Surviving Picasso, and beating him too

EXHIBITIONS: He was the co-founder of modernist painting, the man Picasso famously called `ma femme'. But, as the Royal Academy's retrospecti ve proves, Georges Braque did his greatest work alone
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The Royal Academy's grave exhibition " Braque: the Late Years" presents a selection of the artist's paintings from the years of the Second World War to his death in 1963. There are around 50 works on display - and there scarcely need to be more, so concentrated and slow-paced are these canvases. I think the show might have been lightened by the addition of his graphic work: the prints have an especial lyricism and are part of the artist's character. None the less, here is a moving retrospective.

It makes one think how firm was Braque's aesthetic resolve; and one is also prompted to make comparisons with other masters of mid-20th- century French painting. How does Braque compare with his old comrade Picasso, and then with Matisse and Leger? Hard to say, though critics have a duty to answer such questions.

The show has been selected by John Golding, who devised the overlooked "Braque: Still Lives and Interiors" at the Walker in Liverpool in 1990. It does seem that the public is coming to terms with Braque, but only in a halting way. We must hope to see a full retrospective one day.

A key picture from the Liverpool show reappears here as the Royal Academy's first exhibit. The Sausage (1943-48) is notable for its restraint and unhappy Frenchness. Like many paintings made during the war, its theme is of simple, scarce food. In some ways the picture recalls Manet. But the application is dryer, as though through forced economy, and Manet's sensuality is in general depleted. One can imagine Braque looking at this contained little work and wishing that the world around him had not affected its tone. So also with the larger canvases of the war years, such as The Salon of 1944. It could have been sumptuous, but Braque would not allow his pigment to go in that direction. The painting is not exactly melancholy: it simply says that worse things might happen. Golding has a nice phrase for this: "He was one of nature's Jansenists."

More than content to be known as the guardian of Frenchness and national, classical traditions, Braque scarcely changed the course of his art after the liberation. I suspect he thought Picasso's skipping fauns ridiculous, and Leger's building-blocks of a new society merely thoughtless. World events in 1945 did not impinge on Braque's imagination so much as they concentrated his mind on his own private concerns. A celebrity, a bit of a dandy, a lover of music and poetry, financially shrewd, he was still not quite a man of the world. Instead, the RA show demonstrates that he was concerned with the universe as he found it in his own studio.

Naturally enough in a man who was instinctively a still-life painter, Braque expanded his vision by painting interiors rather than landscapes. The landscapes in the last room of the show are so peculiar in feeling because they seem to be by a man who was nearing death but had scarcely ever considered nature. He wasn't even a flower painter, though flowers came under his hand often enough and he owned and revered a Cezanne flower picture. It occurs to me that few modern French painters have wielded so anti-floral a palette as Braque's. In the Sunflowers of 1946 he has dislodged yellow from its native place within the flowers' petals, then darkened the colour and made it the principle of the whole painting. The yellow describes the tablecloth, a pipe and a shape in the background that might be a mirror.

Therefore the picture is more than a trifle forced, and that's part of its wonder. Here is an artist of muscular and self-willed equanimity. Easefulness was left to his graphics. Braque liked to make his paintings more concentrated, denser in their outlines, heavier in their concentration. He was also inclined to paint on their frames. Working over long periods on several pictures at once, Braque added bits here and there, probably did a lot of scraping off, and quite often added sand to his oil paint. On many occasions we are also reminded of the artist who had stuck bits of paper onto canvas in the revolutionary days of Cubism. Seen from a little distance (or in reproduction), Sunflowers looks like a painting that was made by collage.

Visitors to this show will learn to respond to Braque's use of thick, dry, and at first uningratiating surfaces. If you like unctuous or evenly applied pigment you'd better forget your preference for a while. Braque's dryness was an important part of his method in the studio and his painterly character. It doesn't stop him from being a graceful painter, as all the smaller still-lifes show. Bigger paintings can also have a song in them. Particularly admirable is the Double Bouquet (1948-52), another canvas with sand added to its surfaces. It's bifurcated: flowers (or more likely fronds) to the left, a jug and table to the right. To the left, a display of sombre and searching tough. To the right, a virtuoso account of Braque's delight in silhouettes.

Of all the paintings in the exhibition, Double Bouquet comes nearest to Matisse. But only in format. Temperamentally, the two artists could hardly be more dissimilar. As we know, Braque and Picasso had found each other to be complementary: Picasso hot and intuitive, Braque cool and logical; the Spaniard restless, the Frenchman cautious; and so on. It's more difficult to describe the differences between Braque and Matisse. Obviously Matisse made colour the principle of his paintings in a way that didn't interest Braque. And he was overtly a hedonist, unlike the Jansenist from Normandy. In their later years Matisse was a more radical painter than Braque and incomparably a better draughtsman. We have to say that he was the greater artist. And yet there is something in Braque's painting that touches us in a unique and also troubling way.

That way is his manner of showing us that his thoughts are completely his own and that his paintings are therefore impenetrable. Braque's conversation was famously opaque because he always described things in abstract terms. These terms meant more to him than to other people. Similarly with his art. Few French paintings are quite so eccentric as Braque's series of Billiard Tables. By "eccentric", I mean unconcerned with norms set by other people. Braque makes familiar cafe furniture the starting point for a totally personal exercise. In these paintings you can see what the subject is, understand that the pictures have been done a veteran Cubist, work out the planes, appreciate why some passages are where they are and not elsewhere. But still the real rules by which the paintings were made remain incomprehensible.

It's important to remember that this exhibition is devoted to an old man. Braque was born in 1882. The billiard-table pictures are mostly of the late Forties, and some even more puzzling pictures came about as death approached. The best of them must be Composition with Stars (1954-58). I do not agree with the interpretation that this is a visionary work. French visionary art is usually more open and candid. Nor should we think that the late Birds are symbolic. They are excellent because Braque had found a shape that he could hammer and plaster without making the picture over-complicated.

The final pictures of ploughed fields remind me not so much of Van Gogh as of late-19th-century academic paintings about soil and Catholicism in the northern French provinces. This interpretation would fit Braque's political views, which were of the extreme right.

Not that his social opinions should worry us too much. The point is that Braque forged his own aestheticism, seemingly without reference to anyone else; and spectators look at his peculiar work as though from far away. The late Braque was unusual to a high degree, however classical his ambitions; his resolution makes late Picasso seem frivolous, even slippery. Picasso was always more interested in Braque's new works than Braque was in the current production of his old friend. Combative Picasso felt some jealousy. Braque didn't care, hardly noticed. A man who has painted the pictures in this exhibition needed neither rivalry nor comradeship.

`Georges Braque: Late Works': Royal Academy. W1 (0171 439 7438), to 6 April.

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