Always There

Julian Barnes

  • Georges Braque: A Life by Alex Danchev
    Hamish Hamilton, 440 pp, £35.00, May 2005, ISBN 0 241 14078 1
  • Landscape in Provence 1750-1920
    Montréal Musée des Beaux Arts
  • Derain: The London Paintings
    Courtauld Institute

They were friends, companions, painters-in-arms committed to what was, at the start of the 20th century, the newest and most provoking form of art. Braque was just the younger, but there was little assumption of seniority by the other. They were co-adventurers, co-discoverers; they painted side by side, often the same subject, and their work was at times almost indistinguishable. The world was young, and their painting lives lay ahead of them.

You have to feel sorry for Othon Friesz, Braque’s fellow Le Havrean and loyal confederate in Fauvism, his proto-Picasso. While Braque moved on with his new Spanish friend to make the greatest breakthrough in Western art for several centuries, and Cubism relegated Fauvism to a jaunty memory, Friesz had to get on with the rest of his life and the rest of his career. Strangely, the two painters had their first joint show – a posthumous one – only last summer, at the Musée de Lodève. It proved a display of unintentional cruelty. The most compelling Fauve paintings were all by Braque; but while this was just a stage in his development (though a fondly remembered one – fifty years later he bought back his own The Little Bay at La Ciotat), it turned out to be what Friesz did best. Afterwards, he wandered his way through various styles inclining more and more to the empty magniloquent gesture – a painter shouting not to be forgotten.

A century on, the great adventure of Cubism still retains all its excitement, whether in the direct narrative of Alex Danchev’s impressive (and first ever) biography of Braque, or in oblique illustration. Landscape in Provence 1750-1920 seems at first like a nice warm show for a cold Quebec afternoon. It begins with a century and more of proper professional realism: the artist as dutiful tourist, recording such popular sites as Fontaine de Vaucluse and the Gorges d’Ollioules. (One surprisingly popular location was Mont Ste Victoire, whose forbidding outline gave any number of journeymen painters a conveniently beaky backdrop for half a century before Cézanne finally saw it as if for the first time.) When photography comes along in the 1850s, painting is unable to decide whether it is a rival or a mere useful idiot and tool. Belatedly, it responds to the monochrome imitator by outbidding it: more colour, not less, unphotographable colour too – Monet at Antibes, Van Gogh in Arles, Signac and Cross on the coast. But this activity seems merely diversionary when the exhibition’s main theme finally sounds: Cézanne, and form asserting itself over colour, or rather, colour holding itself back in the service of form. Then instantly from Cézanne to Braque’s famous breakthrough at L’Estaque: the Viaduct and the Road, which still hold to Cézanne’s palette, followed by the two astounding pictures of the Rio Tinto factories, which pitch us into Cubism, where the forms take their final predominance, the colours become even more muted and subservient. We almost overlook the other sudden shift: a Provençal ‘landscape’ can be made up of a sliding, dodging vista of factory roofs.

From here, it all looks so inevitable: that Braque, returning from L’Estaque, would combine with Picasso to take the great discoveries forward, and that the words he scribbled on a visiting card he left with the Spaniard – ‘anticipated memories’ – were confidently predicting a lifelong association. At the time, how much less certain it must have seemed: who could tell that Cubism – mockingly named by its detractors – would not turn out to be one more passing ism? These new painters were not like their immediate predecessors, who had tended to overthrow the presiding pictorial conventions, develop their own way of seeing, and then more or less stick to it. The new gang were constantly, frenetically metamorphic (and none more so than Picasso). Take the current small Derain show at the Courtauld: 12 paintings of London, the result of his 1906 visit, which render the city in more flatteringly – indeed, alarmingly – alive colours than anyone had previously lent it. But the first two are in a bold neo-Pointillist version of Fauvism, the other ten in a quite different style, clumpier in form, solider in brushwork. Why should Cubism not also turn out to be a fleeting phase? How much would it prove to contain?

