Issue 81, Fall 1981
This Paris Review feature honors the memory of Eugenio Montale, who died on September 12, 1981. Widely acknowledged as the greatest Italian poet since Leopardi, Montale was also a noted journalist, a gifted critic of music and literature, a writer of short fiction, and a talented amateur painter and etcher. The profile of Braque printed here is typical of the broad-ranging elusiveness and wit of one of the great European men of culture in our century. Montale was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1975.
An “accelerated course” in French taste for tourists who are still in need of it ought to begin, in my opinion, with a visit to the Marche aux Puces and end with a visit to the studio of Georges Braque. On the one hand the odds and ends, coffee pots, cast-off rags, the second hand goods, in short, produced by several centuries of a unified and centralized culture; on the other, the same objects interpenetrated and flattened out in compositions that have little to do with the well-known genre of the nature morte, although they deserve the name much more legitimately than, for example, those by Chardin or Cezanne, which are so much more vives.
Braque’s work presents itself as a conglomeration, a torrone of old and exquisite objects. If the term “crepuscularism” had been invented in France instead of Italy, one could say that crepuscular poetry (the world under glass) had found its classical expression in France, in the work of Georges Braque.
Among the artists over seventy who still maintain the high prestige of French painting, Braque is the one whose reputation is most secure, who has the least to fear from the passing of time. A poll of the man in the street throughout the world would reveal that Picasso is much better known, but if one really examined the opinions expressed one would easily see that Picasso has as many detractors as admirers, while there is almost no one who knows Braque’s work and does not express admiration or deference.
And French criticism lacks the proper terms of comparison in discussing him: as in the case of Corot, the name most frequently invoked is that of Mozart. Braque, it would seem, is not only the painter, the true painter, of the Cubist team, but also the greatest expression of French genius in the last fifty years. It is to his cautious and prudent instinct (as well as to the much less cautious instincts of Picasso, Matisse and Rouault) that we owe—or are supposed to owe—that modern French painting, that new beauty “in the face of which even the painting of Renaissance Italy pales.” (I quote verbatim from Jean Paulhan.)
These are not the views of isolated critics, but common opinions, widely held and widely accepted. Even those who continue to mistrust the spoiler Picasso and the other holy fathers of his generation bend the knee before Braque. And even those who admit that the Maestro’s last works represent a standing-still or an embourgeoisement hasten to concede that for Braque everything is permitted, and that a Braque nodding is worth a whole generation of other painters awake.
But to see Braque, to talk with him or at least listen to him talk? In Paris, everyone was agreed that this was an impossible enterprise. Only old friends and a few important dealers, trailing several millions of dollars behind them, could cross the threshold of his studio. Everyone else was supposedly turned away by the immortal Marietta, a femme de chambre who will live in history like Proust’s Celeste. In the last few weeks, besides, Braque had been especially busy painting certain plafonds, cartoons intended for the ceiling of a room in the Louvre, which because of them will become a place of pilgrimage no less visited than the one in the Orangerie which houses the Nymphéas of Claude Monet
I had already given up the audacious notion of a visit to Braque when one day Stanislas Fumet, a Catholic critic as well as a hagiographer of the Maestro, came to my hotel and said to me in broken tones, “Good news. I have overcome Marietta’s resistance. We can go.” “When?” “Dépêchez-vous. Immediately. A taxi, let’s not waste time. Later could be too late.”