This exercise asks for an annotation of a Cubist still life. I have chosen Glass of absinthe by Georges Braque. It was painted by one of the leaders of Cubism at a critical time in the movement’s evolution – and it is in “my” gallery, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW).
This is a small work, 37.0 x 28.7 cm. My photograph above is very muddy in colour – see www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/410.1997/ for a much better image. The original is light, fresh and sparkling. The palette is black, white and an ochre yellow, mixed to create grays and green, and with the buff of the canvas visible in large areas. There are no shadows, no single light source, no single point perspective, no foreground and background, no easily recognisable and carefully modeled objects, and the objects that can be detected are distributed across the picture.
My previous approach to a cubist work has often been to treat it like a “Where’s Wally” puzzle, taking hints from the title and trying to identify objects. Here I found a stemmed glass in the top right quadrant (outlined in mid-blue in the little sketch), the absinth spoon resting on the lip (outlined in pink). Sections of the glass seem to be repeated – in the centre another bowl, then shown in paler blue running from left up to the right perhaps the base and stem. I’ve also highlighted a line which could be seen as a larger version of the bowl, based on the angle and the colouring to its right. Below the glass is a bunch of grapes.
Unlike most still life paintings there is no sign of a table or other support. There appear to be some steps (shown in yellow), but there is no sense of depth. Instead there is a scaffolding of lines (highlighted green) – verticals, (nearly) horizontals and diagonals. It looks as if the planes formed could slide and shear like rock strata, especially those repeated slopes in the lower part of the image, but they are braced and supported by the verticals. Curves (highlighted in red in the thumbnail) create some contrast and life.
The colour mixing and brushwork is delicate and meticulous. In this detail of the area just left and up of centre shows short square brushstrokes of relatively thick paint in streaky mixes of white, gray and black. This is the lightest area of the picture and it glows and fizzes. The volume of the glass is suggested, but no depth. You can see here that this “liquid” area flows outside the main glass to the longer diagonal, which is why I suggested above a larger repeat of the bowl.
Colours are more blended in the grapes. In the actual painting there is a subdued green, perhaps a mix of the black and ochre. There is a variety of brushwork, following the shape and suggesting the volume of the grapes, progressing to more scrubby, suggestive marks towards the bottom of the canvas.
Braque said “In the still-life you have a tactile, I might almost say a manual space … This answered to the hankering I have always had to touch things and not merely see them. It was this space that particularly attracted me, for this was the first concern of Cubism, this investigation of space… In tactile space you measure the distance separating you from the object, whereas in visual space you measure the distance separating things from each other” (Braque, [n.d.] a). The objects in the picture – glass, spoon, grapes… – are not the subject. It is the space between the objects, and between them and the painter, which was of interest. It was space without distance, dealing with painting on a two-dimensional surface. Another way of viewing this is given by Terence Maloon: “Space in these works is not a pre-existing, neutral container, indifferent to its contents, but is generated by the work’s formal components, arising from the relationship of parts, created by their rapports” (Maloon, 2010, p. 218).
Many of the familiar signifiers of Cubism derive from this focus on space, including the fragmentation and the palette.
The multiple viewpoints and shattering of the objects allowed Braque to get close to them: “Fragmentation helped me to establish space and movement in space” (Braque, [n.d.] b). Leymarie (1988, p. 11) explains that the decomposition of solid forms did not destroy but rather exposed the internal forms, rearranged into complex overlapping planes in the picture. It may seem to the viewer unnatural, but that is an almost inevitable result of Braque’s and Picasso’s exploration. As Schulz-Hoffman explains, “their point of departure was the recognition of the essential difference between art and nature and the resultant thesis that each constituted a different form of reality” (Schulz-Hoffman, 1988, p. 20).
Colour is not the colour of the original objects, nor is it used describe light as the Impressionists did. It is used to describe the simplified geometrical forms and is almost monochromatic. Braque “felt colour would ‘trouble’ the new spatial sensations” (Golding, 1990, p. 11). This was a dramatic change to his earlier work as a Fauve (see 8-Dec-2013).