Not just the style, but also the personnel. Who was on board, who had signed up merely for the trip around the bay, and who for the whole voyage? One of the instructive surprises of the Landscape in Provence show is the power of early Dufy, whose L’Estaque paintings are just as radical as Braque’s (his Arcades are a thing of wonder, and the Tileworks and Boats of 1908 have the hard-hatching of a Picasso nose). What happened to Dufy that he ended up an artist of mere twirly decorativeness, whose paintings were no improvement on his postcards? And there were other ways in which Cubism’s voyage might have ended. Braque was posted missing on the Somme in May 1915; when found, he was blind. What if this condition had been permanent? What if the hand of the surgeon who trepanned him had slipped? What if, like his fellow trepanee Apollinaire, he had survived the operation only to be carried off by the great influenza epidemic of 1918? Would Picasso, without the comradeship of Braque, the need to rivalise with him, to fight and overcome, have pursued the course he did?

Received art history tends to overlook such shiftingness, the hypotheticals that never occurred. We also easily forget – and Danchev prompts us well in this regard – that a great artistic adventure can still be fun. Old artists grow solemn when fêted by young critics, and may misremember the glee, the jokiness, the risk, the doubt of their less observed younger days. Cubism was a deeply serious reinvention of how and what we see; it was, as Picasso told Françoise Gilot, ‘a kind of laboratory experiment from which every pretension or individual vanity was excluded’; it was an eventually unsuccessful search for what Braque called ‘the anonymous personality’, whereby the painting would stand by and for itself, unsigned and self-free. It was all this, and all as high-minded as this; but it was also personal, playful, companionable. It was Braque teasing (and delighting) the dressy Picasso by buying him a hundred hats at a public auction in Le Havre; it was Buffalo Bill and ‘Pard’, as Picasso signed himself; it was Braque as ‘Wilbourg’, Picasso’s rendering of Wilbur Wright, whose flying contraption was an analogue (or the other way round) of Braque’s pioneering – and lost – paper sculptures of 1911-12. It was judging pictures by whether they fell into the ‘Louvre’ category or the ‘Dufayel’ category (Dufayel being a department store which sold imitation Henri II sideboards). The latter seems to have been rather more a term of praise. ‘They want art,’ Picasso was to lament in later days. ‘One has to know how to be vulgar.’

The joyful, improvisatory side of Cubism is more evident in Picasso’s work than Braque’s: in the visual puns, in the jokey sculptures, in the small beach pictures where the painter simply turns the framed canvas over and works on and in the back declivity with sand; also in public self-presentation – Picasso at a restaurant table with bread-rolls for fingers. He never lost this side, partly because he wanted to do everything and be everything. Braque knew that he couldn’t do everything, and didn’t want to be everything. He recognised his technical limitations from early on: his drawing was poor, his figure representation unsuccessful, his statuary ‘lumpen’. Too much facility and the artist may fall in love with his own virtuosity; too little and a ‘Wilbourg’ won’t get off the ground. And even when you successfully identify your limitations, there is a choice to be made: the apparently sensible one of trying to eradicate them, and the more radical approach that Braque adopted, of ignoring them. ‘Progress in art,’ he wrote, ‘does not consist in expanding one’s limitations, but in knowing them better.’ Put more simply: ‘I don’t do as I want, I do as I can.’

He also had a singular ability not to be distracted by the art he didn’t need in order to make his own. His masters were Chardin and Corot; he admired Uccello; his favourite painter was Grünewald – and that was mainly it, for Western art. He hated the Mona Lisa as many did, for its symbolic ascendancy. On a visit to Italy, he declared that he had ‘had it up to here’ with the Renaissance – though there does not seem to be much evidence of previous over-consumption. He disliked museums, preferring to sit outside and send Mme Braque in to see if there was anything worth attending to (which sounds like an instruction inviting the answer no). At times this seems to border on affectation: when the Tate put on a Braque-Rouault show in 1946, he chose to attend its closing rather than its opening (or, indeed, any other day).

