St. Louis

Georges Braque, The Round Table, 1929, oil, sand, and charcoal on canvas, 57 3/8 x 44 3/4". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Georges Braque, The Round Table, 1929, oil, sand, and charcoal on canvas, 57 3/8 x 44 3/4". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

“Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928–1945”

Georges Braque, The Round Table, 1929, oil, sand, and charcoal on canvas, 57 3/8 x 44 3/4". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

“Defeat is certain” was the admonishment given by Jean Paulhan, the former editor of La Nouvelle Revue Française and a stalwart of the French Resistance, to Claude Roy, a young poet who came seeking encouragement during one of the darker hours of the German occupation. In no mood to console, Paulhan instead steered his visitor before a small painting hung on the wall, Georges Braque’s Kitchen Table with Grill, 1942–43, a still life depicting a single cooked fish on a plate, accompanied by an iron griddle and a jug of wine.

One can imagine the bewilderment Roy must have felt during this strange object lesson. Who could seriously propose Braque as exemplar of (or corrective to) the aesthetics of resistance, given the painter’s refusal to take sides for or against the Vichy regime? To these concerns might be added the broader question of modernism’s fate during and after World War II: Paulhan asks us to regard Braque’s painting, and modern art more generally, through the lens of defeat. But is modernism without futurity—slouching sideways rather than thrusting forward—possible, let alone thinkable?

“Sort of” was the answer given by a recent exhibition of Braque’s painting from the years leading up to and including World War II at Washington University’s Kemper Art Museum, which followed the painter’s path from the austere intimacy of his “Rosenberg Quartet,” four decorative panels made between 1928 and 1929 (together here for the first time since their completion), to the impersonal vastness of monumental interiors of his late period, such as Large Interior with Palette, 1942, a pea-green tour de force that presaged the tragic-triumphal “Studios” series begun four years later. Curated by the Kemper’s Karen K. Butler and Ren.e Maurer, assistant curator at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC (where the show will be on view from June 8 to September 1), this exhibition sought to fix an image of Braque on his own terms—that is, freed from comparison with Picasso, his onetime inseparable collaborator and permanent rival—and against the backdrop of European apocalypse.

By all accounts, Braque participated in the cultural life of the Occupation with an attitude of grudging compliance, ensconcing himself in a tabletop microcosm of lemons, fruit knives, napkin rings, sheet music, and guitars. Braque’s still lifes “are about the war precisely by not being about the war,” writes Butler in her catalogue essay, which focuses on tokens of mortality, such as Baluster and Skull, 1938, an irreverent memento mori that confronts the viewer with a cavernous, vacant braincase. Was this the message that Paulhan hoped Roy would see and understand? Likely not. The word tactile recurred throughout the Kemper’s wall texts, cribbed from a rare theoretical statement from Braque: “Tactile space separates us from the objects, as opposed to visual space, which separates objects from one another.” This strikes nearer to the point of Paulhan’s gesture. No longer does the picture offer its spectator a place outside the image; instead we are engulfed by the pictorial “hallucination,” forced to find a handhold where none is visibly provided. As Butler puts it, “[T]hese are not closed-off, autonomous worlds, but worlds—however fractured—that encourage or stimulate us to perceive objects through the aesthetic sensory experience of the tactile.”

Yet the opposite is also true: Braque’s still lifes are formalism incarnate, constantly playing the paintings’ tangible thickness off the insubstantiality of Cubism’s stock of signifiers. Consider, for instance, The Round Table, 1929 (the show’s incontestable masterwork): Notice how the pipe and the fruit knife hover just slightly above the surface of the tabletop, as if gripped by invisible hands. Then look to the bottom third of the canvas, where the table base fragments into matte planes that interlock with the surrounding wall like pieces of a fresco. In Braque’s best work, the tactile and the artificial converge, the space of the studio becoming like flattened origami, the truncation of a surpassing experience of the here and now. This was defeat, but also survival—not of modernism, but of modernism’s habitus, its modest meal.

Daniel Marcus