Although the canvas of my focus picture is rectangular the composition within it is oval. Another still life by Braque with largely the same objects is actually oval – The Glass of Absinthe, c. 1910-1911, in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada – see www.gallery.ca/en/see/collections/artwork.php?mkey=15905. Slightly smaller and it seems slightly earlier than the AGNSW picture, it appears to be darker and more densely painted. Based on the small web image it appears to be a simpler composition, with less complex and less clearly defined planes, possibly reflecting slightly different stages of development in a period of intense work. It would be interesting to see the two works side by side.
A sizable portion of Cubist works appears to be oval in composition or actual canvas. Leymarie suggests “the oval formats … counteract the dispersion by the angles of rectangular supports and to create a more compact surface …” (Leymarie, 1988, p. 12). Schulz-Hoffman offers a number of alternative explanations, including “the rectangle and square delimit a pictorial field that is firmly structured in all directions, while the oval leaves the edge comparatively fluid and indefinite; the pictorial field does not correspond to the habitul way of seeing nor to the notion of a picture as a view through a window” (Schulz-Hoffman, 1988, p. 22).Still life offered an ideal way of examining space. It is enclosed, easier to define and encompass than in say a landscape. Multiple viewpoints are readily obtained and proximity effectively removes perspective. At AGNSW another painting by Braque provides an interesting contrast.
I previously showed this image 31-Oct-2013 when I considered its relationship to Landscape with stag by Gustave Courbet, focusing on its angularity and repetition of triangular forms, sense of being closed in, and palette. Virtually the same points link to Braque’s still life. The absence of a skyline, closing in the landscape, assists that flattening effect – space without depth. The trees and buildings are simplified to geometric forms, and although not yet fragmented they have begun to shift in space to create a unified pictorial field in the compressed space.
Both works by Braque shown here show the influence of Cézanne (see 30-Jan-2014). There is the even brushstroke unifying elements (much more apparent in the landscape than the still life). There are multiple points of view, distortion of space, the importance of the relationships between objects and the process of discovery, an incremental development while painting. Braque said “The [Renaissance] painters confused composition with staging. It was opera and stage directing. But with Cézanne composition is really painting, it is thought out” (Braque, [n.d.] c)
Glass of absinthe was painted during a critical period of artistic exploration by Braque and Picasso. In this early stage of Cubism, Analytic Cubism, objects were used to explore space. Later, in what is now known as Synthetic Cubism, space was discovered or created using techniques such as strips of paper, which then suggested objects that could be inserted. Cubist works built on the legacy of Cézanne in questioning the hard-won skills of naturalistic representation and in finding new ways of approaching the two dimensional surface of a painting. Such concerns have continued to attract artists, for example I find it interesting to look back at my notes on Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (see 26-Dec-2013) regarding the focus on the surface of the painting among abstract expressionists and the introduction of forms, a hierarchy, in the Poles.
Both Braque and Picasso drew back from pure abstraction. Cubism broke barriers as a conceptual approach, but did not become a viable long-term style. However the discoveries and advances made in this period were critical in later developments of 20th century art.
A sidenote: While researching for this annotation I came across Picasso’s 1914 The Absinthe Glass – see for example www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/04/09/arts/design/met-cubist.html?_r=1&#/#cover. This sculpture is significant in a number of ways, including the inclusion of an actual absinthe spoon making it one of the earliest art works to include an actual object, and in six casts being made – each individually painted by Picasso and so both a multiple and unique.
Braque ([n.d.] a) Cited Mullins, E. (1968) The Art of Georges Braque New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc, p. 41
Braque ([n.d.] b) Cited Mullins, E. (1968) The Art of Georges Braque New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc, p. 55
Braque ([n.d.] c) Cited in Lieberman, A. (1960) The artist in his studio London: Thames & Hudson, p.136
Golding, J. (1990) “Braque and the space of still life” In South Bank Centre (1990) Braque: Still lifes and interiors. London: South Bank Centre Publications, pp. 9 – 26.
Leymarie, J. (1988) Georges Braque New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Maloon, T. (2010) Paths to abstraction 1867 – 1917 Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales
Schulz-Hoffman, C. (1988) “The Cubist Phase” In Leymarie, J. (1988) Georges Braque New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, pp. 19-24.
UA1-WA:P3-p4-Exercise: Annotation of a still life by Braque
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project four: Still life after 1900
Exercise: Annotate a Cubist still life