Clearly visible within the neat borders on a piece of paper is the word “etude,” French for study, in a detail from Georges Braque’s ebullient 1929 painting, “The Round Table.” Very likely, given Braque’s interest in music and the bourgeois domesticity he cultivated, the etude in question is a piano work by Chopin, or perhaps Liszt or Debussy. But a guitar is also clearly visible on the same round table, which feels like a small explosion of enigmas in a bare corner of some interior space. Also present: A knife, which may or may not allude to the complex network of sharp fissures in the picture, including one that runs straight through the guitar, as if the instrument has been riven by some tectonic slippage.
The “Round Table” is encountered early in the Phillips Collection exhibition “Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945.” Acquired by Duncan Phillips in 1934, the painting anchors the first room of this focused and challenging exhibition, which surveys work Braque made during some of the darkest days of Western civilization. Nearby are slightly earlier works, including two dreary horizontal paintings that are also still lifes, but much more still and with a lot less life. The “Round Table” is something new and different, a still life replete with Braque’s usual stuff — fruit, guitar, knife, pipe — yet more unruly, colorful and visually seductive.
The word etude can’t be accidental. Like Chopin’s etudes, Braque’s works from this period are technical exercises, yet paradoxically overstuffed with invention and life. They are meticulous studies, essays in technique, and yet, for all their refinement, and despite their often hermetic surface, they burst with strange energies.
The exhibition traces at least three essential tensions in Braque’s work: Between pure abstraction and the illusionistic depiction of the real world; between two-dimensional picture space and three-dimensional architectural space; and between his role as an artist devoted entirely to art, and a citizen inhabiting a country at war, under occupation and chafing at pure barbarism. None of these tensions are resolved, but there are moments when they seem to dissolve, when Braque’s alchemy leaves one with the impression that multiple spaces can indeed cohabit, that symbols of things can be as real as things themselves, and that artists can define decency as much through humility as heroic resistance.
By 1928, Braque had left behind the thin shards and gray splinters of the cubist work he pursued parallel to Picasso before World War I. His art still lived very much in two dimensions, on the surface of the painting, and he was still a master of suggesting tactile ideas through surface games, imitations of wood grain or faux marbling. But things are rounder, objects interpenetrate with a more biological messiness, and blunt, almost comic shadows give the work a new sense of at least minimal depth. Even if they feel flat, like mere outlines of objects, you can’t slip his lemons and pitchers and fruit knives under the door.
But he is determined that they never be mistaken for real things, either. A metal knife suddenly turns transparent, revealing the tablecloth beneath it. His fish look like a child’s shorthand for fish, a triangle conjoined to an elongated teardrop, drawn without removing the pencil from the page. Tablecloths and drapery resolutely resist conforming to the things they’re draped on, and wallpaper patterns dance off the wall, imprinting jagged forms willy-nillly.
But Braque often endangers this world of pure forms by enclosing it in architectural space. While the shadow objects of his still-life etudes are fussily tangled up in a clot at the center of the painting, a window is opened in the back, two walls with wainscoting come together in a corner, and ceiling molding suggests a clear sense of three dimensions. The power of this exhibition, first seen at St. Louis’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, is the cumulative sense of Braque’s architectural space, the evolving understanding of the rooms in which he arranged his ideal still lifes. And as that space becomes more clearly understood, as you begin to believe that you are seeing an actual room, with wood floors, carved panels and curtained windows, the two-dimensional space becomes more vibrant and even eerie. It jumps into a new dimension, a tactile sense of being very particular and real, as if it is not just a lemon and pitcher, but a lemon and pitcher seen at 2 o’clock on a rainy day in November.
If you can get there, to this sense that if seen at just the right angle and the mind-set just so, all of Braque’s obfuscations become transparent and real things emerge, and any nagging doubts about Braque and the politics of his age will probably disappear, too. Although some of the paintings Braque made during World War II contain skulls that might be seen as token acknowledgment of the ghastly world beyond his studio, there is an overwhelming sense of detachment throughout this exhibition. As millions of people fought, died or were slaughtered, France’s eminent painter (himself wounded in World War I) retreated deep into his private world of art, and painted teapots and cheese. Is that acceptable?
There are several well-worn defenses of artistic detachment. One is a categorical denial of any political or moral imperative on the part of artists, who live for art. Another stresses the futility of artistic protest. Yet another argues that living an exemplary life in the midst of great injustice and cruelty is all one can expect of any man. Confronting the issue, the author of one catalogue essay for the exhibition is drawn into delicious illogic: Braque’s paintings “are about the war precisely by being not about the war, by creating a kind of parallel interior universe that is nonetheless reliant on an imagined and tactile experience of space.”
But a French poet who joined the Resistance and later wrote a book-length poetic celebration of soap offers another understanding. Francis Ponge so admired a 1941 Braque painting, “Mandolin and Score (The Banjo),” that he kept a small reproduction handy in case of doubt or despair. “That’s why I could live,” he said, “That’s the society for which I fought.”
Civilization doesn’t consist merely of things, and certainly not in the world of mere products. But Braque’s things, his pipes and oysters and instruments and music, carry with them a sense of refined pleasure, hints of conversation and contemplation, domestic tranquillity and companionship. Evil people are capable of all these pleasures, too, but they don’t often want to work for them. Braque makes the viewer work to find the rather simple, very French civility underneath his images, which makes the achievement of seeing through his idiosyncrasies all the more rewarding.
is on view at the Phillips Collection through Sept. 1. For more information visit phillipscollection.org.