Georges Braque - Le compotier

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Lot 12*
Georges Braque
(French, 1882-1963)
Le compotier

£ 350,000 - 550,000
US$ 460,000 - 720,000
Georges Braque (French, 1882-1963)
Le compotier
signed and dated 'G. Braque 42' (lower left)
oil on canvas
35.6 x 46.4cm (14 x 18 1/4in).
Painted in 1942


  • Provenance
    Private collection, Paris.
    Galerie Rosengart, Lucerne.
    Held Collection, Lausanne (acquired from the above).
    Charles Nilsson Collection, Stockholm (acquired from the above).
    Galerie René Drouet, Paris.
    Neison & Bette Harris Collection, Chicago (acquired from the above, 19 June 1972).
    Thence by descent; their sale, Christie's, New York, 1 November 2005, lot 10.
    Private collection, Switzerland.

    Maeght (eds.), Catalogue de l'oeuvre de Geoges Braque, peintures 1942 - 1947, Paris, 1960, pl. 32 (illustrated).

    The genre of the still life was the primary focus of Georges Braque's oeuvre and he returned to the subject throughout his career with an almost obsessional frequency. Occupying roughly two thirds of his entire output - nearly sixty years spanning from the height of his earliest Cubist explorations (1907 – 1914) to his death in 1963, the still life was the abiding theme through which Braque investigated the question that impelled his creativity and which had been fundamental to Western art since the Renaissance. Namely, 'how to depict the relationship between the representation of space and the experience of the lived body in space': the space that separates us from objects. (K. K. Butler, 'Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life 1928-1945: The Known and Unknown Worlds' in K. K. Butler & R. Maurer (eds.) Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life 1928-1945, Washington, 2013, p. 13).

    'In still life space is tactile, even manual' Braque explained, '...the space of a landscape is visual space.' (G. Braque quoted in J. Golding 'Braque and the Space of Still Life' in Braque Still Lifes and Interiors, (exh. cat.), South Bank Centre, London, 1990, p. 9). By focusing on the representation of the spaces between objects, Braque could explore the materiality of things not just in visual but also in tactile terms: 'Compelled by the desire to go further to towards an expression of space. I wanted to avail myself of the faculty of touch.' (G. Braque quoted in E. Mullins Braque, London, 1968, p. 159).

    In Le compotier, Braque represents objects which hold an intrinsic haptic quality – the smooth, rounded skin of a pear, the cool, moulded exterior of a cut-glass goblet and the delicate fleshliness of a cherry. Braque was drawn to 'objects which could be brought to life by the process of touch, whose living function depends on the human hand' (E. Mullins, ibid., p. 163). Yet it is not through the techniques of painterly naturalism that Braque evokes the materiality of his subject. Rather, it is in utilising the Cubist devices established with Picasso during his earlier synthetic phase: flattened picture space, multiple viewpoints and form realised through colour undefined by contour, that Braque foregrounds the concrete spatial relationships between each depicted element. Furthermore, it is in the harmonic structuring and lyrical subtlety of the composition that Braque evokes the artist 'most singly responsible for [his] love of the still life', Cézanne (E. Mullins, ibid., p. 164).

    Painted in 1942, at the height of the Second World War, Le compotier also gestures towards the turbulent times in which it was executed, as John Richardson notes 'in Braque's work of 1942 onwards, hints of unease and references to a wartime way of life become increasingly evident' (J. Richardson, Georges Braque, Middlesex, 1959, p. 24). At the outset of the war his style underwent a tangible change, becoming, as Edwin Mullins describes, 'cryptically personal'. 'Conveying', he explains, 'a freer more subjective, more irrational experience of space than his Cubist and immediately post Cubist years' (E. Mullins, op. cit., pp. 141 - 142).

    By all accounts the Second World War and events leading up to it had a profound effect on Braque, doubtlessly recalling the traumatic experiences of his front-line service in the Great War, where he sustained a serious head injury which left him temporarily blinded. Branded a degenerate artist by the Nazis for his fauve and cubist work, Braque had considered moving to Geneva just prior to France and Britain's declaration of war against Germany in September 1939. In the event however, he found himself at the outbreak of war in Normandy, at his country residence in Varengeville. As the Germans advanced towards Paris he and his wife, Marcelle, thought it prudent to flee to the South where they were taken in by the family of his assistant, Mariette Lachaud. They later sought refuge with André Derain and his wife in the town of Gaujac in the Midi-Pyrenees before Braque's concern for, and separation from, his studio eventually compelled the couple to return to Paris, where they remained throughout the occupation until the end of the war.

    Adding to the disruption of his personal circumstances, Braque was also witness to the tragic events surrounding of those in his immediate circle of friends. His Jewish dealer Paul Rosenberg was forced to leave Paris for New York in the summer of 1940, whereupon his home, gallery and most of his twentieth century paintings (including works by Braque) were confiscated by the Nazis. In July of the same year the suicide of the writer Carl Einstein, a great friend and advocate of Braque, deeply affected the war-weary artist. Recalling Braque's sentiments as war threatened France once again, Mariette Lachaud stated 'He was so shocked by the disaster that was looming...His sensitive soul couldn't bear what he had already lived through during the First World War' (M. Lachaud quoted in K. K. Butler & R. Maurer (eds.) ibid., p. 19).

