Your high school art teacher (mine was Mrs. Bonnucci) told you that Cubism was the modern art style pioneered in the early-1900s which embraced relativity and multiple perspectives, echoing contemporaneous advances in the fields of architecture, sculpture and physics. She told you that the man most responsible for the whole shebang was Pablo Picasso as she showed the slide of the five nude ladies. Amidst mild snickers from Brian Dorsey in the back row, she went on to show you Guernica, and what with all the severed limbs and screaming of horses in that crazy-ass canvas, there was so much to explain that before you knew it the bell rang and it was time for Calc. Tomorrow was the Surrealists (and what high schooler doesn’t like a melting clock?) so you never did get back to that Cubist stuff, which was actually pretty cool.
Poor Georges Braque. (Not literally. He grew up middle class, son of a house painter.) He was not only there at the conception, his contributions to the Cubist style are inarguably as critical and revolutionary as were Picasso’s. Among the smart art set, Braque’s early absorption and adaptation of Cezanne’s post-impressionism and the colors of fauvism are clear signs of his independent evolution toward the radical ideas of Cubism. When you read the word Cubism above, my guess is that what sprang to mind was not so much the nude women of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon than the series of fractured guitars, violins, and mandolins in grays and earthtones that appeared a few short years later. Georges produced as many of those as did Pablo.
The term “cubism,” in fact, derived from art critic Louis Vauxcelles’ reaction to Braque’s work. Commenting on the artist’s 1908 painting “Houses at L’Estaque,” he scornfully described Braque’s reduction of his subject to “geometric outlines, or cubes.” Later, he referred to another set of Braque’s work as “bizarries cubiques” or cubic oddities.
Braque and Picasso were close friends, comrades-in-arms embarked on a common mission. They ended up joined at the hip, almost literally in 1911 when they worked side-by-side in the Pyrenees, their paintings virtually indistinguishable. The influence flowed both ways. While there are minor disagreements along the margins, most experts consider Braque and Picasso coequal inventors of the Cubist style.
What Happened Next?
Braque took a bullet to the head during World War I, causing temporary blindness. After the treatment (trepanning, ouch), he went through a long period of convalescence, during which the brushes were rarely busted out. He returned to painting in 1917, by which time Picasso had already moved on to a neoclassical style of painting while hobnobbing with eminences in The Arts and womanizing virtually non-stop.
Picasso’s career as a whole was more significant than Braque’s, so even though they deserve equal billing on Cubism, it’s not terribly surprising that Pablo gets most of the direct glory and Braque’s is mainly reflected. Georges would probably be fine with all this. He was no attention hog. He died in 1963.
Any college art instructor worth the wages of their untenured adjunct professorship already knows to give Braque a big shout-out on Cubism day even if Mrs. Bonnucci and her ilk will likely continue to move from the nudes to the screaming horses with little to no attention paid to the co-star’s name on the marquee. Brian Dorsey, of course, will never cease to snicker.