The clipped-out bits of paper pasted to the drawings in "Braque: The Papier Colle's," which opened yesterday at the National Gallery of Art, are accepted by believers as relics of a miracle.
It happened in the south of France one September afternoon, in 1912, in Sorgues, near Avignon.
While Georges Braque was there, figuring out Cubism with his pal, Picasso, he had what he called his "revelation."
"Braque," writes Douglas Cooper, "was wandering around Avignon when his eye was caught by a roll of paper printed as faux bois (oak grain) displayed in the window of a wallpaper shop in the rue Joseph Vernet. His imagination was fired . . . "
He paused. Perhaps he wasn't as smart as Picasso, but he wasn't stupid. He waited until great-minded Picasso took the train to Paris. Then he bought the fake-wood wallpaper, snipped out three blunt pieces and glued them to a drawing, a charcoal Cubist still life he called "Fruit-dish and Glass."
He'd done it. He knew it. "Ah," he wrote, "I was very happy.
One believer, National Gallery director J. Carter Brown, calls Braque's pasting-down of wallpaper "a watershed invention." Another, Clement Greenberg, writes that it began the "pasted paper revolution." A third, Christian Zervos, regards it as "the most poetic and revolutionary moment . . . in the evolution of painting."
Miracles require faith.
But still the skeptics doubt.
Did Braque's cut-and-paste experiment really change forever the history of art? Did he really invent pasting paper to a picture? Did his fragile pasted papers, by the way they stress the physicality of surface, really point the path toward the realms of pure abstraction? And could it possibly be true that Braque was really great enough to shift by his example the way painters paint the world, or does this shrine-like exhibition slight Picasso?
The claims made by this show -- and by its pictures, too -- are both true and false.
Of course Braque didn't invent collage. He didn't invent scissors, and he didn't invent paste, and he was not the first to glue paper to a picture. Picasso did it in 1908, when he pasted a ticket to the Louvre in the middle of a drawing. Jefferson David Chalfant, an American, did it in 1889 when he put a real postage stamp beside one he had painted on an eye-deceiving picture he titled "Which is Which?" Victorian cutout valentines are papiers colle's, too. So are silhouettes.
Yet Braque had hit on something. His motives were not those of a sailor gluing sea shells to a South Seas souvenir or a housewife stitching cloth to a patchwork quilt. By pasting down that phony wood, he had won a little battle in the war against perspective. He had learned much from Ce'zanne, and more from Picasso, and his gluings helped to shatter the painting-as-a-window way of portraying the world.
Chalfant's "Which is Which?" was made to fool the eye. Braque's strips of pasted paper fool the eye less than the mind.
Painting is fiction. Wallpaper is fact. Braque used his pasted papers to play the Cubist's double game, to tease and thus assault traditional conceptions about object and illusion, reality and art. Braque's oak-grain paper lies. It is clearly phony wood. Yet it will not shed its paradox. It sits there on the surface, an easily acquired, factory-produced piece of the world's truth. It is true because it's "real." At the same time it is falser than the hand-drawn fictions--the fruit dish and the glass--it both attacks and defends.
Like Einstein and James Joyce, the Cubists understood that portrayals of reality need not be restricted to a single viewpoint. We see Braque's fruit dish from above, his bar glass from the side. While his shaded grapes display their three dimensions, the words written on his drawing, "ale," "bar," his signature--and his wood-grain clippings--declare themselves in two.
Braque in all these pictures summons two familiar worlds--that of old French still lifes and that of the bohemian's bar, that friendly, smoky place of playing cards and music, newspapers and drinks, table tops, tobacco. Braque shows us in these pictures things that we already know, but does so with a layering of non-familiar signs.
This straight line is a table edge, those four are instead the four strings of a violin. That pasted oak-grain clipping is not violin shaped, neither is it table shaped. Instead it is a set of signs--for the impenetrable flatness of the surface of the paper, and for all of the reality that is outside of art, and for the old wood of the violin, its grain, its mellow color, and for the wood of the bar table, and also for the paneling (is it real wood or a paper fake?) of the cafe's wall.
Behind the later art of Johns, Cornell and Motherwell, of Schwitters and Steinberg and a thousand other artists, behind the declared flatness of so much abstract painting, believers claim to see Braque's 1912 invention. And yet these 30 papier colle's suggest that Braque may be getting more credit than he deserves.
It takes an act of faith to look at slow Georges Braque, that patient, plodding master, as a fiery inventor. Braque pasted paper first, perhaps, but Picasso haunts this show.
Even if Braque pasted the first paper, Picasso soon surpassed him. For a while in 1912, the two men worked together. Picasso called Braque "Vilbure," in honor of the brothers Wright, and together the two artists tore wallpaper for their pastings from their villa's rented walls (a receipt from their landlord acknowledging payment for their enthusiastic vandalism is included in the catalogue). But their minds were never equal.
Picasso forced the issue. Picasso led the way. The early Braque in this show, like the late Braque whose grand paintings are now at the Phillips, was a masterful French painter in the old tradition. He was loyal all his life to decorative color, to surface and the still life. Braque, despite his champion's claims, was not up to miracles. He made 57 papier colle's. But Picasso made 400. The extraordinary Spaniard caught the trick at once, and within weeks was departing for high realms of invention where Braque could never go.
The National Gallery's exhibit, organized here by E.A. Carmean, is a smaller version of the Braque show held last summer in Paris. It is elegant and lovely -- and, to prevent bright light from yellowing its tobacco wrappings and newspaper clippings, also slightly dim. Braque (1882-1973) was born a century ago. This show, which may overpraise its subject, as memorials do, closes Jan. 16.