Mr Cubism in the round

The Guardian-15 years before

Cubism broke up faces into facets, multiple angles that no longer cohered into the unitary beings represented by pictorial realists. Alex Danchev, aptly enough, has written a Cubistic book about the co-founder of Cubism. Picasso, his partner in inventing the ism, supposedly made a portrait of Braque which, as Danchev wittily puts it, fractures the man into a random assemblage of 'bric-a-Braque': a hat and a pipe, with an ethnic mask between them. The image, Danchev says, represents 'a thereness rather than a likeness'.

Picasso boasted that he had painted it in the model's absence....Photographers, who couldn't do without Braque's presence, also registered aspects of him, as if they were baffled by the whole. Brassai made close-ups of his eyes, burning like coals, while Robert Doisneau emphasised his hands.

Braque mystified those who wished to define him by flourishing accessories and playing roles. In a sitting for a photographic portrait, Karsh of Ottawa was distracted by a white cap Braque had designed for himself and aimed the spotlight at his headgear rather than his inscrutable face.

Such amateur theatricals were the basis of his alliance with Picasso. Art historians fancy that Cubism was a series of conceptual experiments such as those that allowed Einstein to open up the fourth dimension; in fact, Danchev insists: 'Cubism was fun or it was nothing.' The orderly chaos of the canvases on which Braque and Picasso worked during those early years was a product of their pranks. They used the implements of art to play 'learning games and language games', mangling the words they included in their paintings or twisting them into puns, just as they took apart the single, frontal identities of their human subjects. Danchev likens the jarring, fractious surface of these works to a scrum. The image is exactly right, because sport, especially if it called for matey teamwork, was an analogy the painters favoured.

Picasso said that he and Braque were roped together like mountaineers. Braque, the bruiser, had a reputation as a pugilist and he and Picasso liked to impersonate professional boxers: it was a way of securing free rides in taxis. On other occasions, they pretended to be 'Buffalo Bill and his buckskin-clad sidekick, affectionately known as "pard" [partner]', or else they adopted nicknames that invoked the Wright brothers. They hung out at the aerodrome in suburban Paris, where they watched the offspring of Icarus challenge the sky inside contraptions of sticks held together by string and glue.

Their own collages were equally shaky, like scaffoldings of paper. This play-acting enabled them to redefine the painter as an artisan, not a dilettante. Braque worked in mechanics' dungarees, topped by a bowler hat and bottomed by clodhoppers. Together, he and Picasso visited their dealer once a month to demand their wages.

The games were entirely serious, and not unlike the mental tour of time and space that Einstein undertook before formulating the theory of relativity. Picasso called Braque 'the verifier', and said that he grounded 'all the novelties of modern art' in the laws of optics and physics. Braque agreed that his work deftly demolished the 'eye-fooling illusionism' of Renaissance perspective. He realised there was no such thing as a vanishing point; the result, as Danchev says in one of many brilliant verbal whimsies, was that 'landscapes became landslips'.

Braque painted, he declared, so that he could hang his ideas on a nail. But the nail hardly fixed them to the wall and often made the whole house teeter. Gertrude Stein, who had many unruly ideas nailed to her walls, noticed the disruption: 'A picture remaining in its frame was a thing that had always existed and now pictures commenced to want to leave their frames and this created the necessity for Cubism.'

Danchev's book does not attempt to frame Braque or nail him down. It is hardly a conventional biography, despite its safe subtitle; it relies less on narrative than on guesses, glimpses and poetically suggestive puns (remarkable from a writer who, until now, has been quietly occupied as a military historian at Nottingham University).

Braque's odd, dissonant Norman name encapsulates his oddity. As poet Francis Ponge pointed out, it lies 'more or less equidistant from Bach, as pronounced in French, and baroque', though it also seems to allude to 'the common adjective braque', which means madcap or hare-brained. Gertrude Stein lumpenly misspelled it Brack. Her error prompts Danchev to suggest that she meant Braque was 'brackish, rather salt, and not entirely healthy'.

His illustrations include a cartoon in which a cubistic car, an incoherent stockpile of metal plates, the result of innumerable collisions, with the driver's head situated far from the hands that grip the wheel, nudges a kerb where two signs are fixed. One says: 'No Picasso 9am to 5pm', the other warns: 'No Braquing any time'.

This frisky method suits Danchev's subject. Braque loved metaphors and metamorphoses, which were graphic puns. In the trenches during the war, he complained of the cold. His batman grabbed a petrol can, punctured it with a bayonet and hung it up to make a stove. 'There's poetry for you!' said Braque, who became an inveterate collector and recycler of rubbish, a scavenger in dustbins.

Danchev does begin to hyperventilate a little towards the end, when attempting to explicate the flights of birds in Braque's late paintings. I'm not sure I know what he means by 'the elemental strangeness, the fathomlessness, the total envelopment achieved by Braque in that dark durance', and his effort to turn Braque into an honorary Taoist also loses me. He is better on Braque as the plodding countryman preoccupied by earth, dust and ash than on the mystical old man who painted birds on the Louvre ceiling.

The book ends, fortunately, closer to the ground, as Danchev lists the pigments on Braque's last palette, which he asked for on his deathbed. They include raw umber, burnt sienna, yellow ochre and bone black. For Braque, mixing paint was like 'taking soil samples' and here, in the rudiments of a picture he never painted, he reduced man to his elements - the ultimate Cubist decomposition.

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