At the end of his life, Georges Braque, creator of cubism, noticed that he had made very few works in three-dimensional form. He chose a hundred of his works from amongst his major themes, sketched them in gouache, and then had them transformed into sculptures.
He asked a famous lapidary and sculptor, Heger de Loewenfeld, to aid him in the execution of this project. Together, they created several different objects: jewelry, sculptures, ceramics, tapestry, etc. Sensing his own frailty, Georges Braque signed and dated each of these sketches, putting into writing his authorization for reproduction. With this project, Braque, the metaphysician, would become a craftsman. It was Heger de Loewenfeld, the craftsman, who would become the metaphysician.
A large number of these works were presented at the Palais du Louvre in 1963, at the express commission of André Malraux who was then the Minister for Culture Affairs under General Charles de Gaulle. Georges Braque had already exhibited twice at the Louvre, with his work on the ceiling of the Salle Henri II, and later by the exhibition l’atelier de Braque in 1961, and was notably the first living artist to show his work at the Louvre.
The works in the Metamorphoses series would be further exhibited at other great museums, notably in 2012 at Tiananmen Square in the Forbidden City in Beijing.
In 1960, Christian Zervos, the great Picasso expert, was preparing a book on Braque’s New Sculptures and Engraved Plates. Braque’s sculptures totaled thirty-three while Picasso had made over eight hundred sculptures. This almost certainly had an important influence on Georges Braque’s ambition to create three-dimensional art. At that moment, Braque realized he had many very few sculpted works. He had made several paper sculptures during his cubist period, mainly as a prelude to his collage work, but they had been destroyed. He, the inventor of cubism, had few sculptures to his credit. He was at the end of his life and he needed to create works in three-dimensional form. Georges Braque asked the famous sculptor and lapidary Heger de Loewenfeld to help with this work. Together they would take up the great adventure that is Metamorphoses.
the meeting between Georges Braque and Heger de Loewenfeld
Georges Braque and Heger de Loewenfeld met at the painter’s house on rue de Douanier (renamed rue Georges Braque) in September 1961. “In the course of four hours of that memorable meeting, he did not talk about painting but about stones, precious stones, and not about their market value but of their essence, of their consubstantial relation between Earth and Sky as encoded by Hermes Trismegistus in the Emerald Tablet.” Braque explained to the stoneworker that he only had interest, in his wanderings in the Louvre, for the Greco-Egyptian antiquities. He revered these objects because they were to “space as music is to silence.” He showed him his rendition of the “Greek Head,” saying that he had tried twenty times, including in tapestry form, to complete the idea but it was all in vain and that “the painting would only be finished when he had erased the idea.” He could not finish the piece in two dimensions and so he requested that it be completed in three dimensions; the visual ecstasy would be complemented by tactile bliss. It would not be enough, he added, “to see what one has painted, one also has to touch it.”
Hoping to meet Braque’s great expectations, de Loewenfeld compelled himself to create a great work that would meet the master’s approval. He created the ring of Circe. It took Heger de Loewenfeld nine months to transform the “Greek Head” into a bicolor sardonyx jewel, giving birth to Circe. He offered this to Braque for his eightieth birthday. Braque was so touched and moved by this metamorphosis that he offered this ring to his wife on May 13, 1962. Braque was so pleased with the project that he demanded de Loewenfeld to complete other projects from themes that had haunted him. In particular, he wanted de Loewenfeld to work on the symbol of the Bird, cipher for Space and Time, and to free it from the cage and the frame.
Baron de Loewenfeld wrote, in Metamorphoses’ catalogue raisonné, “the master abandoned his brushes and his canvas as I abandoned my work and my pleasures and we devoted ourselves entirely to the Great work. He worked on his watercolor sketches (1580 hours) while I sublimated stone and metal in the service of his genius, inventing new techniques to better celebrate it.” In September 1962, André Malraux would step in. The Minister of Cultural Affairs, who was greatly esteemed by General de Gaulle, wanted the work to be immortalized.
Alerted to the new partnership, the Minister of Cultural Affairs, who was also an admirer and collector of Braque, summoned Heger de Loewenfeld to his department to inquire about this “new adventure.”
The minister was literally mesmerized by the seven jewels presented by Heger de Loewenfeld and exclaimed, “This is extraordinary. This is Braque’s apotheosis. I want a hundred of them. These jewels shall be exhibited at the gallery of Apollo.” The master lapidary tried to convince Malraux that they were precious sculptures, rather than jewels, not wanting to be confused with the prestigious jewelers at the Place Vendôme, but the Minister had the last word, adding “one says that the Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau is a jewel!”
De Loewenfeld hastened back to Braque to report on Malraux’s striking reaction and it was quickly decided to double their efforts and create another hundred or so works (there are close to one hundred and fifty pieces in Metamorphoses). They met up on a daily basis, which was a considerable effort for the eighty year-old Braque. He kept up his efforts in the following year, producing gouache sketches and working on their execution (jewelry, sculptures). The work brought him more than satisfaction; it brought him “metaphysical liberation.”
A true guardian of the avant-garde, André Malraux paved the way for the exhibition Braque’s Jewels at the Palais du Louvre, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, where a dozen of them are still exhibited today.
The exhibition at the palais du Louvre
On March 21st, 1963, the exhibition opened at the Palais du Louvre, Marsan pavilion, to unanimous acclaim. Such was the impact of the exhibition that it was extended to May 13, Braque’s birthday. The exhibition created such a stir around the world that dozens of prestigious cities and museums applied to have them exhibited there. The State considered it its duty to acquire part of this treasure. In total, eleven works were purchased, including the cameo ring of the Master and that of his wife, as well as jewelry created for Jackie Kennedy that he unfortunately never presented to her.
On September 3rd, 1963, before the covered casket draped in the French flag placed in front of the colonnades of the Louvre, accompanied to the music of Beethoven’s Heroic March, André Malraux gave this funeral oration for Georges Braque: “Since every Frenchman knows that there is a share of the honor of France which is called Victor Hugo, it is right to tell them that there is a share of the honor of France which is called Braque – for a nation’s honor consists of what it gives to the world.”
On the same day, the United States of America, under the initiative of his Excellency the French Ambassador Hervé Alphand, assisted the funerary ceremony on board the SS France, which had made its journey with the exhibition Braque’s Jewels aboard. The tugboats paid homage to this last work with jets of water.
Braque was buried the next day at the small seaside cemetery of Varengeville, next to the church that features his stained glass windows.
Heger de Loewenfeld continued unabated, until 1995, in his work to promote Georges Braque’s great last wok Metamorphoses in both exhibitions and conferences. In 1996, Armand Israël took over this work. Braque’s Metamorphoses continue to be exhibited and draw crowds worldwide. In 2012, they were exhibited for the first time in China at the Forbidden City of the Imperial Palace of Beijing.