Review: "Georges Braque: Pioneer of Modernism"

Braque rocks uptown.

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  • Photograph: Private Collection; New York; 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS); New York / ADAGP; Paris

    Georges Braque, Glass and Pipe

    Georges Braque, Glass and Pipe

  • Photograph: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Purchase with the aid of funds from W.W. Crocker; 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS); New York / ADAGP; Paris

    Georges Braque, Gueridon

    Georges Braque, Gueridon

  • Photograph: Samuel A. Marx Purchase Fund; 1970.98; The Art Institute of Chicago; 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS); New York / ADAGP; Paris

    Georges Braque, Harbor

    Georges Braque, Harbor

  • Photograph: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; New York; 54.1411; 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS); New York / ADAGP; Paris

    Georges Braque, Piano and Mandola

    Georges Braque, Piano and Mandola

  • Photograph: The Norton Museum of Art; West Palm Beach; Florida; 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS); New York / ADAGP; Paris

    Georges Braque, Still Life with Guitar I (Red Tablecloth)

    Georges Braque, Still Life with Guitar I (Red Tablecloth)

  • Photograph: Tate: Purchased with assistance; the Art Fund; Tate Members and the Dr. V.J. Daniel Bequest 2003; Tate; London; 2011; 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS); New York / AD

    Georges Braque, The Billiard Table

    Georges Braque, The Billiard Table

  • Photograph: Fractional gift to The Museum of Modern Art from a private collector; 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS); New York / ADAGP; Paris

    Georges Braque, The Great Trees, L'Estaque

    Georges Braque, The Great Trees, L'Estaque

Photograph: Private Collection; New York; 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS); New York / ADAGP; Paris

Georges Braque, Glass and Pipe

Georges Braque, Glass and Pipe

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

It seems to be shaping up as the season of art history's second bananas. MoMA has already resurrected the career of Willem de Kooning, dragging him out from under the shadow of Jackson Pollock and proving him to be the superior artist to boot. Now, Acquavella Galleries may be attempting something similar with its museum-quality look at Georges Braque, beta to that alpha of alphas, Pablo Picasso. Not that the comparison between these two exhibitions is perfect: Pollock accomplished only one big thing, his drips. Picasso, on the other hand, was a protean genius who was superlative at whatever he tried; revisionism-wise, Braque has the much steeper hill to ascend.

Nonetheless, "Pioneer of Modernism" is a powerful if quietly revelatory affair, the first such survey of Braque's oeuvre in New York since a Guggenheim retrospective mounted in 1988. Loaded with important loans, it shows a deeply cerebral artist whose stylistic evolution, from brightly hued Fauvism to the somber browns and grays of Analytical Cubism, proceeded methodically, perhaps even ploddingly for some people's taste compared with Picasso's. He was more deliberate, but that shouldn't be held against him.

The artists labored closely together on the development of Cubism, but where Braque may have beaten Picasso to the punch was in the introduction of collage as an artistic technique. As simple as the idea of pasting a piece of found material onto a canvas may seem in retrospect, it was the invention of fire as far as modernism was concerned: the torch, fueled equally by art and life, that's lit the way for the cutting edge ever since. More than Cubism itself, collage set the course for 20th-century art, and indeed, if Braque is the one who devised it, then he and not Picasso is the big daddy of us all. The difficulty is that in the key years between 1912 and 1917, the work of the two was nearly indistinguishable. Picasso once famously described their relationship as mountain climbers roped together, but who, exactly, was the sherpa has always been the subject of debate.

It's no surprise, then, that Braque's canvases from the period are the central focus of the exhibit. And what we see is the artist not only developing Cubism and changing the rules of art, but doing so by playing Vulcan chess with still life—particularly, to my mind, with the genre of tromp l'oeil. As categories go, tromp l'oeil had always been meta, a way for artists to demonstrate the artifice underlying the illusionism at the heart of Old Master painting. But Braque took the idea in a whole other direction. In a series of compositions featuring a tabletop cluttered with musical instruments and folded newspapers (both favorite tromp l'oeil subjects), Braque flattens the pictorial space until the headlines themselves float almost independently from their surroundings. He pushes into that realm where abstraction and representation exist on the same plane—namely language, a thread that would be picked up on later by artists such as Ren Magritte and Jasper Johns.

From that point, it was a short jump to pieces like Bottle, Glass and Pipe, from 1914, in which actual snippets of newsprint, as well as cardboard, enter the mix. However, Braque doesn't stop there: He piles meta upon meta, for among the collage elements is a piece of commercially painted wallpaper, depicting the shallow recesses of decorative wainscoting.

To look at these paintings is to watch Braque making discoveries, and the experience is thrilling. I personally have no doubt that Picasso looked over Braque's shoulder, and not the other way around. Nonetheless, as you get to Braque's later work, it becomes just as clear that Picasso had the greater verve, and willingness to take risks. He was the hare to Braque's tortoise yet actually won the race.

Still as brooding, dark and ham-handed as a piece like Braque's Studio V from 1949--50 appears to be, it is filled with pictorial mysteries—peculiar overlays of shapes opening into other dimensions of space—waiting to be unlocked for anyone willing to look, especially other artists. Braque may have been an also-ran, but he's also the type who keeps making art history long after the course is run.

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