Through A Studio, Darkly: On Late Braque

Stylized photos of Georges Braque back-to-back in grayscale, bluescale, and a darker version of the same image.

Georges Braque’s late ‘studio’ work was perhaps the greatest of his career—his grande finale. Painting’s essential exploratory function is brought to bear on these eight or so pictures of the master’s workshop, wherein pictorial tradition and pure creative daring achieve a natural and seemingly spontaneous co-existence.

Georges Braque's "Atelier IX" (1954), a semi-cubist still life with grays, browns, oranges, and coral colors.
Georges Braque’s “Atelier IX” (1954)

It would seem that Braque began his studio paintings more or less simultaneously, moving from one painting to another and then back again, perhaps within the space of a few moments. As such, the paintings have a very similar character. The compositions are derived from complexly interlocking outlines, or profiles, sometimes transparent, sometimes opaque. There are vestiges of the early cubist work in the overlapping planes but the outline drawing, which marks contours, separate and subdivide the forms in connection with colour. The lines are often white, brown or black. Each object consists solely of one of these outlines filled in with a single plane of colour—or not filled in, leaving the object transparent. There’s very little evidence of natural modelling. Everything consists of interwoven silhouettes.

Georges Braque's "Atelier II" (1949), an almost metallic post-Cubist painting with flourishes of realism, such as the bust of a statue.
Georges Braque’s “Atelier II” (1949),

The objects are the objects of the studio itself. Tables, jugs, easels, skulls, cane chairs, pallets, jars stuffed with brushes like flowers. It’s a space much like the space we normally conceive for an artist’s studio—conceived that is to say as a crucible of invention. It’s a space that unites our sense of the artist and his work and establishes a context for inquiry not only into the artist’s practice but also the terms into which this practice is defined and valued. The artist’s studio space is envisaged as a theatre of solitary self-assertion where individuality, spontaneity and assertiveness are held up as unquestioned virtues in the face of literary or political protest. From this unreal point of production there issues forth an immaculate decorative scheme from which the signs of a larger determining social context cannot be easily read.

Georges Braque's "Billiard Table" (1952), which depicts an oddly-shaped, angular billiard table, chairs, and a domestic-style door, filtered through Braque's post-Cubism.
Georges Braque’s “Billiard Table” (1952)

As I have said before, studios are ideological things- they are symbols of art. Gustave Courbet attempted to represent his own studio as a symbol and microcosm of 19th century French society, at a time when that society was rocked by political upheaval. Georges Braque on the other hand was a far less ideographic artist and favours the picture more highly over the message. For him the painting IS the message. Whereas other artists might use paint to project an image, for Braque an image is always used to inform the paint itself. This is an artistic project where vision and material have become identical.

As such Braque’s studios are resistant to being read as traditional ‘allegories’, which is an overall fairly conventional restriction in the historical pursuit of technical modernism. So what alternative means of reading are available to us? How are the surfaces of such paintings to be read—especially when the Illusionistic schemes are so often eccentrically compromised by acts of disclosure and emphasis? There is also an intriguing minimum of expression; an impersonality present even in Braque’s most gritty and forceful designs that excludes naked aggression. There’s distortion, true, but never any autographic or flashy gestures. The pictures are slow, and considered, as the tortoise that wins.

The key to all of this is sensitivity: a quotidian interest in the enjoyment of paint itself. Braque’s paintings offer themselves up to the beholder as a kind of surface-consciousness, a something out-there. We hardly ever have the experience so common to painting of things happening past the surface or through it. In Braque, subtlety in defining three-dimensional form is made possible in terms that are always palpably of the surface: planar, evocative and resistant to the eye. A surface consciousness that began perhaps with Cézanne is completed with these studio paintings.

Georges Braque's "Atelier VI" (1950), which depicts in almost paper collage form some typical elements of a post-Cubist collage.
Georges Braque’s “Atelier VI” (1950)

In Studio VI the picture is so densely umbrageous we might as well be staring at the lining of a bowel. There are the usual studio gadgets and paraphernalia rendered as blobby profiles. A big jar. A bust. A table-lamp. The strangely lorn shape of a bird, or the sculpture of a bird, is perched atop a matte silhouette with banded furry legs. Everything is saturated with a fantastical personality—a living character. It draws attention to an essential mystery of which the most commonplace objects are the receptacle.

