Art review: Philip Kennicott on the Phillips Collection’s survey of Braque paintings

Georges Braque/Georges Braque – Georges Braque, Studio with Black Vase, 1938. Oil and sand on canvas, 38 1/4 x 51 in

By , Jun 07, 2013 02:12 PM EDT

The Washington Post

Published: June 7

Clearly visible within the neat borders on a piece of paper is the word “etude,” French for study, in a detail from Georges Braque’s ebullient 1929 painting, “The Round Table.” Very likely, given Braque’s interest in music and the bourgeois domesticity he cultivated, the etude in question is a piano work by Chopin, or perhaps Liszt or Debussy. But a guitar is also clearly visible on the same round table, which feels like a small explosion of enigmas in a bare corner of some interior space. Also present: A knife, which may or may not allude to the complex network of sharp fissures in the picture, including one that runs straight through the guitar, as if the instrument has been riven by some tectonic slippage. The “Round Table” is encountered early in the Phillips Collection exhibition “Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945.” Acquired by Duncan Phillips in 1934, the painting anchors the first room of this focused and challenging exhibition, which surveys work Braque made during some of the darkest days of Western civilization. Nearby are slightly earlier works, including two dreary horizontal paintings that are also still lifes, but much more still and with a lot less life. The “Round Table” is something new and different, a still life replete with Braque’s usual stuff — fruit, guitar, knife, pipe — yet more unruly, colorful and visually seductive.

(Georges Braque) – Georges Braque’s \”The Round Table,\” 1929. Oil, sand, charcoal on canvas, 57 3/8 x 44 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1934.© 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York /ADAGP, Paris.

The word etude can’t be accidental. Like Chopin’s etudes, Braque’s works from this period are technical exercises, yet paradoxically overstuffed with invention and life. They are meticulous studies, essays in technique, and yet, for all their refinement, and despite their often hermetic surface, they burst with strange energies. The exhibition traces at least three essential tensions in Braque’s work: Between pure abstraction and the illusionistic depiction of the real world; between two-dimensional picture space and three-dimensional architectural space; and between his role as an artist devoted entirely to art, and a citizen inhabiting a country at war, under occupation and chafing at pure barbarism. None of these tensions are resolved, but there are moments when they seem to dissolve, when Braque’s alchemy leaves one with the impression that multiple spaces can indeed cohabit, that symbols of things can be as real as things themselves, and that artists can define decency as much through humility as heroic resistance.

(Paul Strand) – Georges Braque in Varengeville-sur-Mer, France. Taken in 1957. Gelatin Silver print, 11 5/8 x 9 3/8 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of Mrs. Derald H. Ruttenberg.

By 1928, Braque had left behind the thin shards and gray splinters of the cubist work he pursued parallel to Picasso before World War I. His art still lived very much in two dimensions, on the surface of the painting, and he was still a master of suggesting tactile ideas through surface games, imitations of wood grain or faux marbling. But things are rounder, objects interpenetrate with a more biological messiness, and blunt, almost comic shadows give the work a new sense of at least minimal depth. Even if they feel flat, like mere outlines of objects, you can’t slip his lemons and pitchers and fruit knives under the door.

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