On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the artist's death, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
presenting Georges Braque , the most ambitious retrospective held in Spain to date of the work of Georges Braque (18821963), one of the most prominent figures on the early 20th- century avant-garde scene. This chronological overview covers every period of his artistic career, from his early Fauvist phase to his final series dedicated to studios, birds, and the landscapes of Varengeville.
Thanks to generous loans from the Centre Georges Pompidou and other major international public and private collections, the show features nearly 250 pieces, including some of the greatest masterpieces by a man who, along with Picasso, laid the foundations of Cubism and invented the papiers collés or "pasted papers" collage technique. The exhibition, made possible by the remarkable sponsorship of Fundación BBVA, also takes a closer look at his still lifes (with their repeated use of the guéridon and fruit bowl motifs), his Canéphores , his postwar billiard tables, and the studios and birds produced towards the end of his life, which amplify and sum up his artistic research.
Georges Braque explores other fascinating perspectives as well, with a collection of rarely shown documents and photographs that offer a glimpse of the artist's most personal side. Of particular interest is Braque's collaboration with Pablo Picasso during the Cubist years, the resonance between his art and music (he played several instruments, including the accordion, flute, and violin), his friendship with composer Erik Satie, and his affinity with poets like Pierre Reverdy, Francis Ponge, and René Char and important intellectuals of his time such as Carl Einstein and Jean Paulhan. Finally, an important part of this retrospective is given over to exploring Braque's work as a stage designer in the 1920s, with a unique installation design conceived exclusively for Frank Gehry's building.
Georges Braque is a retrospective that aims to highlight this artist's pivotal role in the history of art, the importance of which has often been underestimated. In the words of Brigitte Leal, curator of the show, "His status as the official artist of Gaullist France undoubtedly diminished his importance in the eyes of the reactionary generation that followed, condemning him to relative obscurity for several decades." This exhibition offers unique insight into an exceptional artist whose motto, recorded in the diaries published as Le Jour et la Nuit , was, "One must not imitate what one seeks to create."
The Fauve Period and the Birth of Cubism
The exhibition opens with the early works of a youthful Braque, trained at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, who embraced Fauvism after discovering the work of a group of artists at the 1905 Salon d'Automne. The Fauv es , as they were known, defied academic conventions, using pure colors and freely structured compositions to express their feelings.
Landscapes painted at L'Estaque, near Marseille, in 1906, and paintings created in the Provençal port city of La Ciotat in 1907 reflect the artist's conversion to the space and color of this avant- garde movement.
"As a young painter, I fed my curiosity and my dreams on the work of the great Colorists of the past, from the Primitives to Van Gogh and Boudin. There were stages along the way... Raphael, Corot, Chardin, among others... The moment of reflection, which was also the moment of choice, came at my first encounter with the paintings of Matisse and Derain during their Fauve period," Braque recalled.
In fall 1907, Braque and poet Guillaume Apollinaire visited the Bateau-Lavoir building in Paris's Montmartre district, famed as the haunt of numerous painters and writers in the early 20th century and home to Picasso's studio at the time. There he discovered the Málaga-born artist's latest work-in-progress, The Young Ladies of Avignon ( Les Demoiselles d'Avignon ). Braque was fascinated by that wild canvas, a mass of angular planes without context or spatial perspective.
This encounter was a dramatic turning point in Braque's life and work: not only did it mark the beginning of a close relationship between the two artists, but also, and more significantly, it planted the seeds of Cubism. Weary of the preeminence of the Fauvist palette, after discovering Picasso's new language Braque entered a new pictorial phase in which planes replaced volumes, space acquired unprecedented importance, and gray and ocher tones were predominant. This change of tack is illustrated in the show by some of his landscapes, architectural renderings, musical instruments, and portraits like Large Nude ( Grand Nu , winter 1907June 1908), featuring a woman whose contorted body can be viewed from various perspectives.
After attending the Georges Braque exhibition presented by Apollinaire at Kahnweiler's Parisian gallery in 1908, Henri Matisse used the term "little cubes" to describe the Braques recent landscapes painted in L'Estaque, with their geometric, compact volumes laid out in flat planes. Critic Louis Vauxcelles publicized Matisse's famous phrase, marking the official debut of Cubism.
Analytic Cubism, Papiers Collés , and Synthetic Cubism
Between 1909 and 1914, step by step, Braque and Picasso launched a genuine aesthetic revolution and made a clean break with the classical approach, canceling out traditional perspective, showing objects from various juxtaposed angles, and reducing color, which they judged too anecdotal, to shades of green and grayish-beige. Light, on the other hand, played a central role in the artist's work, unevenly distributed across each of the image's facets.