He painted. That was what he did. He painted relief without perspective. He painted forms advancing towards the viewer rather than receding. He did not paint objects, he painted space and then furnished it. He was so close to the earth that for twenty years he did not paint the sky. He told the architect who designed his house in Varengeville not to use top-quality glass because he wanted the view through the closed window to be different from the view through the open one. He avoided all symbols. Picasso said he was not ‘domineering enough’ to paint a portrait, a remark which says more about Picasso. He thought that the ideal was to reach a state where we no longer say anything when in front of a painting. He knew that a Braque fake was a fake because it was ‘beautiful’.

He displayed the same unswervingness, the same elimination of the unwanted, the same commitment and certainty in his private life. When the Germans invaded France in 1940, Braque was 58. His service in the Second War was as quietly heroic as in the First. The Germans were clever at flattering and suborning important cultural figures; they had to be resisted with not just a moral sense but also a tactical intelligence. One winter’s evening, two German officers arrived at Braque’s studio. But it was so cold, they said: how could a great painter work in such conditions? They would salute his genius by sending him two lorry-loads of coal. Braque’s answer was superb. ‘No, thank you,’ he said. ‘For if I accepted, I should no longer be able to speak well of you.’

In 1941 the invaders persuaded a group of French artists to visit the Fatherland. Some of their inducements, like the offer of fuel, were obviously tainted; others, like the promise to release French prisoners of war, deliberately put their invitees in a quandary. Here Othon Friesz re-enters the story. He agreed to go, as did Derain, Vlaminck, Van Dongen and Dunoyer de Segonzac. The photo taken of them on the platform of the Gare de l’Est – flanked by triumphant German officers – reeks of unease and bad faith. Braque’s only public comment on the trip was properly conscious of the dilemma: ‘Fortunately, my painting did not please. I wasn’t invited. Otherwise, perhaps I would have gone, on account of the promised releases.’ After the Liberation, Picasso – though not a French citizen – took the chair of a Front National des Arts which sent the authorities a list of collaborationists, requesting their arrest and trial. In June 1946, 23 were sanctioned by a purifying tribunal, with Friesz, Vlaminck, Derain and Van Dongen receiving one-year bans. Braque distanced himself from the public taste for épuration (how, in any case, can you ‘purify’ with a one-year ban?), but his private sanction was more damning and more final. He broke with Friesz and Derain; and when he encountered Van Dongen in Deauville, not a word was ever exchanged.

The moral authority was the greater for not being publicly advertised. There was something about Braque’s calmness, his silence, his artistic commitment which unwittingly showed up lesser men and women. He became, over the years, a living rebuke to vanity, pomposity, charlatanry. Gertrude Stein, who thought only Spaniards could be Cubists (and who later offered to translate Pétain’s speeches), wrote a ‘word-portrait’ of Braque in her finest mode of clotted twaddle. (Perhaps it was meant to be Cubist prose. If so, a bad idea – brushstrokes may slip representationalism, but words do so at their peril.) Cocteau, who himself was lucky to escape épuration, and who saluted Hitler’s favourite sculptor in Occupied Paris, patronised Braque for having ‘the perfect taste of a poor milliner’ – the remark of a gaudy snob. A similar snobbery is implicit in Le Corbusier’s Purist manifesto, where he and his co-propounder, Ozenfant, dismiss ‘simple paintings by good painter-decorators smitten with form and colour’. What more desirable description of a painter, you might think, than as one ‘smitten with form and colour’? And then there is our own Bruce Chatwin, who as a 20-year-old courier from Sotheby’s was allowed into Braque’s presence when a well-known collector wanted a drawing authenticated. Each time Chatwin recycled the anecdote, his own participation swelled gloriously.

