Lonely echoes

Half a century after they split, Georges Braque was still trying to fill the void left in his life and art by the man who once called him `ma femme'. By Andrew Graham-Dixon
Georges Braque worked on his painting L'Echo for three years on and off before deciding, one day in 1956, that he had at last finished it. We see a tabletop covered by a red cloth on which stands a jug, beside which there is a newspaper folded in such a way that only a part of its masthead, "L'ECHO", is visible. Above this there hovers an inexplicable brown bird, wings spread like the dove of the Holy Ghost in Piero della Francesca's Baptism. The style in which Braque's picture is painted makes it impossible to tell whether the bird is clutching the newspaper in its beak or not. But ambiguities of that kind did not trouble the painter and he decided to leave it at that.

L'Echo has been taken to refer to the French newspaper L'Echo de Paris but, as Braque knew, his title was bound to be read metaphorically as well. The picture, like so many of Braque's later works, is itself an echo, recalling other pictures painted by the artist, long ago, when he was a much younger man. Objects on a tabletop, a scrap of printed text, painted trompe l'oeil, coexisting in a pictorial space furled in some places and flattened in others - how very Cubist, almost half a century after having invented Cubism, Braque remained. Not for him the constant self-reinvention of his fellow pioneer Picasso. "Braque: The Late Works", at the Royal Academy, is a study in persistence, tinged by sad retrospection. The pictures of the artist's last 20 years are, almost all of them, variations played on lifelong themes. Most are interiors, and many of those interiors turn out to be pictures of a painter's studio. This is a grave, often sombre art, almost painfully turned in on itself. The presiding mood is one of wistfulness.

In 1955, when L'Echo was still a work-in-progress, a young man called John Richardson went to see Braque and wrote a durable article about the painter for the Burlington Magazine. The focus of his attention was a series of pictures of the artist's studio, collectively titled Les Ateliers, which Braque had begun painting in the late 1940s. Richardson made large claims for these paintings, which now hang at the centre of the Royal Acadamy's exhibition. He argued that they should be regarded as "the climacteric series of Braque's career" and suggested that Braque had succeeded, in them, in creating an entirely new kind of pictorial space. "Space," he wrote, "has turned into what, for want of a better terminology, one can only describe as a `liquid' element, into which one might plunge one's hand as into a fishtank."

Richardson, thanks to his remarkable biography of Picasso, has become something of an eminence grise since he wrote those words all those years ago; yet it seems that critical appreciation of Braque's pictures, during the same period, has hardly moved on at all. Thus John Golding, in the catalogue to the current exhibition, still speaks of Braque's "totally new" space in Les Ateliers; and although he goes a little further than Richardson when he compares the experience of looking at these works to diving into a tank of water - a pair of wet hands has become whole-body immersion - there is little substantially new in what he has to say about them. On the evidence of the pictures themselves, the aquatic analogy is unhelpful and the claim about an entirely new pictorial space is untrue. These paintings are interesting and even moving, in their rather closed and hermetic way, but for quite different reasons.

Atelier II, the earliest work in the series to be included in the exhibition, is a dark and almost murky picture. It plainly depicts an interior, in which we may make out, among much other clutter, a carved bust of a woman, a stove and an artist's palette. The painting is traversed by a few slightly off-vertical lines, somewhat reminiscent of Van Gogh's pictorial shorthand for rain but probably meant by Braque to delineate breaks in point of view, rather like the ruptures and facetings of Cubism. Indeed, Braque's later pictures prove that he always did remain umbilically tied to the work of his Cubist phase. This is why the pictorial space in Atelier II (or indeed any of the other Ateliers) is neither revolutionary nor even especially innovative. Its most striking characteristics - the steeply tilted perspective, in which foreground and background almost elide; the liberty with which different objects and different points of view of those objects are combined - were there in Braque's work of the years leading up to the First World War. The principle of collage, which Braque and Picasso had turned into the very basis of painting, in their Cubist years, allowed every imaginable freedom in the depiction of space.