This new phase in Braque's work, known as Analytic Cubism, is represented in the exhibition by paintings of ordinary objects and musical instruments whose outlines are only suggested by the orientation of the planes and sharp edges. Braque produced his first oval compositions in 1910, and one year later, both he and Picasso began to experiment with imitating certain textures and shadows and using stencils to incorporate modern typography in his works. As a result, snippets of reality were directly incorporated in his increasingly disintegrated compositions.
The artist described that period as follows: "At that time, I was very close to Picasso. Although we were very different in temperament, we were driven by the same idea. [...] We were both living in Montmartre, we would see each other every day, we would talk... Over those years, Picasso and I said things to each other that no one would ever be able to say again, that no one would ever be able to understand again..."
The show continues with the famous papiers collés (pasted papers) that Braque created in 1912 1914, giving his cubism a different slant. In the year 1912, while summering with Picasso at Sorgues, he came across a roll of wallpaper imitating wood grain in a shop window in Avignon, and he decided to cut three pieces off and glue them to a piece of drawing paper. The papiers collés allowed him to dissociate color from form, as these materials operate as signs that reference reality through metaphor rather than imitation. Thanks to those cut pieces of wallpaper and newspaper clippings the palette of Cubist paintings became more varied, paving the way for the advent of Synthetic Cubism. As Braque himself put it, The papiers collés were the final stroke in the magnificent destruction of the viewpoint of traditional perspective and the dead hand of the conventions it imposed.
The same gallery in the Museum contains samples of the artist's post- papiers collés output, which incorporated the lessons he had learned and moved Cubism forward into a more generally legible form known as Synthetic Cubism. This shift reflects Braque's conviction that the increasingly fragmented forms of his earlier motifs had grown too complex. Consequently, he began to use solid blocks of color or faux-bois that imitated the papiers collés , and he also introduced other elements such as sawdust, sand, paper, and assorted materials in order to make his subjects more easily recognizable. When World War I broke out in 1914, Braque was sent to the front with the French army. This event represented a traumatic break for the artist, who sustained a serious head injury in 1915 followed by a lengthy convalescence, and did not resume painting until 1917.
Still Lifes, Nudes, Canéphores , Hesiod's Theogony
When Braque returned to painting after the war, he continued to explore the principles of Synthetic Cubism and applied them to his still lifes. His motley compositions with elongated formats created a harmonious blend of form, color, and material, and they often featured the fruit-dish motif much used by Cézanne, whom Braque fervently admired. The art world had changed dramatically during the war, and Cubism was no longer exhibited as a revolutionary novelty, as other painters residing in FranceJuan Gris, Albert Gleizes, and Jean Metzinger, among othershad also embraced this style. Braque, ever the innovator, set out to blaze new trails through the Cubist universe.
The same gallery where these works are displayed also contains his famous Canéphores , which took his contemporaries by surprise at the 1922 Salon d'Automne in Paris where Braque, by then a widely respected 40-year-old master, exhibited 18 pieces. These consist of two generously proportioned, half-length female nudes with fruit baskets on their heads, rendered in a dense, almost rough material. Although reminiscent of the Nymphs on Jean Goujon's Fontaine des Innocents , icons of French classicism, Braque's figures are still a continuation of late Cubism in their anti-academic proportions and colors. This nod to the past, which excited much discussion and admiration among the critics and artists of the day, was hailed at the time as Braque's return to order and the figurative, a modern reinterpretation of a classical theme under the influence of earlier painters like Corot and Chardin.
The majestic Canéphores and imposing nudes in mineral colors that echo Picasso's giant Bathers ( Baigneuses ) were followed in 19261927 by two anthropomorphic still lifes, Still Life with Fruit Dish ( Nature Morte au Compotier ) and Still Life with Pitcher ( Nature Morte au Pichet ), destined for the Paris studio designed and built for Braque by French architect Auguste Perret in 1925.
In 1931, art dealer, publisher, and print enthusiast Ambroise Vollard asked Braque to illustrate a text for him. Braque chose the Theogony by Greek poet Hesiod (7th century BCE), which recounts the birth of the universe and the origins of the gods and is considered one of the greatest texts on ancient Greek mythology. Between 1932 and 1935 he produced a series of 16 etchings, which were published by Galerie Maeght in 1955. He employed the intaglio technique, using a burin to engrave the image directly onto a metal plate, which gave him the freedom to trace undulating, biomorphic lines reminiscent of the Surrealist style.