These are revealing side-encounters, which confirm the painter as the moral equivalent of magnetic north (true north too, for that matter). The main encounter was always with Picasso. The Spaniard liked to say that he took Braque to the station at Avignon in 1914 and never saw him again. But this was no more than an exasperated denial of an obvious truth: that ‘anticipated memories’ was an accurate prediction, and that the two would remain in one another’s thoughts and studios until death. At times it is an astonishment that two great artists, so aesthetically indistinguishable at the high moment of Cubism, could have such radically different temperaments, beliefs, politics, personal habits and social tactics. When reading about Picasso’s ways with his fellow mortals, you sometimes wonder if ‘fellow mortals’ is even an appropriate term: he combined the relentlessness of a Wunderkind with the wilfulness and vanity of a god. He was like one of those old denizens of Olympus whose abrupt interventions in human affairs are purely selfish and delightedly manipulative. The fact that you were a friend or a lover merely upped the ante. As Françoise Gilot observed, ‘his lowest tricks were reserved for those he liked best.’ Braque was one of the few – Gilot herself being another – who managed successfully to resist Picasso. Silence and withdrawal were Braque’s main tactics, which of course exasperated Picasso the more. One of the great undocumented exchanges – perhaps we shall learn more when John Richardson reaches the war years – came when Picasso spent a week in 1944 trying to persuade Braque to join the Communist Party. Braque denied him, as he also denied a second approach from none other than Simone Signoret (I feel a three-hander play coming on).

Braque was like some hilltop castle that Picasso was constantly besieging. He invests it, bombards it, mines it, assaults it – and each time the smoke clears, the castle is as solid as ever. Thwarted, he declares the site of no strategic interest anyway. Braque, he says, merely has ‘charm’. He tells him he has turned out to be ‘the Vuillard of Cubism’. He tells him his paintings are ‘well hung’. Braque replies that Picasso’s ceramics are ‘well cooked’. It is often the laconic, rather than the voluble, who win verbal battles. Picasso’s words frequently arise from not getting his own way over something unconnected with art; either that, or as a means of cheerleading the Picassoites. Braque’s words seem the more pondered, more to do with art, and therefore more deadly. Words like ‘talent’ and ‘virtuoso’ have an extra edge in his mouth. His replies culminate in the famous observation: ‘Picasso used to be a great painter. Now he is merely a genius.’ That’s to say, the public’s idea of a genius, someone protean and industrially productive, whose private life is also a publicised circus.

They were not the first or the last ‘pardners’ to fall out, and to give the maliciously indifferent an afternoon of pleasure. But unlike some other fallings-out (that of Truffaut and Godard, for instance, which was rancorous and terminal), Picasso and Braque’s was complicated and continuing rather than ever final. And though Picasso might seem the more powerful, and certainly was the more famous, it was he who comes across as the supplicant, the more needy, in their dealings. It was Picasso who complained of being neglected and insufficiently visited; Picasso who took his new girlfriends to Braque for approval (and also, one suspects, to boast of his pulling power). And in their working lives it was Picasso who learned how to grind colour from Braque, and how to make his papiers collés stick; Picasso who was led to new challenges by Braque’s work (the Studios of 1949-56 provoking the Las Meniñas variations) rather than the other way round; Picasso who suggested in the mid-1950s that the two of them go back to collaborating again as they had done half a lifetime previously – another invitation Braque declined.

René Char called them Picasso and anti-Picasso; but as Danchev’s biography goes on, they turn more into Braque and anti-Braque. Braque slow, silent, autonomous, magisterial; anti-Braque mercurial, noisy, voluminous, virtuosic. Braque pursuing his own, known, ‘limited’ path; anti-Braque furiously metamorphic. Braque rural, domestic and uxorious; anti-Braque cosmopolitan, voracious and Dionysiac. It is not an either/or, more an and/also: there are different ways of being a genius, whether that word is loaded or not. Yet it is also salutary to flip the traditional order of expression and to write, as Danchev does, that Picasso’s ‘Braque period’ was ‘the most concentrated and fruitful of his whole career’.

