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An aversion to the past

Georges Braque’s “Violin and Candlestick”  1910
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

There are those who fear the unknown – all things new. More unusual is one who fears all things already known - all things old. Meet Georges Braque, famed early 20th-century avant-garde painter and Picasso collaborator on the development of Cubism.

You can readily see Braque’s fear in a short anecdote noted by painter Francois Gilot in her memoir “Life with Picasso.” When Braque drove through Italy to visit museums with his wife, he’d say to his wife at each stop, “Marcelle, you go in and look around and then tell me what’s good in there.” As Gilot explained it, “He wouldn’t go in himself for fear of spoiling his eye with ’old’ painting.’”

Now a giant retrospective of Braque’s work has opened at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his death, and Gilot’s words compete with the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. In far fewer than a thousand words and without pictures, Gilot’s anecdote clues you into what Braque was about.

And if that doesn’t do it, his famous words - "One must not imitate what one seeks to create" - should. When Braque made his clean break with all things classical, including traditional perspective, Cubism became a kind of historical inevitability for him.

If you think of Cubism as a way of decomposing the visible world and reassembling it to show simultaneous views of the front, back, and side, then you have the idea. The style slows down the eye, compelling the viewer to look carefully in search of the image. Despite the fragmentation, the overall effect is one of greater order and harmony than the actual subject produces.

You can see Braque’s zeal to find his own way of seeing things when he wrote that birds inspire him (their freedom in flight, perhaps), but added, “I must make myself forget their natural function as birds. The very concept underlying the stroke of inspiration that made them take wing in my mind, I must erase that concept—or, better said, abolish it—in order to arrive at my foremost concern: the construction of a pictorial reality.”

His idea of reality, that is.