George Braque as a Cubist Essay

            From the positions of art critiques and historians, in the second half of the twentieth century, Cubism emerges clearly as one of the major transformations in Western art. As revolutionary as the discoveries of Einstein or Freud, the discoveries of Cubism controverted principles that had prevailed in art for centuries. For the traditional distinction between solid form and the space around it, Cubism substituted a radically new fusion of mass and void. In place of earlier perspective systems that determined the precise location of discrete objects in illusory depth, Cubism offered an unstable structure of dismembered planes in indeterminate spatial positions. Instead of assuming that the work of art was an illusion of a reality that lay beyond it, Cubism proposed that the work of art was itself a reality that represented the very process by which nature is transformed into art. Primarily, Cubism in its pure formed emerged from the activity of two artists, Picasso and Braque, and by 1920, with the strange destiny of history, viewpoints of these painters had converged so closely that their respective works of this time can be distinguished by connoisseurs alone.

            From the time of their first meeting in 1907 until about 1914, the art of the two men followed a closely interrelated course that for several years attained a disciplined vocabulary that subordinated individual eccentricities to a comparatively objective standard. From the very beginning of artistic career, George Braque became fascinated with the problems raised by the coloristic outburst of Matisse, Derain, and Vlaminck at the Salon d’Automne (Schmeller, 39). As a Frenchman who had come to Paris from Le Havre in 1900, Braque could hardly have been less like Picasso in back-ground. While Picasso was painting scenes of allegory and human despair, Braque worked within the confines of the Impressionist viewpoint, painting candidly observed landscapes and still lifes. By 1906, he had given his temporary allegiance to the coloristic exuberance of the Fauves, producing such works as the landscape at L’Estaque. Yet here, in historical retrospect, one can already perceive a certain insistence on the analysis of solids that distinguishes Braque from his fellow Fauves and allies him more closely to the structural bent of Cézanne, who had earlier scrutinized this same Provencal landscape in terms of its volumetric fundamentals (Raynal et al, 60). And in the following year, 1907, Braque painted another of Cézanne sites, “the Viaduct at L’Estaque,” in which the angular definition of planes in “the central vista of earth, bridge, and houses grows even more emphatic” (Raynal et al, 61), especially by contrast with the looser definition of the trees that frame the view.

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            Perhaps the first explicit statement of the mutual influence of Braque and Picasso may be seen in Braque “Large Nude” of 1907-8, which clearly pays homage to Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Such a painting, however, was exceptional in Braque’s oeuvre. Wisely, he concentrated on those subjects which corresponded to his French heritage; and, in 1908, he continued to explore landscape and still life as a means to pictorial rather than emotive ends. “The Houses at L’Estaque” of that year is perhaps even more advanced than any of Picasso’s contemporary work. Again, a comparison with Cézanne is inevitable and demonstrates once more that Braque, like Picasso in 1908, had resolved the precarious tension of Cézanne’s dual homage to optically perceived nature and intellectually conceived art in favor of art. Next to a Cézanne landscape like “the Turning Road at Montgeroult” of 1899, Braque’s canvas consciously disregards the data of vision (Raynal et al, 63). His Provencal houses, boldly defined by the most rudimentary planes, have so thoroughly lost contact with the realities of surface texture or even fenestration that at places – as in the background and the lower right foreground – they are subtly confounded with the green areas of vegetation. And, just as the description of surfaces becomes remote from reality, so, too, do the colors take leave of perceived nature and tend toward an ever more severe monochrome that permits the study of a new spatial structure without the interference of a complex chromatic organization. In the same way, the light follows the dictates of “pictorial rather than natural laws” (Richardson, 18). Although multiple sources of light are often implied in Cézanne’s work, his painting never violates so completely the physical laws of nature. In Braque’s painting, however, the houses are illuminated from contrary sources – from above, from the front, from both sides – in order to define most distinctly the planar constituents of architecture and landscape. And spatially, too, no painting of Cézanne’s is so congestedly two-dimensional; “for Braque’s houses, despite their ostensible bulk and suggestions of perspective diminution” (Richardson, 73) are so tightly compressed in a shallow space that they appear to ascend the picture plane rather than to recede into depth. Yet, within this apparently rudimentary vocabulary there are the most sophisticated and disconcerting complexities. It may be noticed, for example, that “whereas the planar simplifications suggest the most primary of solid geometries, the contrary light sources that strongly shadow and illumine these planes permit, at the same time, unexpected variations in the spatial organization” (Richardson, 73). Both Matisse and Louis Vauxcelles, the art critic, referred to Braque’s work of the time and to this painting in particular as being composed of cubes – remarks that were destined to name the Cubist movement for history (Schmeller, 41). Yet their observation was only partially right. For all the seeming solidity of this new world of building blocks, there is something strangely unstable and shifting in its appearance. The ostensible cubes of Houses at L’Estaque were to evolve into a pictorial language that rapidly discarded this preliminary reference to solid geometry and turned rather to a further exploration of an ever more ambiguous and fluctuating world.