    These events were initially so unsettling for the artist that he ceased painting all together, but by 1941 he was painting again although with marked changes in style and subject matter. His still lifes from this period are for the most part of modest scale and are characterised by a sparse, simplified arrangement of objects which thus far had never appeared in Braque's pre-war paintings. Food rationing had been introduced in Paris in 1941 and this is evidenced in meagre hunks of cheese, bread and sausage which appear alongside a proliferation of cooking paraphernalia, teapots, chopping knives, coffee grinders and scales: 'The new war pictures tend to be more austere, and at times even somewhat tragic in their implications. Many refer to food and by implication to the scarcity of it. Objects within individual still lifes often seem more separate from each other, taking on an isolated air.' (J. Golding op. cit., p. 19).

    The small grouping of three cherries and half a pear alongside an empty wine glass in Le compotier also appear to speak of this time of privation, yet the brighter, more optimistic palette stands in opposition to the more muted, earthy tones Braque commonly employed during this period. Meanwhile, in contrast to the interpenetrating planes and cluster of centrally placed images present in his interiors of the 1930s, the broad sweeps of unmodulated pigment in Le compotier serve to simplify the composition and heighten the sense of isolation between the objects dispersed across the canvas.

    Le compotier is highly reminiscent of Henri Matisse's earlier painting La table de marbre rose which was also executed at a time of war. Executed in 1916, during the Battle of the Somme when Matisse's friends Derain and Apollinaire were serving at the front, La table de marbre rose acts as a stark counterpoint to Picasso's vibrant, object laden post-war Guéridons of 1919 – 1920. The sparse table, empty fruit bowl and bleak presentation of nature in La table de marbre rose lend the work a sombre tone which is evocative of the downtrodden state of the artist and the nation during this bleak historic moment.

    Braque was always careful to differentiate between the domain of art and that of the outside world. While he acknowledged that an artist operated within socio-political history, he maintained that art could exist beyond it: 'Fulfilment requires physical time, if it takes ten years to conceive and execute a canvas, how is a painter supposed to stay abreast of events? A painting is not a snapshot. Once again this does not mean that the painter is not influenced, concerned, and more by history; he can suffer without being militant. Only let us distinguish, categorically between art and current affairs.' (G. Braque (1939) quoted in K. K. Butler & R. Maurer (eds.) op. cit., p. 13).

    Critics have argued however that Braque's fixation on the still life genre during the war years was, in itself, symptomatic of an inner withdrawal and even a strategy of self-preservation in occupied France. In concentrating on the interior world of objects the artist deliberately refuted an engagement with outside world: 'The object manifests a sort of irreducible hostility. It turns toward us not a face but an unchanging mask' (Jean Babelon quoted in K. K. Butler & R. Maurer (eds.) op. cit., p. 25). At the same time, others have maintained that it offered a source of creative retreat in which the artist could take comfort in returning to a treasured subject, realising a personal sense of artistic freedom in the face of occupation and surveillance under the Nazis: 'The strategy of the still life was a strategy of preservation – self-preservation, to be sure, but in an ideal sense – 'to make the best selves for ourselves that we can.' Freely in solidarity against the grain' (A. Danchev, Georges Braque, A Life, London, 2005, p. 211).

    At the outbreak of war Braque was already internationally established as one of the foremost French painters of his generation, and indeed his reputation and influence only prospered during these troubled years. Describing the reaction to Braque's exhibition of 1943, in which Braque brought together a selection of recent works to fill a room at the Salon d'Automne, Alex Danchev emphasises the significance that Braque's work continued to hold for his fellow artists and compatriots: 'In occupied Paris the contents of the Braque room caused a suppressed sensation. For French citizens, Braque embodied what French painting could be...As for the works themselves, their gravity and humanity were an inspiration...Braque's painting [as described by contemporary critic Jean Paulhan] was at once 'acute and nourishing'' (A. Danchev, ibid., p. 219).

    In Braque's unwavering dedication to still life, and by imbuing his compositions with such intimacy and intensity of human feeling, he paid the ultimate hommage to his beloved predecessor and mentor, Jean-Baptiste Chardin. Like Braque, Chardin was 'a man who imposed limitations on his scope and made a virtue of them... perceiving that inanimate objects could be grouped no less harmoniously than human beings' (E. Mullins, op. cit., p. 165). As seen in Le compotier, this sense of humanity distilled through limited means lent a particular resonance to Braque's work during the war years, allowing the still life genre to speak to compassionate spectators in a deeply personal and affecting way.

    Le compotier formerly belonged to esteemed Modern Art collectors including Charles Nilsson and Mr. and Mrs Neison Harris, noted Chicago based philanthropists who during their lifetime fulfilled their passion for this artistic period in acquiring an extraordinary collection of Impressionist & Modern masterpieces.
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