A major exhibition of the Cubist's late works is an eye-opener, says Michael Clarke
A crucial factor in our response to any exhibition subtitled "the late works" is prior knowledge of the artist's ultimate achievement. In the case of the National Gallery's recent show of Degas's post-Impressionist period, ecstatic critical response outweighed any previous unawareness of this highly idiosyncratic Frenchman's continuing probity and powers of synthesis. Given a comparable lack of exposure to Braque's post-Second World War consummation of synthetic Cubism and the likelihood of a similar reaction in the press, the Royal Academy can justifiably expect a huge success.
Braque's decisive role in the creation of Cubism is now ackn-owledged. However great the historical importance of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, it was Braque's innovative work of l908-9 that gave rise to the Cubist label - and both the introduction of stencilled letters and numbers and the more far-reaching use of papier-colle are his contributions.
Equally concerned to maintain a hold on material reality, it was a prevailing sensitivity and explorative response to spaces between objects, them and us, that was to become the distinguishing feature of Braque's entire oeuvre. The human figure played little part.
This, quite rightly, is the leitmotif running through the different elements, whatever the level, of the RA's education prog-ramme. Faced with the multiple viewpoints and spatial ambiguities of The Stove, the Beginners' Braque: A Junior Guide to the Show suggests primary level pupils imagine they are a bird to examine the empty coal bucket from the floor and hovering above it before deciding why Braque painted both views at the same time.
Browsing Through Braque, the gallery guide aimed at secondary level visitors, may occasionally demand much of the average teenager but it is packed full of directly relevant information and encourages students to consider unavoidably difficult matters such as Braque's manipulation of space and forms, how concurrences of form affect our perception of foreground and background space and how colour contributes to the feeling of a picture.
The selection, juxtaposition and sequence of pictures in the exhibition very clearly reveal the transition from Second World War-time still lifes and interiors to their fusion first in a series of compositions involving billiard tables, then the even more complex and all-embracing large studios in which the painter, perhaps uniquely, realised a variable space every bit as tangible as the objects within it and which ultimately became the palpable milky-blue sky with the Birds series.
But the extraordinary ease with which he moves from hard-edged flatness through softened and fragmented form to complete deliquescence conceals rather then discloses his means.
Teachers determined to pursue these matters further will benefit from the free private view and very helpful teachers' pack. Then, well-prepared, they can take their primary school pupils to one of the study sessions during February and March. If schools can arrange sufficiently early transport, they can guarantee better viewing conditions by taking advantage of the pre-opening-time gallery tours rather than those held later in the day.
For further information, telephone the education department 0171 494 57323