Braque's still-life and interior paintings of the late 1930s have been widely regarded as the most complexly conceived and beautifully realized compositions that the artist had created since the peak of his cubist period a quarter century earlier. "In 1936 Braque--then aged fifty-four--embarked once again on a succession of masterly works," Douglas Cooper has written. "They are eminently personal in conception, inventive, marvelously organized, subtly if not always richly colored, richly ornamented and once again spatially involved... In these pictures Braque created a richly orchestrated synthesis of free form, controlled color and organized rhythm... Each of the pictorial elements functions in these pictures independently and simultaneously" (Braque: The Great Years, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, 1972, p. 69). John Golding has declared: "Braque was at the zenith of his maturity and had attained international recognition as one of the greatest living French artists. The still-lifes executed in the second half of the 1930s are among the fullest and most sumptuous in the entire French canon" (Braque: The Late Works, exh. cat., The Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1997, p. 1).
The relatively sudden evolution from the spatially flat compositions of super-imposed forms which Braque painted during the 1920s and early 1930s--characteristically cast in a restrained and somber tonal palette--to the more complicated, polychromatic and multivalent spatial environments of the late 30s can be traced on the opposite sides of this very canvas: there is a signed verso composition dating from circa 1932-1933 (see page 181).
The ordinary, everyday quality of the domestic and studio objects Braque depicted in these paintings recall the still-lifes of Chardin, but in the sheer proliferation of things, the artist's delectation in their contrasting shapes and the rendering of their tactile qualities, Braque was also taking a cue from the Dutch still-life masters of the 17th century. As he had done in certain of his 1913 synthetic cubist still-lifes, he has raked the surface of the tilted table-top in the present painting with a painter's comb to imitate the striated effect of wood-grain. On it he has arranged an aperitif glass, several books of variously colored covers, a wooden baluster, and with a nod toward the estimable Dutch genre of the vanitas painting, he has featured a human skull, that most potently symbolic reminder of mortality and of the fragile fate of human endeavor. Golding has noted that "Braque kept a skull in his studio--it is visible on a table at Varengeville in photographs taken in 1939... Cézanne's still-lifes with skulls offered probably the most important precedent for Braque, who revered Cézanne above all other artists" (ibid., p. 40).
The present painting is among the very first compositions in which the skull appears; around this same time in 1938 Braque completed L'Atelier au vase noire (Maeght, 1936-1941, pl. 40; fig, 1), in which the skull is seen from behind, and L'Atelier au crâne (Maeght, pl. 41; fig. 2), which is closely related in its pictorial structure and depiction of the skull to the present painting, which may have preceded it. In both of the other canvases, Braque has drawn a formal analogy, "a rhyme" as he would call it, between the skull and the oval-shaped palette which he used. The skull appears in a half-dozen paintings during 1938-1939, when the Spanish Civil War had entered its final tragic phase, bringing defeat to the democratic cause of the loyalists, and at the time of the dismemberment of free Czechoslovakia according to the terms of the Munich Pact. Braque painted several more vanitas compositions in 1940-1943, during the darkest days of the Second World War. Commentators have nevertheless deferred to Braque's disavowal of any kind of symbolism for the skull; the artist claimed, as Cooper has related, "he painted a skull because he found it beautiful and fascinating as an object" (op. cit., p. 73). Indeed, amid such an ecstatic celebration of color as we witness here, which Braque had hardly ever indulged in previously, the skull becomes just one curious, if imponderable element among many others in this lively pictorial scheme.
The shifting metaphorical uncertainties suggested by Braque's content in his late 1930s still-lifes goes hand-in-hand with the spatial ambiguities in which he set them. Edward Mullins has observed: "What is clear from these series of the late '30s is that Braque's work was growing cryptically personal. It was also becoming less literal in its presentation of material things... Henceforth, a metaphysical note was to sound increasingly loud in Braque's painting, for the first time images appear which either have no material existence, or else they have become detached sufficiently from that material role to introduce ideas that dwell outside the physical boundaries of Braque's theme... The introduction during the late '30s of this metaphysical element into Braque's material world ranks as the second momentous innovation of his career (the first being his contribution to Cubism) and it paves the way for that series of noble and mysterious still-lifes, in some respects the summit of Braque's achievements, the [post-war] Studio series" (Braque, London, 1968, pp. 135-136).
(fig. 1) Georges Braque, L'Atelier au vase noire, 1938. The Kreeger Museum, Washington D.C.
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(fig. 2) Georges Braque, L'Atelier au crâne, 1938. Private collection.
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