In his time, Georges Braque was a famous and respected painter. Along with Pablo Picasso, Braque is credited with the emergence of cubism, an avant-garde movement influenced in part by African art. Much of Braque’s work depicts such objects as guitars, pitchers and vases, rendered with an eye to subtleties of color and light and from an abstract perspective.
Indeed, at first glance a Braque piece might easily be mistaken for a Picasso, which is a tribute to the quality of the art but does little to take the sting out of the relative obscurity of its creator. While Picasso is something of a brand name — due at least in part to his gift for self-promotion — Braque is the kind of artist whose work demands to be sought out. An exhibition on view at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum through April 21 promises to help raise his profile as an essential figure in modern art.
“Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945” is the first major presentation of Braque’s work in a U.S. museum in 16 years. The exhibition, which includes about 40 works, was co-organized with the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., where it will be displayed from June 8 to Sept. 1.
In addition to bringing his still lifes to the attention of contemporary audiences, “Georges Braque” also seeks to place them within a political and cultural context. Was his work influenced by the rise of fascism and the turmoil of World War II? And should his paintings be viewed as expressions of those times even if Braque claimed to have no political agenda?
“It’s an under-studied period in his career, and it raises very interesting questions,” said Karen K. Butler, assistant curator at the Kemper and co-curator of the exhibition with Renée Maurer, assistant curator at the Phillips Collection.
Braque, who also sculpted, was born in a suburb of Paris in 1882 and died in the city in 1963. Whether he intended any of his works to be interpreted as political statements was a question raised during his lifetime and by his own contemporaries, Butler said.
“There’s often a separation between what an artist says he’s doing, and what a painting may actually be doing,” she said. A timeline accompanying the exhibition notes that images of skulls turn up in Braque’s paintings (including “Baluster and Skull (recto),”) in 1938 — the same year that France, Britain and Italy signed the Munich Agreement allowing Hitler’s Germany to annex Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, and anti-Semites murdered Jews throughout Germany and parts of Austria during the officially sanctioned Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”). In the face of such realities, Braque’s assertion that his interest in skulls was solely aesthetic becomes suspect, Butler said.
On the other hand, she added, some critics have found in Braque’s work “a space of autonomy, a space for human creation, at a time when so much is driven by politics. What Braque, in some ways, is doing is creating space for freedom.”
A highlight of the exhibition is Braque’s “Rosenberg Quartet” (1928-29), named for his art dealer Paul Rosenberg, who was to flee France to evade the Nazis. According to the Kemper, it’s been more than 80 years since the four paintings — “The Napkin Ring,” “Pitcher, Lemons, Fruit Dish,” “The Crystal Vase” and “Lemons and Napkin Ring” — were presented as a unit in the same space. In an essay in the exhibition’s catalog, Maurer notes that the strikingly vivid paintings served a utilitarian function, “as models for decorative marble floor panels” in the dining room of Rosenberg’s Paris apartment.
“Some have thought that the paintings were installed as overmantels or overdoors in the same room with the floor panels in an installation that Rosenberg commissioned from Braque at the end of the 1920s,” Maurer writes. “Others believe that Rosenberg had Picasso in mind for the project, and he turned it down.”
Despite the renewed attention to his work, Braque may never emerge from Picasso’s shadow. But that may have as much to do with their personalities, and how they’ve been perceived over the years, as their paintings, Butler said.
“They’re very different people,” she said. “There are stories of Picasso signing drawings on napkins in restaurants, and leaving that as a tip. Braque was thoughtful and classy and reserved.
“But this isn’t a show about one being a better painter than the other. It’s a show that looks at who Braque was, and what he did at a specific moment in time.”
‘Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945’
When • On view through April 21; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday-Monday and Wednesday-Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday
Where • Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University near Skinker and Forsyth boulevards
How much • Free
More info • 314-935-4523 or kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu