Now, more than 50 years after my first visit, the Phillips has a current exhibition called “George Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-49,” bringing together 44 of his best works. The catalog points out that the exhibit shows “Braque’s interest in conveying in the physicality of objects and surrounding space.” As the title of this blog indicates, my interest has been in the “physicality” of bottles and other glass and ceramic objects. As I result I particularly looked for those in Braque’s still life paintings. Here through the miracle of the computer, I can exhibit six paintings and focus on bottles.
The first painting shown here is called “The Round Table,” which Braque produced in 1929. Part of the Phillips Gallery collection, it is one of the works that first lured me to the artist. There is a bottle in the still life, shown here in detail. Flattened as he presented it, it looks to me to be a container for an alcoholic beverage. It is a darkened glass with a colored label, not unlike some American whiskey liquor containers. Although it is a secondary element compared to the guitar at left, it helps to tie together the disparate component parts of this excellent still life.
Following up is a 1937 Braque painting that comes from the collection of the art museum at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. I had never seen it before but was struck immediately by the elegant simplicity of the treatment: Three oysters on a plate, a piece of lemon, a baguette of French bread, and, ta da, a bottle. As shown in detail, it clearly is a carafe or decanter. Braque has rendered it in Cubist style with lots of unexplained curves and dips, and he appears to have filled it with a pale white wine. Beyond it sits a chair where the owner of the oysters will soon appear to unroll the napkin, squeeze the lemon, break the bread, find a glass and pour the wine from the carafe, and -- at last -- eat the oysters.
The third Braque still life featured here bears the name “Mandolin and Score (The Banjo)” painted in 1941 and currently in the collection of a New York couple. I am puzzled by the title since the musical instrument shown in the typical collapsed Cubist style seem more like a mandolin and not much like a banjo. But I am not confused by the bottle, shown in detail here, that sits off to the left just in front of a ceramic cup. It is a wine bottle and from the look of the shape particularly neck and lip, made of glass. Once again Braque has flattened it out but used its dark shade to complement the blacks at the right side of the picture.
On other Braque still life paintings in the Phillips exhibition I have not singled out the glass or ceramic objects. But sometimes the artist himself did. The next painting is called “Studio with Black Vase.” In addition to his artist’s palette, Braque shows some of the paintings he has on his walls and finishes it off by displaying a black vase in the right hand side of the picture. I am unable to decide if it is glass or ceramic, but it neatly compliments the curved elements at the left. The painting dates to 1938.
That brings us to a 1942 painting, done by Braque in the midst of World War II, that emits nothing but peace and serenity. It is called “Large Interior with Palette.” It is part of the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, which might almost make a trip there worthwhile. It has two element of note. On the top right is a goblet. I am guessing ceramic with a painted design. At its left is a flower pot, clearly a plain redware container for a substantial looking plant. The balance of this composition is outstanding and Braque has stuck his working utensils into the frame for our edification.
Braque got simpler in his compositions the longer he painted. In the final picture shown here the jumble of items has been reduced to a few, principally a fish, some lemons, a candle stick and a large glass pitcher containing, perhaps, lemonade. The wall behind and its decoration have become a larger and more dominant part of the picture. It is entitled, “Pitcher, Candlestick, Black Fish.” Braque was living in Varengeville in Normandy when the Germans invaded France in 1940. During the German occupation, Braque lived and worked in Paris where he painted this still life in 1943. It too is in the Menil Collection.
Braque returned to Varengeville after the liberation of Paris in 1944. He continued to work through the 1940s and 1950s and was much honored in his lifetime. In 1951 he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, and in 1961 he was the first living artist given an exhibition at the Louvre. When Braque died at age 81 on August 31, 1963, funeral services were held in front of the Louvre.
As a Braque enthusiast, I found the current exhibition at the Phillips Gallery to be an extraordinarily positive experience. During my tour of the galleries, a young art student who was acting as guard on the paintings, asked me why I was so attracted to Braque. The question took me a while to answer. My eventual response was that the melding of shapes and colors that he achieved in his still lives was totally remarkable. While many in the genre are stiff, lifeless and dull, Braque’s paintings have a engaging vitality born of his ability to make a flat surface come alive through color and line. And then, of course, there was his propensity for painting bottles....