There is a danger of attributing sanctity to Braque. Jean Paulhan wrote that he was ‘reflective but violent’. He was hurtful to Juan Gris, refusing to be hung in the same room; he once beat up his ex-dealer at Hôtel Drouot on what sound like fairly reasonable grounds. While decrying Picasso’s ‘duchess period’, his ball-going and fancy costumes, Braque was, in his soberer way, a pretty dressy fellow himself: on his rare trips to London, he headed not for the National Gallery but for the house of Mr Lobb the bootmaker. He had a taste for fast and expensive cars, both driving them and being driven; like Picasso he had a uniformed chauffeur. He also enjoyed his food, though here a certain puritanism kicked in: on a tour of three-star Paris restaurants with the painter Humberto Stragiotti, he quite spoiled it for his companion by wolfing down his food far too quickly. Before taking his first transatlantic telephone call, Braque combed his hair. An odd reaction – was it vanity or modesty? (Perhaps not so odd: I once watched a Sunday Times journalist leap to his feet when he realised that the caller at the other end of the line was Lord Snowdon.)

These are passing, and humanising, distractions. What struck many people who met Braque was the completeness, the integration of his personality, and the further integration of that personality with his art. Françoise Gilot said: ‘All of Braque was always there.’ Miró said he was ‘a model of everything that is skill, serenity and reflection’. For the young John Richardson, visiting the painter’s studio for the first time, ‘I felt I had arrived at the very heart of painting.’ This, finally – and firstly – is where his authority comes from.

Danchev’s biography has a rare and admirable concision; a proper awareness that Braque’s work is the only reason for being interested in his life; and a further awareness that such a life is in any case most lived while making the work. There is little gossip to be had around Braque’s existence, because he provoked and provided little (he came back from the First War with only one ‘war story’). Georges and Marcelle Braque, Danchev authoritatively assures us, ‘were completely faithful to each other for over fifty years’. (Duncan Grant could so little comprehend their coupledom that he decided it must derive from a shared passion for the sea.) When Mariette Lachaud joined the Braque household in 1930 at the age of 16 (her mother was the cook), you might think her future course would be a cliché. But as Danchev points out, she was ‘as chaste as she was devoted’, and graduated from ‘studio assistant to ministering angel and photographic documentarist – never to mistress’.

This is, in fact, more biographically interesting than the usual tales and trails of artistic bed-hopping. A friend of mine long held as her two chief images of conjugality Etruscan marital tomb-statues and the Avedon portrait of the Braques in old age – he seated, smiling, she resting against his shoulder. (A curious coincidence that the ceiling Braque painted in the Louvre – the only such commission he ever accepted – was for the Etruscan room.) Marcelle Braque was even more discreet than her husband, and left few traces; she was ‘a real woman of the people’, we are told; also cultured, religious and shrewd. She once warned Nicolas de Staël: ‘Watch out – you staved off poverty all right, but do you have the strength to stave off riches?’ We are told that she sewed Modigliani’s shroud. Perhaps there is no more to discover than Danchev tells us; but at times his biography could do with more of her reminding presence. There is also an unexplained lacuna in his account of Braque’s relations with his parents. One moment they are sending him off to Paris with their full blessing (and financial support) for his artistic life. The next, with Marcelle in the picture, we are inexplicably told of ‘another obstacle: Braque’s parents, above all his father, unmet and perhaps unreconciled’. Similarly, the aged Braque is suddenly described as ‘cancer-yellow’ without any indication if this is diagnostic or merely illustrative. Perhaps the biographer has so immersed himself in France that the discretion of its biographical tradition has leached into him.

If so, it is an understandable tact in his subject’s presence. ‘The only thing that matters in art is what cannot be explained,’ Braque wrote. And: ‘How is one to talk about colour? . . . Those who have eyes know just how irrelevant words are to what they see.’ Further: ‘To define a thing is to substitute the definition for the thing.’ In the same way, to write a biography is to substitute the written life for the lived life, an awkward business at best, but possible, as here, as long as Braquean moral truth is at hand. The painter approached death as he had life: ‘always there’, in Gilot’s words; towards the end, he called for his palette, and Danchev touchingly lists the colours clinging to it. Braque died ‘without suffering, calmly, his gaze fixed until the last moment on the trees in the garden, the highest branches of which were visible from the great windows of his studio’.