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Phillips showcases sumptuous still lifes from an overlooked period in the career of Georges Braque
Georges Braque, Still Life with a Fruit Dish, 1936. Oil on canvas, 23 3/4 x 32 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Samuel S. White 3rd and Vera White Collection, 1967 © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

WASHINGTON, DC.- This summer, The Phillips Collection features 44 sumptuous canvases by the great French cubist master Georges Braque (1882–1963), along with related objects, from the tumultuous years leading up to and through World War II, a time of great experimentation for the artist. The exhibition reveals insights into his creative process at a time when he used the motif of still life as a source of inspiration to synthesize cubist discoveries. In-depth technical analysis of several works uncovers details about Braque’s meticulous use of materials and his interest in creating a tactile painted surface. Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928–1945 is on view at the Phillips from June 8 through September 1, 2013.

Early in his career, Georges Braque, along with Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), made a tremendous impact on modern art as co-founder of the cubist movement. But until now, Braque’s works created between 1928 and 1945 have largely been neglected. This exhibition illuminates the period when Braque broke away from his former associate and honed his individual style. It highlights Braque’s experiments with color, scale, and texture—from intimate interiors in the late 1920s, to vibrant, large-scale canvases in the 1930s, to darker and more personal works in the 1940s.

Braque frequently painted several canvases at once, in sequences exploring variations of the same motif. The exhibition reunites for the first time in over 80 years the Rosenberg Quartet (1928–29), four related paintings created for Braque’s dealer Paul Rosenberg. Other notable groupings include The Pink Table Cloth (1933), Still Life with Guitar (Red Curtains) (1937–38), and Fruit Glass and Mandolin (1938), works defined by their textured surfaces and shared approach to subject, color, and composition.

“The art of Georges Braque is especially important to this institution,” says Director Dorothy Kosinski. “Duncan Phillips was an early supporter of Braque, favoring him over Picasso and purchasing 11 of his works for the museum. This exhibition gives us the opportunity to take a closer look at the paintings that so enchanted Phillips alongside related works from other institutions.”

Braque was in Normandy when Germany attacked France in spring 1940. After taking refuge in the Pyrenees, he returned to Paris in July for the duration of the war. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, the motif of a skull emerged in some of his still lifes. While the skull has been interpreted as an allusion to mortality, Braque admitted to using it as a formal device in dialogue with other objects. In the exhibition, a rare double-sided painting, The Baluster and Skull / Still Life with Fruit Dish (1938), features the skull in the foreground. It appears again in Studio with Black Vase from the same year, turned away from the viewer and placed beside an artist’s palette.

By the mid-1940s, Braque shifted to still lifes in and around the kitchen and bath which display signs of domestic routine. For some, Braque’s focused attention on elaborate still lifes in interiors seems at odds with the violence of current events; for others, the pictures provide a visual realm free of ideology—shielded from the chaos of the outside world at war.

Braque’s strong interest in the materials of painting stemmed in part from his early work as a house and decorative painter. The intricate textures, subtle variations of surface, and visible reworking seen in many of the pieces featured in the exhibition indicate Braque’s continued focus on material and process. Conservators from the Phillips and the Harvard Art Museums conducted the first in-depth research of its kind on Braque's work from this crucial period in the artist’s career, examining 21 paintings, including four from The Phillips Collection.

The conservation study reveals how Braque experimented with materials in the base layer of a painting, adding combinations of powdered quartz, sand, or fine gravel to achieve a textured effect. In other instances, technical analysis shows how the artist mixed beeswax or resin with oils into paint, and used tools to manipulate the work’s surface, as seen in the wood grain of Phillips’s The Round Table (1929).

Infrared and x-ray imaging uncovers how Braque sometimes painted over a previous composition, leaving areas of color, line, and texture from the underlying work visible, as evidenced in Still Life with Palette (1943).

Through acquisitions and exhibitions, Duncan Phillips played a vital role in introducing Braque’s work to a wider American audience. He was an enthusiastic champion of Braque, favoring him over Picasso, stating, “Time may rank the mellowed craftsmanship and enchanting artistries of the reserved Frenchman higher than the restless virtuosities and eccentric innovations of the spectacular Spaniard.” Phillips purchased the first Braque painting for an American museum, and presented the first U.S. retrospective devoted to the artist’s work, organized by the Arts Club of Chicago in 1939. In 1959, he received Braque’s permission to have a bas-relief designed after one of the artist’s prints to be used as a decorative entrance element for the museum’s new annex. This symbol of a bird in flight has become a significant icon of The Phillips Collection’s identity. The museum's deep relationship with Braque continues through frequent displays of works from the unit of 15 by the artist now in the collection.

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