Braque's The Viaduct at L'Estaque
Georges Braque, Le Viaduc à L'Estaque, (The Viaduct at L'Estaque), 1908, oil on canvas,
28-5/8 x 23-1/4 inches or 72.5 x 59 cm (Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris)
Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker
During the summer of 1908, Braque returned to Cézanne's old haunt for a sencond summer in a row. Previously he had painted this small port just south of Aix-en-Provence with the brilliant irrevent colors of a Fauve (Braque along with Matisse, Derain, and others defined this style from about 1904 to 1907). But now, after Cézanne's death and after having met Picasso, Braque set out on a very different tack, the invention of Cubism.
Cubism is a terrible name. Except for a very brief moment, the style has
nothing to do with cubes. Instead, it is an extension of the formal ideas
developed by Cézanne and broader perceptual ideas that became increasingly important in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These were the ideas that inspired Matisse as
early as 1904 and Picasso perhaps a year or two later. We certainly sawsuch issues asserted in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. But Picasso’s great
1907 canvas is not yet Cubism. It is more accurate to say that it
is the foundation upon which Cubism is constructed. If we want to
really see the origin of the style, we need to look beyond Picasso to
his new friend Georges Braque.
Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, oil on canvas, 8 x 7 feet and 8 inches (MoMA)
A New Perspective
The young French Fauvist, Georges Braque that had been struck by
both the posthumous Cézanne retrospective exhibition held in Paris in
1907 and his first sight of Picasso’s radical new canvas, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Like so many
people that saw it, Braque is reported to have hated it—Matisse, for example, predicted that Picasso would be found hanged
behind the work, so great was his mistake. Nevertheless, Braque stated
that it haunted him through the winter of 1908.
Like every good Parisian, Braque fled Paris in the summer and decided to return to the part of Provance in which Cézanne had
lived and worked. Braque spent the summer of 1908 shedding the colors of Fauvism
and exploring the structural issues that had consummed Cézanne and now Picasso. He wrote:
“It [Cézanne's impact] was more than an influence, it was an invitation.
Cézanne was the first to have broken away from erudite, mechanized
perspective…” (quoted in William Rubin’s Picasso and Braque: Pioneering
Cubism, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1989, p.353).
Like Cézanne, Braque sought to undermine the illusion of depth by forcing the viewer to
recognize the canvas not as a window but as it truly is, a vertical
curtain that hangs before us.
Georges Braque, Houses at l'Estaque, o/c, 1908 (Bern)
Brothers of Invention
In canvases such as Houses at L’Estaque and The Viaduct at L'Estaque (see video above), Braque simplifies the form of the houses, here
are the so called cubes, but he nullifies the obvious recessionary
overlapping with the trees that force forward even the most distant
When Braque returned to Paris in late August, he found Picasso an eager
audience. Almost immediately, Picasso began to exploit Braque’s
investigations. But far from being the end of their working
relationship, this exchange becomes the first in a series of
collaborations that lasts six years and creates an intimate creative
bound between these two artists that is unique in the history of art.
Between the years 1908 and the beginning of the First World War in 1914,
Braque and Picasso work together so closely that even experts can have
difficulty telling the work of one artist from the other. For months on
end they would visit each others studio on an almost daily basis sharing
ideas and challenging each other as they went. Still, a pattern did
emerge and it tended to be to Picasso’s benefit. When a radical new idea
was introduced, more then likely, it was Braque that recognized its
value. But it was inevitably Picasso who realized its potential and was
able to fully exploit it.
By 1910, Cubism had matured into a complex system that is seemingly so
esoteric that it appears to have rejected all esthetic concerns. The
average museum visitor, when confronted by a 1910 or 1911 canvas by
Braque or Picasso, the period known as Analytic Cubism, often looks somewhat put upon even while they may
acknowledge the importance of such work. I suspect that the difficulty, is, well..., the difficulty of the work. Cubism is an analysis of vision and of its representation and it is challenging. As a society we seem to believe that all art ought to be easily understandable or at least beautiful. That's the part I find confusing.