Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

The Strategy of Still Life, or the Politics of Georges Braque

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

The Strategy of Still Life, or the Politics of Georges Braque

Article excerpt

This article examines the politics, or rather the ethics, of the apparently apolitical but profoundly ethical artist Georges Braque, at a time of maximum ethical and political disturbance: the German occupation of France during World War II. It considers the response of the artist to "events," invoking the notion of "active passivity" as expounded by the philosopher Jean Grenier, Albert Camus's teacher. KEYWORDS: Braque, art, politics, passivity, Occupation

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World War II crept up on Europe, with almost Braquian slowness, during the winter of 1939-1940. This was the drole de guerre--the Phony War: war declared, but not yet battle joined. Seasoned Parisians carried their gas masks with soldierly resignation and expected the worst. They were not disappointed.

At the declaration, in September 1939, Braque was at his second home in Varengeville, near Dieppe in Normandy, coaching Joan Miro in poker, work, and life. Miro took refuge there throughout the Phony War, renting a house in the village and seeking his own version of renewal. Down the lane was the great Georges Braque, cofounder of Cubism, the only man to sustain an intimate collaboration, almost a cohabitation, with the monstrous ego Picasso. The newcomer went to call on him regularly. Miro's working notes offer glimpses of what passed between them:

  The preparation of the series of large canvases for Daphnis and Chloe
  is very unsatisfactory; if you press on the back of them with your
  finger the preparatory coat comes off. Use a solvent to remove that
  preparation and then give the canvas a coat of white lead or casein,
  the preparation Braque and Balthus use.... Using the lost wax
  process--which Braque taught me--I could make some designs that could
  later be made in gold, like the primitive Mexicans used to.... I could
  start out by taking red-hot irons and applying them to the wood the
  way Braque and Mariette did. (1)

In spite of the times, Miro profited in both creation and reflection. Encouraged by Braque, he began an experimental series of works on paper, Constellations, in which he played with surface texture, natural phenomena, biblical allusion, and contemporary reference: The second in the series is called The Escape Ladder (1940), or "On the 13th the Ladder Brushed the Firmament"--producing some of his strongest images. (2) Propinquity paid dividends. Miro was inspired by Braque's example. "Look to Braque," he reminded himself, "as a model for everything that is still, serenity, and reflection." (3) After a few months in Varengeville he was already talking about attaining "a high degree of poetry" from the contemplative life he was leading. Twenty years later, when he spoke of his working methods, he sounded exactly like his exemplar. "I work like a gardener or a wine-grower. Things come slowly. I didn't find my vocabulary of forms, for example, all of a sudden. It developed almost in spite of me." (4)

Braque may have appeared serene, but he was not. Earlier that year, the magazine Cahiers d'Art published the responses to one of its periodic surveys, on the influence of events in the outside world on the creative artist--politically, a delicate matter. Creative artists of every coloration were asking themselves the same question. "Oh heavens, yes, I am well aware in what sense I could say with Valery that 'events do not interest me,'" mused Andre Gide in his journal.

  None of the things I cherish spiritually is dependent on this war, to
  be sure; but the future of France, our future, is at stake. Everything
  that still concerns our thought may disappear, sink into the past,
  cease to have for the men of tomorrow anything but an archaic meaning.
  Other problems, unsuspected yesterday, may trouble those to come, who
  will not even understand our reason for existing. (5)

Braque could have said the same. He was more unsettled by the gathering storm than might have been supposed. …

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