (flights that have gone unflown) or their vision of an imaginary voyage to a world where “les oiseaux sont ivres d’être parmi l’écume inconnue et les cieux” (the birds are drunk from being amidst unknown foam and skies). An infinitely evocative symbol of creative aspiration, Mallarmé’s birds (at times a virgin-white swan) seem to beat their wings across the poetry of Braque’s late “Studios.” Seesawing breathlessly between the earthbound clutter of the artist’s atelier and the imagined potential of an enchanted, airborne release through the magic of art, these profoundly contemplative paintings radiated an epic twilight.

Robert Rosenblum is professor of fine arts at New York University and a curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

“Braque: The Late Works” is on view at the Menil Collection, Houston, until August 31.