Let’s do a little word association.
Pablo Picasso, what comes to mind?
Maybe brilliant artist, prolific painter, giant of the twentieth century.
OK, one more.
George Braque….drawing a blank?
If so, you’re not alone. But during the first part of the twentieth century Braque and Picasso were the Lennon and McCartney of modern art.
Together they collaborated to develop a completely new visual language called analytical cubism and laid the foundation for modern art. And the first major exhibit of Braque’s work in 16 years is opening today in St. Louis.
On a recent afternoon students quietly wander through the upper gallery at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum on the campus of Washington University.
Below their feet workers in white overalls are busy painting and nailing together what will become the exhibit titled George Braque and the Cubist Still Life.
Karen Butler is the exhibit’s co-curator, and is assistant curator at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.
“Braque and Picasso worked very closely together, it was a collaboration, to create these very radical paintings that questioned the history of these very naturalistic looking paintings,” Butler says. “Paintings were fragmented and fractured. They’re very difficult to look at; it’s very hard to understand what you’re seeing. But it was a very radical moment in time.”
Braque and Picasso
In order to understand the exhibit opening today you have to go back to Paris in 1910.
Braque is working alongside a kindred spirit; Pablo Picasso.
Both men are rapidly dismantling the traditions of western art. By 1912 the two create the foundation for a new visual language called cubism.
Objects have sharp angles and their paintings ask viewers to see the world from multiple angles.
But soon the opening shots of World War I are fired, ending their collaboration.
Braque is drafted and goes to the trenches, he returns to Paris blinded by a bomb blast.
A hole is drilled in his skull, pressure on his brain is eased; wounds heal, he sees the world again.
He returns to the easel, and at first his paintings are small.
Life after World War I
Elements of the style he developed before the war remain; he still searches for multiple dimensions on flat canvas.
But as Braque ages his pallet expands, colors are bolder; the canvas bigger, the angles softer.
Soon, though, the drums of war begin to beat again and by 1938 newsreels of Adolf Hitler and his massive war machine flicker on screens around the world.
As the scope of the war widens, Braque’s work becomes smaller again, more personal.
This brings us back to the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.
The exhibit opening today focuses on the years just before and during World War II.
Butler says Braque was a meticulous artist, and by zooming in on this period viewers can question how, or if, the war influenced his work.
The curators went so far as to X-ray a painting to examine the subtle changes he made while crafting a still life.
She says of particular interest are skulls that first appear in his paintings in 1938.
“Braque denies that these paintings have anything to do with World War II,” Butler says. “And yet, you as a viewer cannon help but ask as you’re looking at these mute objects, these skulls, what does that mean? It’s a comment on death, how can it not be.”
Then again, she says, it’s hard to know the mind of an artist.
As for why Braque never became the household name that Picasso did, Butler says maybe it just boils down to the kind of guy he was.
Not really flamboyant, married to the same woman his entire life, a trained house painter who turned grew to become an artistic pioneer.
- Go here for an in-depth interview about the exhibit that aired on St. Louis Public Radio's Cityscape.
Follow Tim Lloyd on Twitter: @TimSLloyd