Widely considered one of the most important artists of the 20th century, Georges Braque‘s extraordinary contribution to modern art is still felt today.
Published in 1962, just a year before Braque passed away, the timely Si je mourais là-bas (‘If I die over there’) was a suite of eighteen wood-engravings to accompany poems from Guillaume Apollinaire’s Poèmes à Lou, which Braque himself selected and edited accordingly, originally bound in a large volume or livre d’artiste.
Braque had been a close companion of Apollinaire, who died forty years prior to the series. Once described in the artist’s personal writings as a great poet and a man to whom I was deeply attached, Braque’s relationship with Apollinaire was one of great admiration for the publicity he and other poets had given him and his fellow Cubists, and for their defence of the movement in the face of great critical backlash. Braque nonetheless felt that his friend, who was also an art critic, understood nothing about painting, a source of playful tension between the pair which may have contributed to the obscure nature of the suite’s images.
Braque developed a special friendship with many of the major post-war French writers, but had always loved Apollinaire’s work in particular. For Braque, the bond between art and the written word was profound: often referring to the mysterious value or life of all art as poetry, still he would refuse to define the link between the two in more explicit terms, claiming that the artist had to discover it and the harmony it represented through his own efforts. To the artist’s mind, this harmony was ever-present; yet it was also essentially indescribable.
The book was originally inscribed with a small dedication: This book commemorates the eightieth birthday of the artist, the poet’s comrade in the trenches, in reference to the time both men had served, though at different times, in the First World War.
At times figurative, at others abstract, the tone of the images in the suite and the nature of their production is almost one of nostalgia or reminiscence, perhaps even an official commemoration of Braque’s memories with Apollinaire. But the woodcuts themselves, in their clarity and simple composition, are live, immediate and of the present.
Braque wrote in his diaries that the painter must not try to reconstruct anecdotes, but to construct a pictorial fact. For him it was that which cannot be explained which is most important in art. This is perhaps what we have in Si je mourais là-bas: seemingly disparate or unrelated moments and images (a bowl of fruit; flowers in a vase; black, bird-like forms), ‘pictorial facts’ which do not try and explain those pre- and post- war experiences shared between artist and writer, but simply connect us to what must have been an intimate relationship and an intensely personal artistic venture.