Friday, July 08, 2005

Braque's Grave

While in Normandy, we went to see the place where Georges Braque is buried, in the graveyard of Varengeville church, overlooking the chalk cliffs near Dieppe. It is a strange grave, very large and designed something like a kingsize bed with a great bird flapping across the headboard.

The fact that Braque lived in Varengeville means that he was probably well off. Today, it is a hideaway for millionaires, and must have been such even fifty years ago. We went to visit a Lutyens house in the village which was owned by a Swiss banker. Trying to find out how much he earned for his paintings at that time, on the Abebooks web site I found an autographed letter signed "G Braque" for sale at £975. It is a letter of receipt written to the Swedish collector Monsieur Olsen, in French, and sent from Varengeville sur Mer, 6 October 1935: "I acknowledge receipt of your cheque for 8000 Fr. Your letter has given pleasure and I am very happy to have another picture in Sweden. I hope with you that the future will be favourable for us. I think that this time the exchange rate has worked out well." With a cheque enclosed for 8000 Francs in 1935 (about 3000 Euros at today's prices, roughly £2000), I bet that letter really did give him pleasure. I wonder what that picture is worth today? Millions probably.

Braque's work is rather austere. I have read that he learnt to paint by helping his father, who was a house decorator. There is a kind of sense in that. Who else but a house decorator would think of making a painting that can be seen from several perspectives at the same time? And I don't mean that in a derogatory sense. When you look at a sculpture, you are supposed to walk around it, realising the way the sculpture changes according to your changing perspective. What else does a house decorator do but wander around a room, checking his work from different angles?

What Braque tried to do was to reproduce this process of looking at a 3D thing (a room or a violin for example) from different angles and then reproduce it in a 2D realisation. What he, and Picasso, discovered was that this gave the simple objects they painted a dynamism and patterned rhythm that was very original. The austere character of these pictures was also very much in keeping with an age of industrialisation, although I don't think that was particularly at the forefront of Braque or Picasso's thoughts. It wasn't long, however, before the futurists took the ideas of the cubists and linked them more forcefully to the developments of the machine age. The first world war, however, soon put an end to that train of thought.

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