This is the first full-length biography of Georges Braque (1882–1963), who is described in one of Alex Danchev’s more felicitous phrases as ‘the third man’ of modern art – in the Graham Greene sense that he was elusive, while also one of the big three with Picasso and Matisse. And that seems to be his fate.
Over a quarter of this book details its research – appendices, notes, bibliography, etc; but for all Danchev’s efforts (and too effortful prose), Braque remains a shadowy figure. We learn a commendable amount about what made him tick as an artist, but, owing to Braque’s discretion, not much about the nitty-gritty of his life. ‘Of course, there are anecdotes,’ Braque’s friend the writer and curator Jean Leymarie said, ‘but they are secret.’ When Braque delivered the ‘authorised version’ of his autobiography in a series of interviews for Cahiers d’art in 1954, he refused to allow the twelve-hour marathon (the product of a series of one-hour evening meetings) to be tape-recorded. ‘Even as a young man he conveyed a strict injunction: no gossip,’ writes Danchev.
To offset this uneventfulness, the book begins with a bang – a literal one, and the most shocking incident of Braque’s life – by describing his near-death experience as an officer on the Western Front in 1915. He was left for dead in no-man’s-land after his skull was ‘shattered’ by a piece of shrapnel, but later a stretcher-bearer noticed he was still breathing. After undergoing an emergency trepanation at a field hospital, he lay in a coma for forty-eight hours, and regained consciousness on his birthday – 13 May. Had he died, Braque would still have been immortalised as the co-founder with Picasso of Cubism, the revolutionary replacement of Renaissance perspective with an abstracting multi-view. Cubism was described by Picasso – who, like Braque, had no truck with theorising – as painting ‘not what you see, but what you know is there’.
Braque was born at Argenteuil on the Seine, a popular focus of day trips from Paris, famous as a subject for Monet and the Impressionists. He came from a family of artisans, his father a house painter and weekend artiste peintre. When Braque was eight the family moved to more lucrative Le Havre. Le Havre stirred Georges’s ambition: ‘I used to spend ages contemplating the sea. A sense of the infinite was borne in upon me and I had an obscure feeling of being able to get to the bottom of things.’ In old age he would paint brooding seascapes and landscapes at his country hideaway at Varengeville in Normandy.
His father took him on weekend painting trips and employed him as an apprentice. The apprenticeship taught him the tricks of the house-painting trade (like combing paint to imitate wood graining), which Georges later employed in fine art. This taste for handicraft, expressed in still lifes of whatever was to hand, inspired Nabokov’s tongue-in-cheek footnote: ‘Braque, allusion to a bric-a-brac painter’.
Charles Braque’s business prospered. He became a building contractor and successfully exhibited Corot-indebted landscapes. Georges first showed in group exhibitions with his father, and when he was old he still hung one of his father’s landscapes alongside a Cézanne in his bedroom. As Rilke said, how children dance to the unlived lives of their parents.
While a schoolboy, Georges took an evening art course at the local École des Beaux-Arts, discovering in the life class that he lacked the skill to ‘portray a woman in all her naturalness’. From a comparatively young age he was also a devotee of the Eastern wisdom of the Tao Te Ching. This encouraged a lifelong taste for epigrams and maxims, his own as well as those of others, which complemented the neat formalism of his art. Among his favourite writers were Confucius, Parmenides, Hesiod and Heraclitus. Of the aphoristic French he preferred Vauvenargues (‘One should never judge men by what they do not know, but by what they know, and the way in which they know it’) to La Rochefoucauld (‘There are few things we should keenly desire if we really knew what we wanted’). He once gave Cartier-Bresson Zen and the Art of Archery, that key to the art of artlessness, which permanently altered the photographer’s conception of himself and the camera. The young Braque soon rationalised his inability to do conventional justice to beauty: ‘I don’t do as I want, I do as I can.’
At eighteen, compulsory military service loomed. He cut the required three years to one by qualifying as an artist-craftsman in Paris. There he mastered the mixture of chemistry and cookery which is the basis of the craftsman’s art. ‘I work with matter and not with ideas. I mix and match,’ he later explained in the Cahiers d’art interviews. No wonder Jasper Johns, so assiduous in his attention to heat and materials, is such a fan. Braque’s friend and interpreter Francis Ponge (quel nom for a writer made famous by a book on soap) wrote: ‘The veneration of matter, what is more worthy of the human spirit?’
Despite only a year’s military training, Braque achieved the rank of sergeant. He kept his artistic ambitions to himself, gaining the respect of his fellow soldiers for his deft rolling of cigarettes, accordion playing, dancing, and boxing – he was considered a giant at 5 feet 10 inches. He was also notably handsome, soon gilded with subtly elegant clothes and, from middle age, a fine head of white hair. A snapshot of the grand old man (by then a Commander of the Legion of Honour) with his chauffeur and a gleaming tourer demonstrates an equally dashing love of fancy motors and speed.
So much for the formative years; the rest is history – the sort of cliché that Danchev, hitherto best known for military biographies, tends to do to excess, in a narrative which seamlessly blends past and present in a loose chronology. A persistent theme is the degree to which Braque influenced Picasso and vice versa, and the extent to which Braque has suffered, unfairly in Danchev’s view, from the comparison: ‘The history of Cubism is still being hammered out. Manifold uncertainties remain. But the old cliché of the solo virtuoso, the great Picasso, will no longer pass muster. Braque cannot be effaced, Trotsky-like, from the record. The second Cubist century will see it differently from the first.’
This is a fair sample of Danchev’s tone and stance, their stridency comically at odds with his slow-burning subject, who nonetheless, thanks to the histrionic Malraux, was given a state funeral – the last French artist to be accorded this honour. The forty-page bibliography also hardly suggests a wiping from the record, but Danchev does bring a pervasive sense of the art through his portrait of the man who said: ‘The only thing that matters in art is what cannot be explained.’