La caisse verte was painted in 1952, during a period of incredible creativity for Braque. This picture, which was shown later during the same year at the Galerie Maeght in an exhibition whose catalogue featured prefaces by Giacometti and Jean Grenier, is one of the celebrated post-war works with which Braque cemented his reputation. It therefore stands alongside his highly regarded Ateliers (fig. 1), his famous investigations of painting itself which were begun just before the Second World War and continued for years after the creation of La caisse verte. It is a tribute to Braque's continuing status as an artistic pioneer during this period that La caisse verte was formerly owned by the St. Louis-based collector Richard K. Weill: as well as owning Braque's 1921 picture La cheminée, his collection featured pictures by other luminaries of the Paris post-war scene such as Jean Dubuffet and Nicolas de Staël.
The connection with de Staël provides an insight into Braque's role in the new avant-garde during the 1940s and 1950s. It was his own mentoring of de Staël that pushed the Russian emigré artist towards abstraction. Looking at La caisse verte, there is a clear figurative motif, with the flowers in their vase against a backdrop that features wood grain and other recognizable elements. However, increasingly in Braque's works from this period, an air of mystery had begun to permeate his compositions. Gone was the more scientific rigour of the original Analytical Cubism that he had spearheaded with Picasso: there was an increasing focus on a new type of space, a tactile space that encouraged the viewer to reach into the work. Similarly, the elements themselves had become more mysterious and the birds that had come to feature in a number of works from this period, not least the ceiling paintings he was commissioned to create for the Salle Henri II in the Louvre, the home of the Etruscan collection there. Braque's birds were not aspects of visual reality, but instead were devices with which he filled the canvas, and which therefore allowed him to explore the boundaries of his medium. This revealed the more lyrical dimension which had entered his pictures as he investigated the nature of painting.
In part, the development of this more lyrical visual lexicon marked a continuation of Braque's pictorial voyage, as he sought to capture poetry and sensation in his pictures, eking out the revelatory rather than the illusionistic. As he himself explained, "I am far more concerned about being in tune with nature than copying it" (quoted in Georges Braque: Notebook 1917-1947, trans. B. Frechtman, New York, 1958, n.p.). This is particularly evident in his flower pictures, such as La caisse verte, where the green of the plants bursts forth in streaks of color from the round pot-like vase. However, Braque is encompassing a wider sense of nature than the flowers themselves: he uses them as an anchor, an organic element against the more solid backdrop which begs us to involve ourselves in the realm of the picture. The jutting angularity of the case upon which the pot is balanced, with the vertical strips of the wood panelling in the background, invite the viewer to reach into this picture, exploring the notion of tactility that was so vital to Braque, who wanted us not just to see, but to experience his subject matter.
The dynamism of the thrusting stalks of green emphasises the sense of three-dimensional space within La caisse verte, all the more so as it contrasts with the deliberate flatness of the pot that holds them. Braque experimented with collage during the heyday of Cubism, and this remained an important influence several decades later, even in the days of his Ateliers. Here, in place of a sheet of paper, Braque has painted the pot himself, in a manner that recalls collage. Braque was able to create a multifaceted, variegated sense of space within his composition, introducing planar elements where they are perhaps least expected in order to add to the overall vitality. Likewise, the wood-grain that he has introduced in various areas of the picture lends the picture an additional sense of texture, heightened by the rich diversity of patterns that he has used, which also serves to throw the pot, one of the few areas of the picture that is not green, into bolder relief. For Braque, it was the space and the relationship between objects in his pictures, and between himself and those objects, that was the great means of exploring painting, and this is evident in the interplay of forms in La caisse verte.
Braque's interest in space had originally been ignited in part by his love of the works of Cézanne. Later in his life, he came to own a floral still life by Cézanne from circa 1898, the Bouquet de pivoines dans un pot vert (fig. 2). Looking at that picture by Cézanne, about which Braque spoke so lovingly to Françoise Gilot when she visited him shortly after La caisse verte was painted, one perceives some similarities between the two, not least the interweaving matrix of green forms, both in the plants and the architecture of the rest of the pictures, that conjure a sense of space (see A. Danchev, Georges Braque: A Life, London, 2007, p. 235). The flat pot in Braque's painting may even be a form of analogue for the "unfinished" areas in the Cézanne. There is however a marked contrast between the bursting heads of the flowers in Cézanne's picture and those in La caisse verte. Perhaps the lack of abundant petals in La caisse verte reflects Braque's own belief that overly focussing on the blooms led to a sense of potential loss and decline: "The error of so many painters is that they begin with the flower. For, after the flower, it's over. What is there after the flower? Death, when the flower wilts. While from the root of the flower there is... all of life" (quoted in ibid., p. 235).
Braque's interest in Cézanne carried on a tradition of revolution and revelation in the pictorial realm. This was recognized during 1952, the year that La caisse verte was painted, when two of his pictures were included in an exhibition at the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris entitled La nature morte de l'antiquité à nos jours. However much Braque had overthrown tradition, he had also allowed it to evolve. Similarly, in his preface to the catalogue for the show at the Galerie Maeght in which La caisse verte featured, Giacometti would discuss Braque's latest works in terms that aligned them with a long history of varied artists, each of whom was also able to change perceptions of both the world within the picture and that outwith it through the epiphanies of their compositions:
"They attract me because they have a profound resemblance, this marvellous resemblance which is common to all the painters that I love, a resemblance which is as diverse as these painters and which makes an object exist, infinite, on a canvas. That canvas makes me look otherwise at the objects which, in their turn, illuminate the canvas. These pictures from any period whatsoever are contemporary to me and each of them is like an open question, and yet at the same time the flowers and the leaves are there before me as if no one had ever seen them before" (A. Giacometti, "Gris, brun, noir...," pp. 68-70, Giacometti, Écrits, ed. M. Leiris and J. Dupin, Paris, 1990, p. 69).
(fig. 1) Braque with Atelier IV. Photograph by Michel Sima.
(fig. 2) Paul Cézanne, Bouquet de pivoines dans un pot vert, circa, 1890 (formerly in the collection of Georges Braque).