Braque painted La Treille at the very peak of the late flowering in his work, a period in which, as John Richardson has observed, he was creating paintings that were "more explorative in their handling of space and more profound in their metaphysical concerns than anything else being done in Western Europe at the time" (Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters, New York, 2001, p. 237). During the first half of the 1950s, Braque was painting land- and seascapes of startling simplicity, showing paint-encrusted wheat fields and fluidly brushed beach scenes in which he contemplated vast, open horizons and endless space. He was also working on--often for months on end and even over the course of several years or more--large compositions of unsurpassed depth and complexity, which reveal a profound visual poetry, taking as their subject matter the familiar interior spaces, ordinary furnishings and possessions in the artist's homes and studios in Paris and Varengeville-sur-Mer.
The series of Le Billard pictures, which Braque painted in 1944-1952 (fig. 1), marked the beginning of the postwar florescence in Braque's work. The Terrasse series followed, and in 1949 Braque commenced the first of the eight magnificent paintings in his renowned Atelier series. He completed the first six studios between 1949 and 1951, and then began Atelier VII in 1952. He brought this picture to an initial conclusion and signed it in 1953, but then decided to extensively rework it; when he finally exhibited the painting in 1956, he renumbered it Atelier IX (fig. 2). In the meantime, during early 1954, the artist commenced another studio canvas, which he completed in 1955 as Atelier VIII (fig. 3). Richardson, who closely tracked the progress of the Ateliers while visiting and interviewing Braque, has written, "These studios--and in particular the culminant picture of the series, Studio VIII--may be said to crown Braque's career, for it sums up in an entirely new and personal idiom all the discoveries that he has ever made" (Georges Braque, London, 1959, p. 27). Braque commented on significance of the Ateliers for him personally:
"These paintings of interiors represented a tremendous immersion in myself. As I painted them I was gripped by a kind of jubilation I was in the happy state of someone to whom is revealed the harmony of objects between themselves and with man. The objects faded away, leaving me the imprint, the echo of their poetic relationships. They no longer existed. My work was enlightened and it enlightened me. Everything became simple and full of meaning" (quoted in J. Golding, Braque: The Late Works, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1997, p. 74).
Braque began La Treille ("The Vine") in late 1953--the appearance of the bare vine and the sparseness of the floral elements suggest an autumn start date. He finished the picture during the following year. By way of chronology, then, Ateliers VII/IX and VIII bracket La Treille, and at times Braque may have worked concurrently on all three pictures. Indeed, La Treille shares many of the pictorial characteristics of the larger Atelier canvases, most ostensibly the telescoping of space and the marvelous profusion of objects. Common to all three compositions is a large centrally placed vase; Braque once stated, "A vase gives form to emptiness" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1972, p. 87). Douglas Cooper has offered a summary analysis of La Treille:
"It is a radiant and colorful picture. The spatial structure is established with verticals and horizontals in the background, though which one sees the sky. The errant branches of foliage set up an ornamental counter-rhythm to this strict design. However, the 'poetry' of the picture resides in the forms in the foreground, where there are ambiguities and equivocations comparable with those in the Studios. The closest and most tactile apple on the table, for instance, exists only in outline, while the dish on which the two apples behind it are sitting has been absorbed with them into the base of the large flower vase. Inside the vase, the foliage has lost all but three fragments of its stalks. The chair is only half present. The curving white shapes on both sides have no literal meaning" (ibid., p. 103).
Braque wrote: "I am no longer concerned with metaphors but with metamorphoses" (ibid., p. 89). La Treille is extraordinarily rich in these visual metamorphoses, in which objects blend and shift into one another; they mingle and interact visually in the way a poet uses simile, rhyme and alliteration; lines and shapes echo one another; from objects present and mundane emerge reminiscences of works past, all governed by a deeply intuitive pictorial imperative born of a master's long experience and wisdom. Speaking of the Ateliers, Richardson has pointed out that "nothing in these pictures is ever quite what it seems" (op. cit., 1959, p. 27). In La Treille, the open rectangular frame of the trellis surmounts a more compactly proportioned and solid grid which represents a wall of mortar and black brick. A black circular shape from which flowers appear to emerge is not a second smaller vase; it is actually a tilted frying pan, containing a small fish awaiting preparation for a meal--a recollection of the artist's austere wartime still-lifes. Two shutters crop the composition along the sides, but do not establish a consistent spatial perspective. A crumpled newspaper bearing the letters "AL"--from "JOURNAL," perhaps--is faintly visible through the artist's subsequent overlays of thinned paint in the lower right corner, a reminder that Braque, in 1911, first introduced lettering and fragments of words into cubist still-lifes. More than four decades on, Cubism was still casting a motivating spell on Braque, guiding his latest research into the ways in which material objects exist in space. La Treille, like the Ateliers, carries within it the alpha and omega of Braque's long career. The artist explained to Richardson:
"No object can be tied down to any one sort of reality; a stone may be part of a wall, a piece of sculpture, a lethal weapon, a pebble on a beach, or anything else you like, just as this file in my hand can be metamorphosed into a shoe-horn or a spoon, according to the way in which I use it. The first time this phenomenon struck me was in the trenches during the First World War when my batman turned a bucket into a brazier by poking a few holes in it with his bayonet and filling it with coke. For me this commonplace incident had a poetic significance: I began to see things in a new way. Everything, I realized, is subject to metamorphosis; everything changes according to the circumstances. So when you ask me whether a particular form in one of my paintings depicts a woman's head, a fish, a vase, a bird, or all four at once, I can't give you a categorical answer, for this 'metamorphic' confusion is fundamental to what I am out to express. It's all the same to me whether a form represents a different thing to different people or many things at the same time. And then I occasionally introduce forms which have no literal meaning whatsoever, sometimes these are accidents which happen to suit my purpose, sometimes 'rhymes' which echo other forms, and sometimes rhythmical motifs which help to integrate a composition and give it movement" (quoted in op. cit., 1959, p. 26).
In his discussions with Braque, Richardson mentioned the possible influence of Zen Buddhism on the artist's late work. Braque answered him on this point, and also made a revealing statement about his personal philosophy at this late stage in his life and work:
"Do these ideas of mine derive from Zen-Buddhism? I don't think so. True, in recent years I have read a great deal about Zen-Buddhism but this philosophy has had no influence on me... I am only interested to find how closely certain tenets of Zen-Buddhism correspond to views that I have held for a long time.
"You see, I have made a great discovery: I know longer believe in anything. Objects don't exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them or between them and myself. When one attains this harmony, one reaches a sort of intellectual non-existence--what I can only describe as a state of peace--which makes everything possible and right. Life then becomes a perpetual revelation. That is true poetry" (quoted in ibid.).
(fig. A - Artist photo) Braque in his studio, 1953. Photograph by Robert Doisneau.
BARCODE 2723 7236
(fig. 1) Georges Braque, Le Billard, 1947-1949. Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas.
(fig. 2) Georges Braque, Atelier IX, 1952-1956. Musee national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. BARCODE 2723 7281
(fig. 3) Georges Braque, Atelier VIII, 1954-1955. Formerly in the collections of Douglas Cooper and William A. McCarty-Cooper; sold Christie's New York, 11 May 1992, lot 43.