Georges Braque was a realist in the sense that, like Cézanne, his work depended on a direct physical experience and observation of real, inhabitable space(s). The natural reality of lived experience mattered to Braque and as such he required his subject matter to be close, to be readily present, in order to start working. For him, this rational presence had to be absorbed directly in order to be identifiably present within his own work. Despite dabblings with landscape (including his fauve period and those famously rugged early cubist works), he, like Picasso, would increasingly tend to favour representations of interior space against the rational, optimistic space of the outdoors. Natural light becomes a fleeting occurrence in late Braque and when natural light does make an appearance it’s difuse, as if glowing from behind a covered skylight, or a moth eaten drape. As such, these studios have an atmosphere of hermit-like recalcitrance, as of a great force locked up inside a subterranean space.

Georges Braque's "Atelier V" (1949), which features in collage form a bird with a long neck, musical instruments, chairs, and other details of a room.
Georges Braque’s “Atelier V” (1949)

The pictures all share a similar water-dark color scheme. Tone and chiaroscuro appear to count far more than hue or tint where Braque is concerned so colours like mauve, cinnamon, khaki and umber make up the predominant pallette whereas white and black are often used as a border element. In Studio V the pigeon has transformed into a giant chrome mirror weaving between the lines as if passing through intervening treetops. Palettes and fishbowls are illuminated by calcium shafts of moonlight. A screen of paint disguised as papier colle floats along a wall encrusted with sand and iron filings. There’s a great deal of surface effects, all of them surprising, all of them pleasurable. Thin washes settle into the canvas as a matte stain while surrounding plots and walls of paint appear dragged, scraped or flecked. How was Braque able to incorporate so many dense variations of texture, sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, and not have anything stand out in a gross or negative way? This is because of Braque’s unique formal elegance and his gift for making things that were odd but also surprisingly earthy and real and believable. The ethos or mood or proposition of a Braque studio painting seems to be that the visual world, and our visual relationship with our environment is a totally good and brilliant thing and that semi-abstract painted shapes can somehow stand in for that experience.

Georges Braque's "Atelier III" (1949), which features a wilting lamp, a mirror, a basin or vase, and other collage-like, post-Cubist elements.
Georges Braque’s “Atelier III” (1949)

Studio III is a much more vertical ‘top-to-bottom’ composition than the others. The bust, the palette and the other leitmotifs are all reintroduced, but somehow different, as if entirely new characters. Nothing is as it seems. Shadows appear to have substance while things of substance turn out to be shadows. What should be hard is painted as if soft. What should be opaque appears transparent and vice versa. Patterned surfaces appear for no reason and lead nowhere. The atmosphere is intensely imaginative, magical even, as if one’s surroundings have suddenly come alive again the way they had in childhood. Again we see the intense opposition of lights and darks as in the strokes of jade and coral on the palette. An olive checkerboard dovetails into a ladder of lace braille and then again into soap-flakes. A Piscean bust hovers above the rusty nimbus of a lightbulb. Everywhere we look we see a familiar but unique vocabulary of forms.

Georges Braque's "Billiard Table" (1945), another angular billiard table in collage-like, post-Cubist form, with what seems to be a dark figure standing over it.
Georges Braque’s “Billiard Table” (1945)

Braque’s postwar billiard tables also deserve to be mentioned alongside his ataliers. A notable feature of these works is the foreshortening of the table into a hyperboloid, like an hourglass in the versions from 1945 and 1952. They and their surrounds have that same curiously animated energy. Snooker-cues, hat-stands and light fixtures become entangled in their wandering outlines. Patches of white and hessian sparkle between islands of crusty pigment. The curlicues of an ornate victorian lamp dissolve and spread like watercolour. The presence of lettering, ‘La loi sur l’ivresse’ (illegal drunkenness), reminds of the old days of analytical cubism, as does the upending of the receding planes. There’s so much energy and rhythm inside every carefully delineated shape that even the simplest of forms, so chic and moderne in their cool fresh colour, are dynamic and explosive.

Georges Braque has unfortunately been obscured by his many followers and by his ‘ex-wife’ Picasso. But in these late paintings we see him undergo an exciting transformation into a painter of unexpected imaginative possibilities. Few modern artists have been able to straddle the boundary between abstraction and figuration in a manner that does not belittle or demean one or the other or both. Yet in Braque’s case, the unique personality of every individual object is extracted, enhanced and re-emerges in the colourful music of paint as a heightened sense of the object’s particular presence—an unmistakable living nature.

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