George Braque’s Still Lifes at The Phillips Collection
Washington, D.C.—This summer, The Phillips Collection reveals insights into the creative process of the great French cubist master Georges Braque (1882-1963) by investigating a previously overlooked period in the artist’s career. Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945 features 42 sumptuous canvases created by the artist during the tumultuous years leading up to and through World War II. In-depth technical analysis of several works displayed unveils details into the artist’s meticulous use of materials. The exhibition is on view at the Phillips from June 8 through September 1, 2013.
Early in his career, Georges Braque, along with Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), made a tremendous impact on modern art as co-founder of the cubist movement. But until now, Braque’s works created between 1928 and 1945 have been largely neglected by scholars. This exhibition illuminates the transitional period during which Braque broke away from his former associate and honed his individual style. It highlights Braque’s experiments in color, scale, and texture—from depictions of small, intimate interiors in the late 1920s, to vibrant, large-scale canvases in the 1930s, to darker and more personal works in the 1940s.
The exhibition showcases Braque’s process of returning to canvases, sometimes over a period of years. Reunited for the first time in over 80 years is the “Rosenberg Quartet” (1928-29), four works created for Braque’s dealer, Paul Rosenberg. Other notable paintings include The Pink Table Cloth (1933), Still Life with Guitar (Red Curtains) (1937-38), and Fruit Glass and Mandolin (1938), works that are similar in subject, color palette, and compositional structure.
“The work of Georges Braque is especially important to this institution,” says Director Dorothy Kosinski. “Duncan Phillips was an early supporter of Braque, favoring him over Picasso and purchasing 11 Braque works for the museum. This exhibition gives us the opportunity to take a closer look at the paintings that so enchanted Phillips alongside related works from other institutions.”
THE EFFECT OF WAR
The years leading up to and during World War II, with the occupation of Paris by Nazi Germany and the declaration of war throughout Europe, were some of the most challenging for Braque. His still lifes from this period show overlapping textured objects from multiple perspectives and appear disorienting and difficult to navigate. For some, Braque’s focused attention to elaborate still lifes in interiors appears at odds with current events; for others, the pictures provide a visual realm free of ideology—a turning inward, both in subject matter and emotion, from the violence and chaos of the outside world at war.
Between 1938 and 1943, Braque painted a series of still lifes that incorporated a skull. This ominous motif may allude to the inevitability of death, or it may serve as a formal device in dialogue with other still life objects. In the exhibition, the rarely seen double-sided painting The Baluster and Skull / Still Life with Fruit Dish (1938) features the skull in the foreground. Turned away from the viewer, placed beside an artist’s palette, it appears again in Studio with Black Vase from the same year.
ANALYSIS REVEALS WORKING METHOD
Braque’s strong interest in the materials of painting stemmed in part from working with his father, a house and decorative painter. The intricate textures, subtle variations of surface, and visible reworking seen in many of the pieces featured in the exhibition indicate Braque’s continued focus on material and process. Studying 21 paintings, including four from The Phillips Collection, conservators from the Phillips and Harvard Art Museums conducted the first in-depth research of its kind on Braque's work from this crucial period.
The conservators' study revealed how Braque experimented with materials in the base layer of a painting, adding combinations of powdered quartz, sand, or fine gravel into the paint until he achieved the desired texture. Technical analysis disclosed how the artist layered the paint, mixing in beeswax or resin with oils, and used tools to manipulate surface texture, such as the wood grain seen in the Phillips’s The Round Table (1929).
Infrared and x-ray imaging also uncovered how Braque worked and reworked a canvas, which he considered intrinsic to the painting process. The artist sometimes painted over a previous composition, leaving areas of color, line, and texture from the underlying work visible in the new layers, as evidenced in Still Life with Palette (1943).
BRAQUE AT THE PHILLIPS
Through his acquisitions and exhibitions, Duncan Phillips played a vital role in introducing Braque’s work to a wider American audience. He was an enthusiastic champion of Braque, favoring him over Picasso, stating, “Time may rank the mellowed craftsmanship and enchanting artistries of the reserved Frenchman higher than the restless virtuosities and eccentric innovations of the spectacular Spaniard.” Phillips purchased one of the first Braque works for an American museum, and presented the first U.S. retrospective devoted to the artist’s work, organized by the Arts Club of Chicago in 1939. In 1959, he received Braque’s permission to have a bas-relief made after one of the artist’s prints. This symbol of a bird in flight has become a major icon of the museum’s identity. The museum's deep relationship with Braque continues, through frequent displays of works from the 15 now in the collection.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Georges Braque (1882-1963) was born in Argenteuil, France, to a family of house painters and decorators. Braque apprenticed for two years before beginning study in the arts at age 20 at Académie Humbert. Passing through impressionist and fauvist styles, he became increasingly concerned with volume and structure, inspired by the works of Paul Cézanne. Together with Picasso, Braque developed the radical pictorial language of cubism. In 1912, Braque created the first of his paper collages, initiating what would become a lifelong concern with the tactile depiction of space. Wounded in the First World War, Braque resumed painting in 1917, classicizing and naturalizing the cubist vocabulary. In the 1940s and 50s, Braque took on two ambitious series, Billiard Tables and Studios. In 1948 he received first prize at the Venice Biennale, in 1951 he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, and in 1961 he was the first living artist given an exhibition at the Louvre. When Braque died on August 31, 1963, funeral services were held in front of the Louvre.
The fully illustrated 240-page exhibition catalogue is published by The Phillips Collection and the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, in collaboration with Prestel??Del Monico. It includes essays by exhibition co-curators Renée Maurer of The Phillips Collection and Karen K. Butler of the Kemper Art Museum. Phillips Associate Conservator Patricia Favero also co-authored a study of Braque’s materials and process with Erin Mysak, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in conservation science at Harvard Art Museums, and Narayan Khandekar, senior conservation scientist at Harvard’s Straus Center for Conservation.
ORGANIZATION AND SPONSORS
The exhibition is co-organized by The Phillips Collection and the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, part of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, where it is on view January 25 through April 21, 2013.
The exhibition is supported by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts and an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
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ABOUT THE PHILLIPS COLLECTION
The Phillips Collection is one of the world's most distinguished collections of impressionist and modern American and European art. Stressing the continuity between art of the past and present, it offers a strikingly original and experimental approach to modern art by combining works of different nationalities and periods in displays that change frequently. The setting is similarly unconventional, featuring small rooms, a domestic scale, anda personal atmosphere. Artists represented in the collection include Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Claude Monet, Honoré Daumier, Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Mark Rothko, Milton Avery, Jacob Lawrence, and Richard Diebenkorn, among others. The Phillips Collection, America's first museum of modern art, has an active collecting program and regularly organizes acclaimed special exhibitions, many of which travel internationally. The Intersections series features projects by contemporary artists, responding to art and spaces in the museum. The Phillips also produces award-winning education programs for K-12 teachers and students, as well as for adults. The museum’s Center for the Study of Modern Art explores new ways of thinking about art and the nature of creativity, through artist visits and lectures, and provides a forum for scholars through courses, postdoctoral fellowships, and internships. Since 1941, the museum has hosted Sunday Concerts in its wood-paneled Music Room. The Phillips Collection is a private, non-government museum, supported primarily by donations.