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Bringing Georges Braque Out of the Shadows

The French master has no need for Matisse or Picasso at this delightful MFAH show.

In art, as in movies and theater, some blazing stars invariably get their names above the title, while others, though equally accomplished (or almost so), get second billing. French artist Georges Braque (1882-1963) is among the latter.

The art chat almost always presents him as joined at the wrist, first with Matisse during his "wild beast" fauve phase, and then with Picasso, his crony in cubism and collage. Braque doesn't get to stand alone until his later, and some would say lesser, days. Not nearly as many go giddy at news of another Braque exhibition as do for the other two.

With the show Georges Braque: A Retrospective, which opened on February 13 and runs through May 11, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston intends to bring Braque out of the shadows of those other two. In this show Braque is the title.

Le port de la Ciotat ("The Harbor of laCiotat"), 1907, oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., 1998. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Le port de la Ciotat ("The Harbor of laCiotat"), 1907, oil on canvas
Georges Braque gets top billing at MFAH.
Man Ray, Georges Braque, 1922, gelatin silver print, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France, Photo: Jacques Faujour
Georges Braque gets top billing at MFAH.

Details

Georges Braque: A Retrospective

Through May 11. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. 1001 Bissonnet. 713-639-7300

The exhibit is a pared-down version of one mounted last fall at the Grand Palais in Paris (among Paris art venues not just a big deal, but the biggest deal) on the 50th anniversary of Braque's death. We have 70-plus works selected from the 250 in the Paris version.

But before you get bummed at what might seem like a viewer's digest version of the Paris original, let me reassure you that the trimming is not at all a bad thing. Exhibitions, like trees, often benefit from judicious pruning.

For all but the Braque-oholic, the Paris show, a two-coffee-breaks-and-collapse-at-the-end affair, was overload — a little like the friend who doesn't know when to leave. Only those who were planning a new Braque catalogue raisonné need regret seeing the smaller show in Houston.

In fact, be grateful, because you may actually get to see it here. In Paris the crowds were immense. What was most on view were the backs of other people's heads.

But even with the crowds, there were thrills to be had in Paris, and even with a smaller show, there are thrills to be had here. In Paris, stepping into an entire gallery of Braque's fauve paintings from 1906-1907 (fauve is French for "wild beast"), with their purple trees, green skies, blue mountains and red waves, was spine-tingling. And a revelation.

Though we didn't get all those early fauve works, we still have plenty to keep the tingle going — enough to make it clear from the very beginning that Braque is in no one's shadow. Paintings such as Landscape at L'Estaque from 1906-07 (perhaps my favorite of the group, but it's so hard to choose) and Port of La Ciotat, from 1907, make that point beautifully. In their smaller, quieter way, they are the equals even of the great 1906 fauve masterpiece by Derain, The Turning Road, LÉstaque, in the MFAH Beck Collection. (Before you leave, be sure to go across the street to see it and compare.)

Call me an art cretin, but I sometimes find just being among works of art in a well-installed gallery, when artist, curator and viewer are all really clicking, as exhilarating as engaging with individual works. Sometimes more so. It's about feeling more than thinking or understanding — almost a transformative, total-immersion experience. For me, the first wild-eyed sweep around all that wild fauve color in this exhibit was a case in point.

When you turn your back on the fauve walls (painful, but you can come back) and walk into the adjacent galleries full of cubist works, you've entered the next thrilling stage of Braque-world — because he, along with Picasso and Matisse, really was creating a new art world and changing the way all of us see the world around us.

My own sense is that Braque's cubism often has an appealing (French?) delicacy lacking in that of the flamboyant Spaniard, Picasso, and I like Braque's better. Being a color lover, I find the cubist works — mostly green, brown, gray, black, white — less compelling than the fauve, even though I know how important they are in the history of art. But completely surrounded by so many splendid cubist paintings — well, there's that immersion factor again.

Now on to 1912 and collage (it's a career retrospective, after all, so every stage gets its moment). Braque is often given credit for an invention all his own, papier collé, a subset of collage that may seem like hair-splitting to us laypeople, but at last he gets credit all to himself.

A French citizen, Braque was called for war service in 1914. Picasso, a citizen of neutral Spain, and the much older Matisse remained civilians and kept making art. Braque was severely wounded and suffered temporary blindness. After a long convalescence, he did return to work, but he toiled pretty much as a loner for the rest of his career.

I've read in more than one place that had Picasso died in 1914 (or 1907 — the year varies a little), the history of modern art wouldn't be any different. The same can probably be said of Braque. By then their innovations had already happened. But then, without the early inventions of either, art would be different, and there are only a few of whom that can be said.

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