1930s Still Lifes, the War Years and the Billards
Braque opened himself up to various sources of inspiration in the 1930s. He continued to paint still lifes, albeit with more decorative compositions, but the artist also introduced human figures in his works, as we see in Woman with Palette ( Femme à la palette , 1936) and The Duet ( Le Duo , 1937), both saturated with ornamental signs. These dark, depersonalized silhouettes, descendants of the black figures on Greek vases, personify the Muses of poetry and music that haunt Braque's spiritual universe.
When World War II erupted, Braque was with Joan Miró at Varengeville-sur-Mer, where the French artist had owned a studio designed by architect Paul Nelson since 1931. Braque admitted to being extremely sensitive to the surrounding atmosphere, and his works dating from these years of the Nazi Occupation are dark and full of pain, with skulls flanked by crucifixes and rosaries or Christian black fish conveying the misery of the war. For writer Jean Paulhan who dubbed him "Braque le Patron" (Braque, the Master) in 1945, the painting entitled The Two Red Mullets ( Les Deux Rougets , 19401941), given to him by the artist, represented a mixture of extreme violence and serenity. This climate of nagging anxiety haunts his interiors and studios, as well as the two rare paintings of figures from 1942, Man with Guitar ( L'Homme à la guitare ) and Man with Easel ( L'Homme au chevalet ). The man embodies the artist's solitude and melancholy, stranded in a world from which music has vanished.
In 1944 Braque began working on B illiard Tables ( Billards ), a series completed in 1949, in which he explored the myriad partial, distorted views of the felt from a billiard player's perspective. These works reclaim the visual space of Cubism and its homothetic interplay between forms, signs, and colors.
Studios and Birds
The billiard tables were followed by studios or ateliers, a classic theme since the 18th century resurrected by many of Braque's contemporaries. In 1949 Braque began a new series of eight canvases, a compendium of all his investigations up to that point. In these closed spaces, he depicted both real and metaphorical objects, such as the figure of a bird or a palette (an omnipresent allusion to the act of creation).
The bird theme, which had surfaced in Braque's earlier work and most obviously in the Ateliers series, was sparked by the commission he received in 1955 to decorate one of the Etruscan galleries at the Louvre. The 70-year-old Braque worked in the gallery for three months. The three ceiling panels he painted feature enormous blue and black birds with sensual forms. The paintings shown here underscore the importance of the iconic, archetypal bird theme in Braque's late works, but they also attest to the vitality of an artist open to new ideas to the very end of his life. Initially treated figuratively and texturally, the motif became increasingly abstract.
On this topic, the artist explained, Birds have always inspired me; they help me to bring out the best in my drawing and my painting. However, I must make myself forget their natural function as birds. The very concept underlying the stroke of inspiration that made them take wing in my mind, I must erase that conceptor, better said, abolish itin order to arrive at my foremost concern: the construction of a pictorial reality.
The chronological tour of Braque's oeuvre concludes with a series of landscapes (19551963) created at the end of the artist's life, when he shuttled back and forth between Paris and Varengeville. These are long panoramas showing nothing but earth and sky as far as the eye can see, sometimes crisscrossed by black (birds) or white (clouds) signs. In these last paintings produced by the painter, construction of the pictorial reality, which Braque made his credo, is stripped bare, represented by two stripes of thick, crusty paint.
On Braque's death, Alberto Giacometti paid tribute to him with a reference to his final works: "Of all this body of work, I look with the greatest interest, curiosity, and emotion at the small landscapes [...] I look at this painting that is almost timid, imponderable, this painting that is stripped bare, bold in a very different way, far bolder than the work of many years ago; painting that, for me, is at the very forefront of the art of today, with all its conflicts."
Braque the Stage Designer
Finally, an entire gallery in Frank Gehry's building is dedicated to exploring Georges Braque's connection with the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, and Léonide Massine, with whom many other artists of his day also worked. In Braque's case, this relationship blossomed in four different productions: Les Fâcheux (1924), Salade (1924), Zéphire et Flore (1925), and Les Sylphides (1926). Three of these works were produced by the Ballets Russes, while Salade was choreographed by Léonide Massine and performed at the charity benefit organized by Count Etienne de Beaumont in the theater of La Cigale. In this theatrical atmosphere, visitors to the Museum will find sketches, costumes, and a scale model as well as the curtain Braque designed for the ballet Salade , which premiered in Paris on May 17, 1924, and which audiences will now be able to admire for the first time in many years.
This special gallery is a fittingly exceptional conclusion to the most comprehensive show of Georges Braque's work ever held in Spain, a unique retrospective that situates his oeuvre at the epicenter of the 20th-century artistic avant-garde.