Inside the Artist Studio of Georges Braque
John Richardson on getting to know “the antithesis of Picasso—cool, meditative, at peace.”
I had always loved Braque’s work and soon came to love the man, who was the antithesis of Picasso—cool, meditative, at peace. He not only looked like a saint, he behaved like one: a saint of painting. Unlike Picasso, who desperately needed admirers to feed his voracious ego, Braque was self-sufficient, but he enjoyed discussing his work and his vision of art, which he would do with a wonderful metaphysical clarity. Over the next few years I would devote a couple of books and several articles, including a lengthy analysis of his great Atelier series, to his work. There was an advantage to doing this at Castille; my study was lined with some of Braque’s finest paintings and they permeated the room.
At first Braque came across as daunting and withdrawn. However, once he realized that I understood his “difficult” late work, he opened up. So did his wife, Marcelle—small, fat, wise, and funny, not least about Picasso, whom she enjoyed putting down with a mixture of exasperation and affection. I remember her reminiscing about the time (1912–13) she and Braque and Picasso and Eva had settled at Sorgues, near Avignon. The four of them would take long walks together in the garrigue. If the mistral was blowing, they would assume Indian file: first big, brawny Braque, then plump Marcelle, then frail Eva, and finally little Picasso, cowering in their shelter. Picasso was less of a hero outside the studio than inside, she said. I suspect Marcelle never entirely forgave him for referring to her husband as his “ex-wife.” Apropos this famous old slight, I always wanted to, but never dared, tell them a story (circa 1938) told to me by Dora Maar. Hearing that Braque had been hospitalized, Picasso rushed off to see him. He returned home in a rage. The nurse had refused to let him into his room because Madame Braque was in there with him. “Don’t they realize that I am Madame Braque?” Typical of Picasso to stand his original joke on its head. Au fond, his most abiding male friendship had always been with Braque, Dora said. It was Braque who distanced himself, in part for ideological reasons. While he had drifted to the right—he sympathized with the fascistic Croix-de-feu—Picasso had been drawn more and more to the left.
Whenever I saw him, Picasso would ask for news of Braque. Braque never asked for news of Picasso, and on the very few occasions I saw them together, he would sooner or later do or say something to needle his old friend. One day, when we were all together at La Californie, Picasso asked us to come up to the studio and look at his recent work. Only Braque said no: he had arranged to take a ride in the photographer Dave Duncan’s hot new Gullwing Mercedes. Picasso was furious. He told me that when he had offered his old friend a studio at La Californie so that they could work together again, Braque had said he preferred to stay at Saint-Paul-de-Vence with his dealer, Aimé Maeght, a man Picasso loathed. Another slight: Picasso had sent Braque one of his ceramics—a suitably Braque-like dinner plate decorated with fish bones and a slice of lemon—and never received any acknowledgment; would I find out what had happened? Braque had indeed received it, but thought it was une blague—a joke. “Picasso used to be a great painter,” Braque liked to say. “Now he is merely a genius.”
By the mid-1950s, Braque had turned into something of a hermit, much as Picasso would ten years later. His studio had become the center of his universe; it was also the primary subject of his work. If the light was curiously palpable—what Braque called “tactile”—it was because he kept his studio skylight veiled with thinnish, whitish material, which filtered and seemingly liquefied the light. In this penumbra the artist would sit as hieratically as Christ Pantocrator in a Byzantine mosaic, his great big Ancient Mariner’s eyes devouring the paintings set out in front of him. The monastic hush would be broken only when he got up, wheezily, to make a slight adjustment to one of the many canvases arrayed in front of him. On my first visit to the artist’s studio, I felt I had arrived at the very heart of painting. I never quite lost that feeling.
Braque accepted visitors from the outside world as a hermit might, without ceremony or curiosity. Unlike Picasso, he did not mind having people in the studio when he was painting. One afternoon in 1956, he let me stick around for a couple of hours while he worked on A Tir d’Aile (In Full Flight), his eerie painting of a sleek black bird crashing into a cloud as if it were a Stealth B-2 bomber breaking the sound barrier. For weeks, Braque told me, he had been adding layer after layer of paint to the grayish-bluish sky to give it an infinite tactile density. As a result, it was so heavy he could no longer lift the canvas on or off the easel. Compared to the weightiness of the sky, the bird and cloud have as much substance as shadows. Braque had been reading about black holes: hence the concept of the cloud as a black void with a gravitational force that nothing can escape. It has been suggested that this blackness might also signify death. And indeed, by the late 1950s Braque was in very fragile health. Mortality held fewer fears for him that it did for Picasso; if anything, it challenged him, as in this painting, to bring le néant within his grasp, and to that extent within ours.
