"Braque: The Late Works." (Georges Braque, Royal Academy, London, England)

Article excerpt

Sharing the prejudices of most New York art people, I had always located Braque on some remote and far too comfortable French planet, where, together with the likes of Bonnard, he went on cultivating his own beautiful gardens but could never do anything risky enough to make my pulse beat faster. For me, even his most audacious Cubist work, when seen beside Picasso's, often looked like a genteel and redundant counterpart to his significant Spanish other's macho drama and daring. As for what he did after the First World War, this could be quickly banished in the category of the unadventurous, all-too-pleasurable painting synonymous with the later School of Paris. I still recall how bored I was some twenty-five years ago by Douglas Cooper's provocatively titled show "Braque: The Great Years," at the Art Institute of Chicago. Cooper's selection began with work from 1918, when, for me, Braque went off the screen; and knowing the Francophile curator's combative hatred of post-1945 American painting (his French answer to what he considered this transatlantic outrage was another practitioner of "belle peinture," Nicholas de Stael), I wrote off the whole show as a feeble effort to undo the values of formalist progress that Clement Greenberg had instilled so deeply in my generation. And when the Guggenheim Museum mounted a soup-to-nuts Braque retrospective in 1988, I paid little attention to anything but the Cubist work, feeling again that what happened later was just the predictable run of pretty variations on an already overrefined French sauce.

It was therefore mainly professional duty and a personal loyalty to John Golding that got me to see his show "Braque: The Late Works" at the Royal Academy in London last March, a show that now reduced the focus to the artist's last paintings, beginning in 1941 and ending just before his death in 1963, at a time when Pop and Minimalism had made the French old master seem light-years removed from anything relevant. What a shock, then, for me to discover that this work suddenly did matter. From Braque's bell-jar universe, Golding created a solemn sequence of shrines, where various series of related paintings had room to expand in quiet spaces that enforced a mood of slow concentration. What once seemed superficially seductive but basically empty now looked troubled, the densely layered products of long meditation. The contemplative mode was surprisingly contagious, slowing my usual presto to an adagio and making me wonder why these pictures looked so timely. Was it perhaps the retrospective tenor of so much late-twentieth-century art that at last made the artist's final reveries accessible?

The pictures, in fact, kept reawakening, from a Proustian distance, whiffs of a once-fresh Cubism. But instead of looking like diluted, overworked formulas (which is how I once saw them), they evoked a remembrance of things past in a manner that paralleled the nostalgic, mellow self-quotations found in the later work not only of Picasso but also in that of so many recent American artists - Johns, Warhol, Lichtenstein. Throughout, Cubist ideas and imagery are resuscitated. There are words quoted from early works ("sonate," "L'Echo"); there are wittily ambiguous interchanges between trompe l'oeil frames and the images they purport to enclose; there are virtuoso weavings of painted patterns and textures that recall how useful Braque's craftsman training as a peintre-decorateur must have been for the rapid-fire virtuosity with which he juggled pasted paper swatches; and there are ghosts, too, of Cubist figures, whether of a Corot-like woman holding a book or a man playing a guitar.

But if the first appearance of these themes in 1910-14 was marked by youthful, staccato energies, their light chamber music, reconsidered by the aging artist, is transformed into weighty, cumulative orchestrations that imply not swift bursts of invention, to be dated by a newspaper clipping, but prolonged introspection of a kind familiar to Cezanne's layered reworkings over months and years. …