The Saint of Painting

by Celia Bailey

Georges Braque – The Poetry of Things
Bernard Jacobson Gallery

4th November –   22nd January
Exhibition review by Celia Bailey

London hasn’t seen the like of Georges Braque; The Poetry of Things for a quarter of a century and the last major presentation of the work of one of the 20th C greatest artists. This wonderful exhibition reads like a love letter from Jacobson to the genius of Braque and is the manifestation of almost a decade of dedication by the veteran dealer, now displayed in this ambitious staging of 17 still life paintings.

To call these paintings ‘still lives’ is experientially inaccurate. To see a Nature Morte by the great French master is to be acutely aware of the energy and connectiveness of all things and the electric touch and brilliance of eye by which he circumnavigates the topography of table, pot, pear or plate. To experience these paintings is to become lost in the magic of the pictorial space conjured by Braque, where small elements both domestic and common place, become distinct, dynamic and expansive.

In the still-life you have a tactile, I might almost say a manual space… This answered to the hankering I have always had to touch things and not merely see them… In tactile space you measure the distance separating you from the object, whereas in visual space you measure the distance separating things from each other. This is what led me, long ago, from landscape to still-life’.
Georges Braque, 1968

Georges Braque, La caisse verte (1952) Oil and sand on canvas, 88 x 106.5 cms (34 5_8 x 41 7_8 ins)

Braque is best known as the co-inventor of cubism, alongside his colleague and friend, Pablo Picasso. Whereas Picasso is accepted as the impassioned genius of the 20th Century, which his fame and personality magnified, Braque has had the disservice of being (relatively) overlooked. Picasso and Braque lived closely associated creative lives but they were temperamentally cut from very different cloth, as the great biographer of Picasso, John Richardson observed, Braque was, ‘the antithesis of Picasso—cool, meditative, at peace. He not only looked like a saint, he behaved like one: a saint of painting’.

Where Picasso might be characterised as creating works which are epic and explode powerfully on the canvas, these disconcerting paintings by Braque are conversely the ‘Poetry of (small) Things’ which whisper to us from a carefully modulated, semi-twilight world. As we exit a period of confinement and isolation, we are perhaps better equipped to fully appreciate and understand these ‘small’ worlds – immersed in the deep observation of objects permeated with the enclosed atmosphere of the artists’ studio.

Georges Braque, Nature morte à la pipe (1942) Oil on canvas, 38 x 78.1 cms (15 x 30 3_4 ins)

When an exhibition is described as immersive, the implication is usually for something altogether more conceptual – but there is something immersive about the experience of this exhibition. It begins with the steep descent down the bone-coloured stairs to the main exhibition space and is confirmed by the collective sense of filtered light and glimmering colour of these paintings which seem to hover like moths in the elegant confines of this white room. Experiencing this exhibition slows the blood and demands a different mode of seeing, you begin to try to understand the artists’ movements in front of the canvas and the way each mark was carefully chosen in the construction of the whole.

Light was a fundamental starting point for Braque, with a veil of opaque white muslin deployed to modulate the light which came into his studio, transforming it to a milky and palpable substance – atmospherics, which John Richardson evocatively described as ‘lagoon’ like. Richardson was a near neighbour and frequent visitor to Braque’s studio in Provence and his first-hand account serves to nourish and deepen our understanding of the paintings before us.

‘On my first visit to the artist’s studio, I felt I had arrived at the very heart of painting. I never quite lost that feeling…To understand these Ateliers, it is necessary to evoke the carefully contrived clutter of Braque’s studio: a space that was divided in half by a cream-colored curtain, in front of which numerous recent and not so recent works were arrayed on easels, tables, and rickety stands. Some of the paintings were barely started but already signed; some looked finished but lacked a signature; others dated back five, ten, even twenty years—“suspended in time,” the artist said. “I ‘read’ my way into them, like a fortune-teller reading tea leaves.” Sketchbooks (“cookbooks,” Braque called them) lay open on homemade lecterns.’

The surface of these paintings is rarely ‘flat’ and the ‘cooking’ analogy extends to the artists’ inventive use of materials; texture and viscosity of medium was achieved through mixing paint with grit, sand, cinders and coffee, whilst simplicity of line often enriched by being etched into the surface through layers of paint. And now to the subject matter; humble and prosaic items, from food to kitchen implements. Perhaps that is the point? They are so commonplace that they are primed to become conduits for whatever Braque chooses to fill them with.

Georges Braque, La desserte I (1941) Oil and sand on canvas, 72.5 x 99 cms (28 1_2 x 39 ins)

In an interview with Richardson for The Observer, Braque commented, “I have made a great discovery, I no longer believe in anything. Objects don’t exist for me except insofar as a rapport exists between them or between them and myself. When one attains this harmony, one reaches a sort of intellectual nonexistence—what I can only describe as a sense of peace—which makes everything possible and right. Life then becomes a perpetual revelation. Ça, c’est de la vraie poésie!”

It is this poetry of things which slows time as you enter the gravitational pull of each painting and one is seduced by the irresistible magnetism of colour and form. These paintings creep up on you with cats-paw velvet stealth and capture with their unearthed, twilight hues. Colour: the deep bruised purple of Prunes (1925) resonating in contrast against the dirty snow of the cloth they recline on – the glimpse of lapis blue which ignites the conker brown surface of the table in La Sauceire (1942). The absinthe green which suffuses the entirety of La Caisse Verte (1952), as if the sap rising from the spring buds at the centre of the painting could not be contained by their fat vase and have infused the wood of the panelling and box which frame them with new life.

 ‘Things’ irresistibly take on a voice and personality in these paintings; the rakish form of the clay pipe standing like a vaudeville actor centre stage in Nature morte à la pipe (1912), or the matronly form of the brown jug beside it, handle-hand resting on glazed-hip as if waiting to join a duet. There is familiarity too, the jaunty upward tilt of the distinctive black teapot which signals to us through so many works by Braque, seen here in Théière Noire et Deux citrons (1948), its curvaceous black lines and bold snout, etched sharply in chalk white on mole grey and hide brown. The decorative is often viewed as a dirty word in art but in these paintings the full beauty of form and line converges to create something lyrical, poetic and true; the combed tigerish pattern of wood in Nature Morte avec Citron et Verre (1941), contrasting with the feminine decorative swags which frame it, or the steely cresting wave of an armoire in La Desserte 1 (1941).

Georges Braque, L’Oiseau volant vers son nid (1955) Collage with gouache and pencil on the cover of Jaarboek (1953), 17.7 x 26 cms (7 x 10 1_4 ins)

One of the joys of this remarkable and life affirming exhibition is to realise that the process of viewing and entering these painted worlds completes the circuit of electrical life magically initiated and conjured into being by Braque. There is also a real sense of ‘taking flight’ as part of this process but even when portraying birds, as in the gorgeous L’ Oiseau volant vers son midi (1955), it’s not a real bird we encounter in flight – but our hearts and minds as we contemplate the latent poetry in all things. To see this exhibition is to join with Jacobson in his passion for the ‘Saint of Painting’ and fall in love with the inventive, subtle and sublime genius of Georges Braque.

George Braque – The Poetry of Things
4th November – 22nd January

Bernard Jacobson Gallery
28 Duke St James’s
London SW1Y 6AG

A fully illustrated book Georges Braque – The Poetry of Things with essay by Mel Gooding is available from Bernard Jacobson Gallery.

Quotations from John Richardson cited here are from his 2019 book ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Picasso, Provence, and Douglas Cooper’.

Celia Bailey is an art advisor and former publisher of international magazines including Art Review and Apollo.

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