Apropos another bird painting, Braque talked to me about his visits to the Camargue, where our mutual friend the ornithologist Lukas Hoffmann (heir to the Hoffmann-LaRoche fortune and son of that perceptive modernist collector Maja Sacher) had established a vast bird reserve, La Tour du Valat. Douglas and I used to drive around in a jeep with Hoffmann, who would point out that the distant streak of quivering coral color ringing the vast Vaccarès lagoon was in fact flock after flock of flamingos. I also used to go riding there with our bull-breeder friend Jean Lafont, helping him round up the wild bulls that graze the salt marshes. Like the bulls, the wild but gentle horses we rode were native to the marshes; they are still never shod and their mouths are too soft to pull on, their flanks too soft for spurs—just a flick of a rein against their beautiful white manes, and they respond. Anything stronger and they throw you in the mud. Braque told me how the apparition of a heron flying low above the marshes had inspired his large 1955 Bird Returning to Its Nest, of all the late paintings the one that meant the most to him. Maybe because I shared his feelings for the Camargue, Braque gave me an oil study for this haunting work. I remember him saying how, on still, gray days, the sky seemed to reflect the lagoons rather than the other way round, and the birds seemed to swim through the air. Nor could he forget the swarm of mosquitoes.
I stayed close to Braque because I wanted to keep track of the nine large Ateliers he worked on from 1949 to 1956. Their subject is nothing less than painting itself, as practiced by the artist in the seclusion of his studio. They constitute a microcosm of Braque’s private universe. There is no trace of a human presence, except insofar as Braque’s Zenlike spirituality suffuses them. Until I came along, nobody had studied them in depth. To understand these Ateliers, it is necessary to evoke the carefully contrived clutter of Braque’s studio: a space that was divided in half by a cream-colored curtain, in front of which numerous recent and not so recent works were arrayed on easels, tables, and rickety stands. Some of the paintings were barely started but already signed; some looked finished but lacked a signature; others dated back five, ten, even twenty years—“suspended in time,” the artist said. “I ‘read’ my way into them, like a fortune-teller reading tea leaves.” Sketchbooks (“cookbooks,” Braque called them) lay open on homemade lecterns. Pedestals contrived out of logs and sticks picked up on walks were piled high with materials: palettes galore, massive bowls bristling with brushes, and containers of all kinds of paint, some of it ground by the artist and mixed with sand, cinders, grit, even coffee, to vary the texture. On the floor were pots of philodendrons, which Braque liked because the shape of their leaves “rhymed” with the shape of his palette, as well as simplistic sculptures carved from chalk—fishes, horses, birds—all of which make fragmentary appearances in the Ateliers. Elsewhere a shelf was set with tribal sculpture, musical instruments, and the large white jug that dominates Atelier I.
The presence of an enormous bird in these paintings is less enigmatic than it might seem. It does not represent a real, live bird but a “painted” one, an image that has detached itself from its canvas ground. When Braque embarked on the series, there was a large painting of a bird in flight (later destroyed) in the studio, and it is this image that appears in different guises in all but one or two of these paintings. Braque pooh-poohed suggestions that the bird might have symbolic significance: an ectoplasmic materialization, a sacred Egyptian ibis, a Picasso-esque dove of peace (the journalist who made this suggestion was asked to leave), or, silliest of all, that a real bird might have flown in through the window. These birds materialized on their own, Braque insisted. “I never thought them up; they were born on the canvas.” In a long interview I published in the London Observer, Braque went on to explain: “I have made a great discovery, I no longer believe in anything. Objects don’t exist for me except insofar as a rapport exists between them or between them and myself. When one attains this harmony, one reaches a sort of intellectual nonexistence—what I can only describe as a sense of peace—which makes everything possible and right. Life then becomes a perpetual revelation. Ça, c’est de la vraie poésie!”
Every summer, Braque would dismantle the studio clutter and reassemble it on a more modest scale in the studio of his country house at Varengeville in Normandy, so that he could work away at his paintings in his studio, or simply study them until he was ready to return to Paris in the fall. The artist took pride in the artisanal ingenuity with which he rolled up his canvases and stacked them onto the roof of his car. “No rope,” he said. He also took pride in his skill at driving very fast cars; how he enjoyed the Rolls-Royce that his dealer had provided for him. He wished he had learned to fly a plane.
From The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Copyright © 1999 by John Richardson Fine Arts Ltd. Published by Knopf on November 12th with a new introduction by Jed Perl.