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Karen K. Butler
Independent art historian
Formerly associate curator, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum

If scholarship is any indication, the 1930s are Georges Braque’s lost years. For his Fauve and Analytical Cubist work, Braque’s position as a leader of the avant-garde is unassailable. For the years between World War I and the 1920s, we have the scholarship of Kenneth Silver and Christopher Green, who discuss his place in the retour à l’ordre, a general rejection of the innovation and progress of the prewar years and a return to la grande tradition, an art of neoclassicism and thematic wholeness.[/fn] See Kenneth E. Silver, Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-garde and the First World War, 1914–1925 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), and Christopher Green, Cubism and Its Enemies: Modern Movements and Reaction in French Art, 1916–1928 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987).[/fn] And Braque’s late work, created between 1940 and the artist’s death in 1963, was featured in an international exhibition in 1997 that focused on his grand cycles of paintings—the Billiard Tables, the Studios, and the Birds—in which the artist continued his lifelong investigation of the complexities of spatial representation.1 Only more recently have scholars begun to examine the years between 1928 and 1940—an interim period of experimentation that does not allow for easy categorization.2

Braque’s Nature morte et verre (Still Life with Glass) was made during this period of transition. It marks the work of a mature and relatively reclusive artist who is negotiating his place in the changing field of artistic practice. Still Life with Glass was made in the years immediately preceding Braque’s canonization as one of the great masters of the School of Paris (his first important retrospective was held in Basel in 1933), but it also follows the neoclassicism of the mid-1920s. In it he returns to a method of representation that he knew well—his Cubist practices of the 1910s, as demonstrated by the overlapping planes, the separation of volume from contour, and the play with texture.

In much art historical scholarship, Pablo Picasso—Braque’s colleague and, with him, the cofounder of Cubism—is celebrated for his recognition that all representation is by nature semiotic, while Braque is sometimes passed over—as if a willing partner in Picasso’s investigations but one who might not have fully understood the complexity of the game. Christine Poggi, however, has successfully shown that these are not the correct terms in which to frame the study of Braque’s early work. “Braque’s goal,” she writes, “seems to have been to discover a means of representation that would avoid the deformations of perspectival illusion, while conveying a strong sense of the material presence of objects.”[/fn] Christine Poggi, In Defiance of Painting: Cubism, Futurism, and the Invention of Collage (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), 104. For a discussion of Picasso’s Cubism in these years, see Rosalind Krauss, “The Motivation of the Sign,” and Yve-Alain Bois, “The Semiology of Cubism,” in Picasso and Braque: A Symposium (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992), 261–86, 169–208, respectively.[/fn] Both artists rejected illusionism but for different reasons. Braque, like Picasso, rejected an idealized association of representation with reality. Yet, while he recognized that illusionism was simply a method for imitating volume and depth, he never relinquished an interest in individual sensation and perception. He still sought out methods of painting that would materialize space and the physicality of objects themselves.

During the early Cubist years Braque turned his attention more and more to still lifes, associating the genre with the depiction of objects that were within reach of the hand. In an interview conducted toward the end of his life, he explained that the tendency of still life to evoke the material quality of an object “corresponded to the desire that I have always had to touch the thing, not just to see it.”[/fn] Braque, in interview with Dora Vallier, “Braque la peinture et nous,” Cahiers d’art 29 (October 1954): 16 (translation mine).[/fn] For Braque the question of how to depict the tactile quality of an object and what he described as “the space between things” was one that compelled him throughout his life. The 1930s were years in which these questions came to the fore in particularly provocative ways as, after the “return to order” of the late 1910s and 1920s, he began to reengage with the problem of three-dimensional representation on a two-dimensional canvas.

It may be that in searching for a way out of the neoclassicism and the more conventional illusionism of some of his works of the 1920s, such as the Canephora series, Braque returned to a moment of progressive creativity. Thus Still Life with Glass is governed by a tension between flatness and a materialized experience of space that is characteristic of the works of the teens (such as Table with a Pipe, 1912). On a square wooden table covered with a patterned tablecloth, Braque has arranged a group of objects: a pipe, a glass, a fruit bowl with a bunch of grapes, a brown gourd-shaped object, and the letters J O R. A number of different spatial perspectives are at work here, creating a conflict between the illusion of physical presence and the flatness of the canvas itself.

