Georges Braque: A life, by Alex Danchev

The still centre of modern art
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The Independent Culture

"Few people can say: I am here," Georges Braque once remarked. "They look for themselves in the past and see themselves in the future." The artist also advised: "Keep a clear head. Be Present."

One source of Braque's famed integrity was the quality of his attention. "All of Braque was always there," recollected Picasso's mistress, Françoise Gilot. His concentration impressed the young Roland Penrose, later a close friend of Picasso and advocate for Surrealism in Britain. In 1922, on his first visit to Paris, he encountered Braque in the house of a printer. The artist, quietly poring over illustrations, captivated the young man with his imposing presence. After seeing Braque spend half an hour on a photograph of a Goya, Penrose began to exchange superficial taste and academic standards for a more passionate dedication to the arts.

This pioneer of heroic modernism deserves to be a celebrity but remains, as a person, little known. The gossip that Gertrude Stein poured into her memoirs touches Braque (1882-1963) only in passing. He claimed that work was the only thing that counted. And, as his paintings became ever more sought after, the facts surrounding his life disappeared.

If he had youthful romances, they have been forgotten. In Argenteuil, where he is born, there is an obligatory Place Georges Braque but it lacks appeal. The family burial plot is now registered under another name. He died in Paris but is buried at Varengeville, which has yet to become a site of pilgrimage.

"There are no anecdotes," claimed the curator Jean Leymarie. But this, it turns out, is far from true. Alex Danchev, in this first biography of Braque, has produced an extraordinary book which, though very different in style from John Richardson's Picasso or Hilary Spurling's Matisse, matches theirs in interest. Its brisk account is written with a compelling urgency. Danchev's repeated use of short, declarative sentences may at first irritate, and his pithy asides can be dismayingly blunt. But as the narrative unfolds, admiration grows, especially in relation to Braque's use of compression.

"The rope frayed but never broke," he remarks of the long-standing adversarial friendship between Braque and Picasso. Their creative partnership, between 1908 and 1914, has become the stuff of legend. These two men, whom taxi-drivers mistook for prize-fighters, were quietly dismantling methods of representation in place since the Italian Renaissance. With the creation of Cubism, they celebrated the artifice of art; acknowledged the arbitrariness of sign systems; and released into picture-making an exhilarating freedom.

They were serious and playful. When Braque began dragging a decorator's comb through brown paint to simulate wood-graining, Picasso immediately saw its usefulness and, with it, drew the moustaches in his portraits.

In later years, Picasso made sallies about Braque having been his wife or the woman who had known him best. The implication was that Braque had been a follower, in a secondary position. But it was Picasso who afterwards followed Braque's every move, while Braque kept his distance. There were evident jealousies and stand-offs. "It's well hung," Picasso said of a Braque exhibition. "It's well cooked," remarked Braque of Picasso's ceramics.

After some kind of truce, Braque visited Picasso every summer in the south of France, but he refused to stay or to make use of the studio.

Danchev is perceptive about personal relationships, including Braque's rock-like marriage to Tabac Blond, the chain-smoking Marcelle. He understands Braque's passion for cars; notes his mistrust of central heating and peasant-like adherence to stoves; and evokes the casual elegance with which he dressed. Wide reading enables him to employ a brilliant selection of quotes that help position Braque within European culture. That he was given a state funeral is in some part due to the regard in which he was held during the Second World War, a national model for everything still, serene and reflective.

Jean Paulhan, editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française, once claimed: "Picasso makes so much noise that one loves Braque for his discretion, then for his silence, and finally because one imagines that he knows so much more than the other." Danchev's book is similarly insightful and persuasive.

Frances Spalding's 'The Bloomsbury Group' is just published by the National Portrait Gallery