Shortly before his death, Marcel Proust dictated this last sentence to his secretary, 'there is a Chinese patience in Vermeer's craft.’ Equally applicable to the Frenchman Georges Braque as to the painter of Delft, patience, measured in eons instead of discreet lunar calendar cycles, is elaborated in each artist’s paintings through time. Hid in the shadows of a certain mercurial Spaniard, Braque’s magisterial paintings are presently given a museum quality semi-retrospective at Acquavella’s august Upper East Side townhouse gallery. Needing a tagline, unfortunately, Braque is called a ‘Pioneer of Modernism’, and the forty-one paintings spaced over four rooms lays a heavy emphasis on the artist’s early journeyman efforts with Fauvism and later his role in Cubism’s co-creation. Sadly, leaving aside his later revelatory transcriptions from van Gogh’s landscapes shores Braque at his most singular. While Braque’s co-authorship of Cubism gave him a place at art history’s table, his paintings from the era are indistinguishable from his infinitely more gifted—and perhaps, therefore—superficial partner.
Braque’s deeper, more enduring, contribution to painting came later after he had been seriously injured at the Western Front during his service in the First World War. Briefly losing his vision due to a head wound, Braque ceased painting for nearly two years. After he took up the brush again in 1916, and thereafter, Braque’s investigation moved away from the innovative and instead pursued a nuanced, persistent effort at plumbing painting’s latencies. Like many of his contemporaries, Braque’s thinking moved away from radicalism towards a newfound classicism. While avoiding the kitschy excess of Le rappel a l'ordre and diverging from outright Classical parody, Braque’s paintings instead internalize Poussin’s equilibrium and in turn refract it through Cubism’s dissonant pictorial lens.
Braque had participated in two profound dissolutions. Cubism, the first, was artistic; the Great War, second, was social. Both had left Braque physically and spiritually shell shocked. Reflecting this disillusionment, Braque’s paintings are sanctuaries of renunciation. Combining eclectic pattern, wobbly spatial perspective and lopsided plaster busts, each was painted with sand infested oil paint that resembles a stucco wall. Modest but gorgeous, Braque’s later Studio paintings are not the resplendent, confident, creative havens depicted by Matisse in his earlier Red Studio. Morose and shuttered, his studio pictures mournfully come at the end of a strong tradition. Neon color juxtaposed next to Normandy beach tans describes the bric-a-brac remnants of Frenhoffer’s atelier, palettes, birds and easels that are tentatively jumbled together.
Braque, a proudly and profoundly French artist, had participated in the great artistic revolution of the twentieth century, but had also in turn lived through the dissolution of le gloire de Francais in the trenches. Unlike nationals from Spain, who were not required to fight, Braque understood where radicalism led, and chose to step back. Participation in Cubism made Braque a ‘pioneer of Modernism’ but not a radical. The artist’s later meditations on the personal and on tradition also failed to make him a conservative. Instead Braque stepped outside of history, working with austere, self-imposed restraints, delving deeper and deeper, patiently and with craft, into himself.
Woman at an Easel (Yellow Screen)