In the early 20th century, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso invented Cubism and shook the foundations of Western art. But in the 1930s, as the rise of fascism brought new urgency to questions of aesthetics and politics — questions that entered mainstream consciousness with Picasso’s Guernica (1937) — Braque’s fractured still lifes and bourgeois interiors remained emphatically inward-looking.
Yet Braque’s painting was not as separate from outside events as Braque might have it. While his attention to the private, secluded realm of the still life suggests disengagement with historical and political circumstances, the paintings themselves convey a more complex narrative. Indeed, the artist’s exactingly internal gaze was precisely what made his work relevant to questions of art, engagement and responsibility.
So argues Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945, the first major U.S. museum exhibition dedicated to Braque in 16 years. Co-organized by the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis and The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., the exhibition is also the first to situate Braque’s work within the cultural and political upheavals leading up to, and through, World War II — a period that has been virtually unexplored in scholarship on the artist.
Drawn from public and private collections in the United States and Europe, Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945 brings together 42 paintings representing an overlooked moment in the painter’s career: after the early, pioneering days of Cubism and the neoclassical retour à l’ordre, but before the late series of large-scale paintings featuring billiard tables, birds and the atelier.
By presenting multiple groupings of closely related works side by side, the exhibition reinforces the slow, experiential viewing that is central to his art, providing a rare opportunity to understand the mastery behind Braque’s dedicated and focused attention to the still life and to the methods and materiality of painting.
For the first time in more than 80 years, Braque’s “Rosenberg Quartet” (1928-29), created for his dealer, Paul Rosenberg, is here reunited. Another grouping features The Blue Mandolin, Still Life with Glass and Still Life with Fruit Dish, Bottle, and Mandolin, all completed in 1930.
Though depicting similar objects — gueridon tables, mandolins, compote bowls — the three paintings are executed in distinct palettes and from different vantage points. The effect is to highlight Braque’s gift for rendering familiar worlds unfamiliar, or even hallucinatory.
Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928–1945 is curated by Karen K. Butler, assistant curator at the Kemper Art Museum, and by Renée Maurer, assistant curator at The Phillips Collection.
The exhibition will open at the Kemper Art Museum Jan. 25 and remain on view until April 21. It then will travel to The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., where it will be on view June 8 to Sept. 1, 2013.
The known and unknown worlds
For Braque’s supporters, his emphasis on creating unfamiliar worlds represented no less than a manifesto of human freedom and an attempt to break free from history and civilization. Carl Einstein, the German Jewish art historian who organized Braque’s first major retrospective — and who relocated to Paris in 1928 to edit the journal Documents with Georges Bataille — initially planned to title his 1934 monograph on Braque “La morale de la pureté (The morality of purity).”
But the war years proved difficult for the painter’s circle. In 1940, Rosenberg left Paris for New York as the Nazis seized his gallery, paintings and residence. Shortly thereafter, Einstein committed suicide in the French Pyrenees while fleeing the Gestapo, and Braque himself stopped painting for a time. Conversely, under the occupation government, other contemporaries judged Braque’s still lifes as sufficiently apolitical to be featured in a special exhibit as part of the 1943 Salon d’automne.
In addition to situating his work within the period’s cultural and political debates, Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945, provides unique insight into the artist’s creative process. Employing x-ray and other technical analysis, conservators reveal Braque’s manipulation of pigments and materials as well as his practice of continually reworking canvases. Still Life with Palette (1943), for example, is revealed to contain an entirely different composition beneath its final surface.
Other highlights include The Baluster and Skull / Still Life with Fruit Dish (1938), a rarely seen double-sided painting. For Braque, the skull represented both a new motif and a powerful evocation of the traditional Vanitas, with its critique of worldly pleasure and emphasis on the inevitability of death. Yet Braque’s symbolism remained layered and ambiguous. Though arguably an oblique reference to war, his skulls also often echo the shape of a painter’s palette. If mortality is invoked, it could well be Braque’s own — yet another example of the inward nature of the artist’s vision.
Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928–1945 is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog featuring essays by Butler and Maurer as well as Uwe Fleckner, professor of art history at the Universität Hamburg, and Gordon Hughes, the Mellon Assistant Professor at Rice University. In addition, Patricia Favero, associate conservator at The Phillips Collection, has coauthored a study of Braque’s materials and process with the Harvard Art Museum’s Erin Mysak, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Conservation Science, and Narayan Khandekar, senior conservation scientist.
Also included are seminal early writings on the artist, translated into English for the first time. In all, the volume represents a significant contribution to Braque scholarship and to the body of critical thought connecting the study of art, philosophy and politics leading up to and during World War II.
Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945, is published by The Kemper Art Museum, The Phillips Collection and Prestel∙Del Monico, with international distribution by Prestel.
Support for Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928–1945, is generously provided by James M. Kemper Jr.; the David Woods Kemper Memorial Foundation; the William T. Kemper Foundation; John and Anabeth Weil; Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne; the National Endowment for the Arts; the Hortense Lewin Art Fund; the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency; the Regional Arts Commission; and members of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.
This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
Opening and hours
Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945, will open with a public reception from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 25, and will remain on view through April 21. Both the reception and the exhibition are free and open to the public.
The Kemper Art Museum is located on Washington University’s Danforth Campus, immediately adjacent to Steinberg Hall, near the intersection of Skinker and Forsyth boulevards. Regular hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays; and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The museum is closed Tuesdays and major holidays.
For more information, call (314) 935-4523 or visit kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu.
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum
The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, part of Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, is committed to furthering critical thinking and visual literacy through a vital program of exhibitions, publications and accompanying events. The museum dates back to 1881, making it the oldest art museum west of the Mississippi River. Today it boasts one of the finest university collections in the United States.