            Braque’s exploration of the ever more complex language of Cubism closely paralleled Picasso’s, although portraiture, which attracted Picasso throughout his career, was foreign to Braque, who generally preferred landscapes, still lifes, and anonymous figures. In one of the epoch-making canvases of Cubism, “the Still Life with Violin and Pitcher” of 1909-10, Braque’s decomposition of solids into air-borne, twinkling facets is as fully advanced as in any of Picasso’s work of the time and creates perhaps even richer visual and intellectual paradoxes. Transparent and opaque forms are confounded wittily: the pitcher, which might well be made of glass, appears more opaque than the violin, “whose fragile transparencies belie its wooden substance” (Gray, 47). Space, too, is fascinatingly ambiguous: the illusion of depth inferred from the sharp cut of the wall and triple molding at the right is contradicted by the continuous oscillation of planes that seem to cling to the picture surface as if magnetized. But most brilliant is the “trompe-l’oeil nail that projects obliquely from the very top center of the canvas” (Richardson, 86), a device that Braque uses in a comparable work of this time, “the Violin and Palette,” in which the nail projects through the hole of the artist’s palette. According to Richardson, the audience has “an essential key to the complex interchanges of art and reality that were later to be explored in collage, for the illusionistic nail helps to establish one of the basic meanings of Cubism” (Richardson, 81) – that a work of art depends upon both the external reality of nature and the internal reality of art.

            It is therefore essential to realize that, no matter how remote from literal appearances Cubist art may at times become, it always has an ultimate reference to external reality, without which it could not express the fundamental tension between the demands of nature and the demands of art. Even the color, texture, and light of Braque’s “Still Life with Violin and Pitcher” testify to this dual responsibility. Although it has often been pointed out that “the ascetic ochers, silvers, and grays of 1910 and 1911 move far from the variegated colors of reality into a more abstract realm” (Goldwater, 62), the artificial colors of this painting are nevertheless partially relevant to the world of appearances. The browns of the violin and the table top at its right are directly appropriate to the colors of wood, just as the milky white planes of the tablecloth and the pitcher can allude, not implausibly, to the folds of a fabric and to the crystalline facets of what is perhaps a transparent pitcher. In the same way, the light in Braque’s painting, for all the arbitrariness of the contradictory patterns of highlight and shadow, conveys a luminosity that refers to the laws of physics and visual perception as well as to the laws of art.

Bibliography

John Richardson, Georges Braque, Penguin Modem Painters,1983

Robert Goldwater, Primitivism in Modem Painting, New York, 1958

Christopher Gray, Cubist Aesthetic Theories, Boston, 1976

Alfred Schmeller, Cubism, London, 1971.

Maurice Raynal et al., From Picasso to Surrealism, The History of Modern Painting, Vol. III      Geneva, 1950

List of Paintings

G. Braque “Viaduct at L’Estaque” (1908) Available at

< http://www.artchive.com/artchive/B/braque/viaduct.jpg.html> Accessed Dec 2, 2005

G. Braque “Still Life with Violin and Pitcher” (1909-1910) Available at

<http://www.usc.edu/schools/annenberg/asc/projects/comm544/library/images/268.jpg> Accessed Dec 2, 2005

G. Braque “Large Nude” (1908) Available at

<http://www.artchive.com/artchive/B/braque/lg_nude.jpg.html> Accessed Dec 2, 2005

P. Picasso “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” Available at

;http://www.moma.org/collection/conservation/demoiselles; Accessed Dec 2, 2005

P. Cézanne “The Turning Road at Montgeroult” (1899) Available at

; http://www.artchive.com/artchive/C/cezanne/montgrlt.jpg.html; Accessed Dec 2, 2005

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