Exemplary in life and on canvas

Georges Braque
August 26, 2005

In the autumn of 1919, Georges Braque restored contact with his exiled German dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. The new thing in his work, he wrote to him, was painting on black grounds. Black, he exclaimed, is "so beautiful". Black, the colour of mourning, seems singularly meaningful in the year after a war that had killed 1.5 million Frenchmen - Jand nearly Braque himself.

Alex Danchev's biography starts with Braque, left for dead, close to Vimy Ridge on May 13, 1915. His chapter on Braque's war uncovers new material from military records, including the citations for his Croix de Guerre: "An officer full of drive, seriously wounded, leading his platoon with the greatest bravery". Braque, then, was a "good soldier" who knew danger and death on the unimaginable scale of the 1914-18 war, but when immediately after that experience he turned to black backgrounds, he found only beauty.

The difficulty in writing a biography of Braque as a painter is that there is almost no significant demonstrable relationship between his work and the events of his life. Pablo Picasso's life and work positively invited John Richardson's continuing biographical project; Braque's resists biography, indeed resists attempts to read the work in relation to events on every level, public as well as private. Picasso, who never experienced war, could paint Guernica . Braque, the war hero - who Picasso said did not like a fight - kept away from all political engagement as an artist, not merely the subject of war. He would talk and sometimes write about ideas and about art, but rarely about himself and his epoch. An attempt to interview him in the French press in 1923 was published with the title " Les réticences de Georges Braque ".

Danchev is well aware of the problem. His solution is to find ways of probing Braque's character. It is in Braque the reticent man, reflecting through the practice of painting on his experience of the world, that Danchev can connect the life and the work. Braque the man and his work are, to use Marc Chagall's formulation, "exemplary". In 1901, Bernard Berenson went so far as to imagine an ideal scenario for the critic art historian, where there would be no biographical facts, only the work, and where the particular character of artists could only be read from their work.

Braque himself was struck by the distance between the "revolutionary" Cézanne to be seen in his painting and the far-from-radical character that Paul Cézanne presented to the world. Braque was not a Catholic conservative like Cézanne, and Danchev rightly dismisses the unfounded suggestion that he belonged to the ultra-authoritarian Croix de Feu. But the "good soldier" led an exemplary life after the unexceptional noisiness of his Bohemian youth, a life built on the platform of a secure marriage and regular habits, in which he emerged from the Occupation of 1940-44 with his unchallengeable dignity intact.

Picasso told the writer Andre Malraux that Braque was always "at home", and there is no doubt that, with the exception of his immersion in the suffering of the trenches, he avoided as far as he could the extremes of violence and pain in his life, as in his work. Yet Danchev's book argues that the work is like him as a man and never merely comfortable: like Cézanne, he and his work ask too much for that.

Danchev gives particular importance, compellingly, to the responses of Braque's most demanding spectators - Carl Einstein, Jean Paulhan and Francis Ponge - to establish the exemplary seriousness of Braque's reflective yet intense engagement as a painter with the visual and the tactile. By the end, it becomes clear that Danchev identifies with this select few - the "Braque people", as he calls them.

His final chapters are written in an increasingly reflective vein, but it is only then that the book is at all like the character and the work it portrays. Especially in the chapters that deal rather overprotectively with Braque's role alongside Picasso in the formation of what came to be called Cubism, there is a surface sheen to the writing that Danchev's Braque might have found too much like talent. The sharp clarity of his characterisations of the notorious landscape series painted at L'Estaque and of the first papiers collés never betrays the work, but the book's penchant for phrase-making can lead to facile dismissals, especially of those who tried to satisfy the French demand for intellectually complex rationalisations: the writer Maurice Raynal is merely an "abecedarian theoretician", the painters Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger are "intellectually over-determined".

Braque may have agreed with such a characterisation of Gleizes and Metzinger, but despite the fact that he resisted the rush to verbalise in front of paintings, he would surely have seen more in Raynal, one of the first to think in print seriously, even at times lucidly, about Cubism.

Danchev's identification with the "Braque people", however, raises a bigger question than that of the presence or absence of any likeness between his Braque and his writing. It is the question of how Braque's work was looked at: what it could mean within its historical moment. In tune with Paulhan and Ponge, Danchev promotes a kind of spectatorship in which the quiet, reflective Braque is communed with in the work very much on the terms he himself articulated in the Pensées et Réflexions , published by Pierre Reverdy in 1917, and in his private notebooks.

His Braque is essentially private; not the public Braque celebrated at the Salon d'Automne of 1922 or by such early historians of French 20th-century art as Rene Huyghe, and especially not the Braque appropriated on the collaborationist French Right by Drieu de la Rochelle under the Occupation.

Danchev acknowledges the fact that the "measured... harmonies" in Braque's work allowed him to be seen as the quintessentially French painter, but Danchev does his best to downplay it, pointedly enlisting Ponge and Jean Renoir to voice disquiet at the nationalist rhetoric of Malraux's oration at the painter's state funeral. Yet it was above all this "French" Braque who contemporary spectators found in the work, and which made Braque the painter as exemplary for them as Braque the man.

Christopher Green is professor of the history of art, Courtauld Institute, University of London.

Georges Braque: A Life

Author - Alex Danchev
Publisher - Hamish Hamilton
Pages - 440
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 0 241 14078 1

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