This tension is most manifest in the breakdown of the perspectival system. Numerous areas of the picture are governed by fragmented systems of perspective: the legs of the table; the drawer at the front, which is slightly ajar; the left side of the canvas, where the table extends out and back at a broken angle; and the objects on the table, such as the round pipe and the glass that is rendered volumetrically but from two different perspectives (as if seen both from above and frontally). Other objects are resolutely flat and seem to work against the illusion of three-dimensionality. The gourd- or hat-shaped object on the left side of the table is a flat ocher field defined only by the limits of contour line and an unidentifiable black shape that appears to fold over it (though in fact there is no suggestion of depth to indicate a fold, just overlapping shapes). The fruit bowl and the bunch of grapes inside it are also flat; this is primarily because the different passages of color that make up the two objects are essentially independent of form. The separation between fragmented illusionism and flatness is most evident in the application of language to the canvas. The letters J O R evoke the French word journal, suggesting the presence of a newspaper on the table, yet there is no form or even the outline of a form that could be a newspaper. The viewer must conceptually “see” this newspaper by imagining a paper folded in such a way that the “u” in the middle of the word is hidden. For Braque, the letters of a word inserted onto the pictorial field heightened the difference between flatness and illusionism: “They were forms that could not be deformed because, being flat, the letters were outside of space, and their presence in the painting, by contrast, permitted one to distinguish the objects that were situated in space from those that were outside of space.”[/fn] Braque, ibid.[/fn]

The tension between flatness and illusionism defies perceptual certainty but also invites sensory investigation. The viewer is given enough clues to read the objects as three-dimensional but not enough to place them in the real world beyond the frame of the canvas. The objects on the table tilt toward the viewer, as if they were to slip into the viewer’s space, and some, such as the pipe and the gourd-like object, even appear to reside above it or precariously balance on the edge. There is an unexpected combination of thick, volumetric space and an adamant sense of flatness in the area around the table. On the right, Braque has emphasized the shadow at the edge of the table with thick black strokes that transition from dark to light. Contrary to this suggestion of depth and presence on the sides of the table, the tabletop is pushed flatly up against the vertical plane of the wall, as if there was no space behind it at all. The tabletop itself consists of a series of overlapping planes that create an almost accordion-like pleating of space, similar to the folding indicated by the letters J O R. This telescoping between depth and flatness creates a space that challenges the viewer’s perceptual navigation.

Braque’s continual investigation of the hermetic world of the still life has tended to invite interpretation of a singular kind: earlier critics of his work of the 1930s often resorted to purely formalist descriptions of the pictures that did not contextualize them.3 Though only a beginning, this essay strives to reframe the discussion of the work of the 1930s in more productive terms.[/fn] In 1972 the well-known Cubist scholar Douglas Cooper officially 
condemned Braque’s work from the first half of the 1930s: “the paintings Braque produced between 1930 and 1936 are among the least alive, the least interesting and the least substantial of his entire œuvre.” Cooper, Braque: The Great Years (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1972), 68. Cooper’s statement was made in the context of an exhibition that investigated works from the later years—1918 and on—and was (somewhat ironically) intended to redress what Cooper saw as the problem of preference for Braque’s early years.[/fn] Let us instead open up the question of the 1930s and investigate the embodied, sensory work of this artist who “painted without seeing,” as the French writer Jean Paulhan, a colleague and friend of Braque, described him.[/fn] Jean Paulhan, Braque, le patron (Geneva: Editions des Trois Collines, 1946), 33, first published in Poésie 43 (March–April 1943).[/fn] Much remains to be done to understand this incredibly productive, transitional time in the career of one of the twentieth century’s leading avant-garde artists.

  • 1 See John Golding, Sophie Bowness, and Isabelle Monod-Fontaine, Braque: The Late Works (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997). The exhibition was organized by the Menil Collection, Houston, in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
  • 2 Two recent exhibitions begin to redress this lacuna. One focused exclusively on this interim period; see the exhibition catalog Karen K. Butler and Renée Maurer, Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928–1945 (St. Louis: Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum; Washington, DC: Phillips Collection; Munich: DelMonico Books • Prestel, 2013). The other, a major retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, examined Braque’s entire career and was accompanied by a catalog that included essays on the work of the years; see Georges Braque, 1882–1963 (Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux, 2013).
  • 3 See, for example, Magdalena M. Moeller, “The Conquest of Space: 
Braque’s Post-Cubist Work after 1917,” in Georges Braque (New York: 
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1988), 25–30.