Braque's greatest gift had always been for working things through, for seeing how far an idea or device could be taken. While Picasso, the libertine, modelled himself on Don Giovanni (enjoying at least a one-night stand with every style under the sun) Braque's moral exemplar was the doughty and persevering Cezanne. Not that his pictures look greatly like Cezanne's. It is, rather, the ambition behind them, to transfigure the everyday, which is similar - that, and a certain austerity of composition, which, counterpointing glass and vase and rhyming rims of light around the edge of a grand piano, can make something quite ordinary (a view of the painter's empty sitting room, say) seem as grand as a Bach fugue. The ambition behind many of the later works, the desire to forge monuments rather than jeux d'esprits, is implied in the scale on which they have been painted. But this cuts both ways. On a large canvas Braque often fails, disastrously, to get things under control. When he falls short of the old-man grandeur he was so clearly aiming for he seems merely pompous.

Although he did not push his way through to something absolutely new, Braque in later life can be said to have developed certain aspects of Cubism further than he ever did in his Cubist years. He became more interested than before in the slightly sinister, metamorphic capacities of painted form. The palette, which crops up in most of the Ateliers, often seems to resemble a face or a skull. When Picasso and Braque were developing Cubism together, such antic distortions had tended to be Picasso's stock- in-trade. Picasso had been the anarchist, Braque ("ma femme" Picasso used to call him) the restorer of order. But in his work of the 1940s and 1950s Braque does not seem to mind allowing some of Picasso's transformative mischief into his own work, to unsettle and enliven it. However, this conflicts uneasily with Braque's general tendency to harmonise and elegise. In Atelier V, an imaginary bird migrates across a screed of corrugated paint while the palette turns into a face that gawps to see such fun. This is probably as close as Braque ever came to painting a Surrealist work of art, the end result looking more like a Max Ernst than a Picasso. It is not an unqualified success.

Braque himself explained the volatility of the forms in these pictures as the result of a recent revelation. "You see," he told John Richardson in 1955, "I have made a great discovery. I no longer believe in anything. Objects don't exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them or between them and myself." It should be borne in mind that Braque made this remark about the mutability of all things, in Paris, when that city was very much under the sway of Existentialism. Is it possible that the painter was helping his young interlocutor towards a fashionably of- the-moment interpretation of his work?

The overriding impression given by the work in "Late Braque" is not of an artist, even in old age, forging ahead into new territory - but rather of a man looking back to another time, and perhaps regretting its passing. Occasionally, Braque hams the feeling up, perhaps to make a joke of it, painting lurid skulls on tables as if he were Hamlet lamenting Yorick. But in L'Homme a la Guitare, painted around 1942, the sense of a life lived around some mysterious absence coalesces into an entirely serious and deeply melancholy image. Into one of the most enigmatic of all Braque's later interiors falls the shadow of a man, seen from behind, playing the guitar. Light haloes the spirit's head.

Braque lived out his career in special, strange and difficult circumstances, because he - unlike any other modern painter of comparable stature - first truly came into himself as an artist in collaboration with another. During the Cubist years he and Picasso had been "roped together like mountaineers", in Picasso's memorable phrase. Inspired by this mutual spirit of competition and rivalry, Braque found his direction and he and Picasso together brought about an immeasurable change in modern painting. Before Cubism, Picasso had been a very different artist; after Cubism, he would become a very different artist again. But Braque clearly never got over (or never allowed himself to forget, depending on how you look at it) the significance of the Cubist years; and there is no doubt that his energy was diminished by the loss of his partner. Perhaps this partly explains the odd sense of introversion that pervades Braque's later work. His identity as an artist had been forged in the course of a dialogue, but he had to live that identity out on his own. No longer spurred on to change, by Picasso's inherently restless nature, Braque's art became more austere but also, often, more tired-looking. He missed the cut and thrust of pictorial debate far more than Picasso, who had more than enough selves inside himself to talk to.

Sometimes in his later works, especially those in which he seems to take up specifically Picasso-like devices and play around with them, you have the odd and poignant sense that Braque is still carrying on the Cubist debate on his own - like a man replying to something someone has said long after they left the room. Being a painter, in the 20th century, is an inherently lonely activity, but Braque seems to have felt its loneliness with particular sharpness. Perhaps that is really what he was painting in all those lame pictures of his empty studio, the Ateliers - the fact that there was no one else, no one at all, there with him, at the deathn

`Braque: The Late Works' is at the Royal Academy, London W1 (0171-439 7438) to 6 April