Braque or Picasso? Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., chose Georges Braque, saying “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 was an early, avid supporter of Braque (1882-1963), collecting his canvases and giving the Cubist pioneer his first retrospective in the United States. The Phillips Collection continues to make the case that Braque’s achievements merit greater recognition with Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945, opening Saturday.
After inventing cubism together, Picasso went on to become one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century. Highly prolific, Picasso experimented with a variety of media in a restless quest for self-expression, while Braque kept a lower profile, spending the years between world wars steadily exploring the pictorial innovations of Synthetic Cubism. Showcasing what the museum calls “an often overlooked period” in the artist’s oeuvre, the exhibition at the Phillips displays over forty mid-career still lifes.
Frequently called a “painter’s painter,” Braque ground his own pigments and carefully prepared textured surfaces for challenging compositions, executing them in a range of color schemes with a dazzling sensitivity to materials. Born into a family of decorative house painters, Braque initially trained to join the family business. His aptitude for paint-handling is on display here, with faux finish marble, wood-grain and stucco techniques employed in a number of these still lifes.
In an inside-baseball move, a section of the exhibition is devoted to Braque’s technical process. Conservators from the Phillips and the Harvard Art Museums analyzed over twenty paintings from this interwar period. Wall text and a detailed chapter of the exhibition catalog examine how Braque manipulated paint, sometimes blotting to remove oil, sometimes adding varnish, beeswax, gravel or sand.
The Round Table, 1929, centerpiece of the exhibit’s opening gallery, is a tour de force. Owned by the Phillips, this canvas has masterful color relationships and proportions. A hefty mahogany tabletop depicted with incised wood-grain is tilted forward, as a bottle, sheet music, book, apples, a pipe and a knife pile high in the composition. A wide plank parquet floor and a wall that seems to have been built with plaster rather than described with paint adds physicality to this work.
Still Life with a Fruit Dish, 1936, has the abstraction of cracked glass, small shards of color meshing nicely with larger, angular shapes, an abstracted leaf in bright green adding a note of high-key color in an otherwise dark canvas. Studio with Black Vase, 1938, a complicated, highly chromatic canvas that is as much studio interior as still life, features an easel, palette, skull and Braque’s own paintings, making viewers aware of the artist’s presence.
Washstand before the Window, 1942, one of a number of works made during World War II, has a somber palette. A terracotta jug, soap, hairbrush and washbasin are arranged by an open window, clouds outside offering visual escape from the dark interior, perhaps a metaphor for Braque’s painterly aspirations in this piece.
Working with still life, Braque was able to make endlessly inventive canvases. In these works the painter deepened his early modernist innovations, combining his interest in Cézanne with a love of ancient design, including Greek vase painting, to make an art that is wholly his own. Or, as Duncan Phillips phrased it, “decoration on a grand scale as the Egyptian sculptors and painters understood it.”
George Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945, June 8 – September 1, 2013, The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st Street NW, Washington D.C., 202-387-2151 www.phillipscollection.org
More information about Xico Greenwald's work can be found at xicogreenwald.com