Bringing Georges Braque Out of the Shadows

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

The rest of this show includes dozens of brilliant paintings — many I'd love to live with (including the Menil's Large Interior with Palette from 1942, which I'd be happy just to see more often — it hasn't been on public view in years) — but nothing more that actually changed art.

At least I guess that's true. If it's not, I'd be delighted to learn how things really are by reading the catalog for the show. Unfortunately, there isn't one, at least not one in English.

There's a 300-plus-page French catalog. The pictures are fascinating — my bad, of course, that I don't read French. ("Américain typique," the French might snort.) It even includes an essay by MFAH curator Alison de Lima Greene titled "Braque en Amérique." Very interesting. I know only because I was able to get a copy of the text in the original English.

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.


Georges Braque: A Retrospective

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

This seems a curious oversight for a generational retrospective of a major artist in an American museum. I don't remember a show with the billing this one gets ("seminal artist," "shaped the course of modern art," "first comprehensive museum the United States since 1988," according to MFAH promo materials) that hasn't had a catalog. It's not as though Braque literature is overly plentiful. In a quick check at my local art library, I counted 14 shelves for Picasso and six for Matisse, but barely one for Braque. Undoubtedly, this has to do with money. Doesn't everything? But the absence of a catalog in English almost seems to say he wasn't really that big a deal after all, which the show itself proves was not at all the case.

(MFAH will present a series of lectures related to the exhibition on some Sundays through February and March, which should help fill the no-English-catalog gap.)

The show is installed in the Upper Brown Pavilion of the MFAH Caroline Wiess Law Building, a space whose vastness, I'm told, has always been a challenge for showing art. A recent reconfiguration of galleries has taken the space back more nearly to the vision of the architect, Mies van der Rohe. For this exhibit, the new galleries work brilliantly. One moment you can be completely surrounded by works of a single style or period, and then with a step or two you can see through to other galleries of earlier or later works and make visual connections across Braque's long career.

For the historically minded among us, I think it's interesting to note that Braque has something of a history here in Houston. James Johnson Sweeney, director of MFAH from 1961 through 1967, wrote a forward for the booklet that accompanied the first Braque retrospective in America in 1939-40. That show didn't come to Houston, but Braque has been exhibited here over the years, first in a 1934 show of Modern French Paintings.

Even earlier, in 1926, Houston artist and teacher Emma Richardson Cherry went to a major Braque exhibition at the Paul Rosenberg Gallery in Paris; took meticulous notes on what she saw; and brought her Braque knowledge home with her when she returned (along with her own cubist paintings — the first ever in Houston), to share with her circle, including the most adventuresome artists we had at the time. At least two of the paintings she saw are included in the current show: Guitar and Still Life on a Mantelpiece and Fruit on a Tablecloth with Fruit Dish, both from 1925. How nice to have those originals here at last.

Bottom line: This may not be the definitive Braque retrospective of our generation — that was in Paris this past fall — but it's an exciting, beautiful show; it's the most Braque most of us are ever likely to see in one place; and it's included in the price of admission to the museum, which means that members can (and should) see it as often as they like at no extra charge — a plus in these days of high-dollar, ticketed exhibitions at MFAH.

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