Bringing Georges Braque Out of the Shadows

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.

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.

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.

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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Randy Tibbits is an independent art writer and curator, specializing in the art history of Houston. He is a member of the Board of Directors of CASETA: Center for the Advancement and Study of Early Texas Art and the coordinator of HETAG: Houston Earlier Texas Art Group. He writes art exhibition reviews for Houston Press from time to time.