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Braque’s Still Life with Pipe

By Joan K. Yanni, Docent Newsletter Editor-in-Chief

One glance is enough to see that Georges Braque’s Still Life with Pipe (54.12) is a Cubist painting. Though Cubism did not last long as an art movement–from around 1907 to the beginning of World War II–it remains instantly recognizable, and it changed the way artists presented nature.

Still Life with Pipe is a perfect example of Cubism. The picture is flat, without a background and with all elements on the same plane. The artist has taken apart the objects that make up the still life and presented all sides of them. You can see one side of the pipe easily. But look carefully and you can also see the round end of its stem and the circular top of its bowl. Only one side of the goblet is presented, though we can see it is clear and probably glass; its rim is round, shown as it would look from above. A playing card is identified by the spade on its surface, and the large letters on the upper right –HODE?–are a reference to a newspaper, an image often used by Cubists.

What the other forms in the painting are is unclear. They are simply part of the composition: flat, angular planes that overlap, compressing space and crowding the picture. The limited palette of browns, blacks, greys and whites jutting into each other is typical of this phase of Cubism. The paint looks thick and rough in the lower part of the picture, curving around inside the frame; but it is hard to tell from a reproduction. However, Braque was known for using various types of paint, glossy to matte, in his work, varying the viscosity and sometimes even using sand in the paint or running a comb over the canvas to provide texture.

The book Memorial Art Gallery: An Introduction to the Collection tells us that the role of the surface was not always understood by later viewers, and that over time restorers altered some Cubist works through their methods of restoration. In the case of our Braque, conservators feared that age might cause the delicate canvas to deteriorate. As was usual at the time, they had it infused with a wax adhesive to prevent paint loss. However, the color of the wax darkened the unpainted areas of the picture where Braque had intended the natural color of the canvas to be visible. As a result, the work was changed, for even in a painting with such muted colors as Still Life with Pipe, Braque’s strength and subtlety as a colorist should be evident. Moreover, the textural variations so important to the work were distorted by a protective coating of varnish.

Georges Braque was born in Argenteuil and grew up in Le Havre, near Paris. He trained to be a house painter and decorator as his father and grandfather were, but between 1897 and 1899 he studied painting in the evening at the École des Beaux Arts in Le Havre. Later he attended the Académie Humbert in Paris and painted there until 1904.

His earliest works were Impressionistic, but after seeing the work exhibited by the Fauves in 1905, he adopted a Fauvist style. The Fauves, Henri Matisse and André Derain among them, revolted against Realism and Impressionism and used brilliant colors and loose forms to capture emotional responses. In May, 1907, Braque successfully exhibited works in the Fauvist style. His technique changed gradually as he came under the influence of Paul Cézanne, who taught that one must treat nature as though it were composed of basic shapes like cubes, spheres, cylinders and cones.

Braque became a friend of the artist Pablo Picasso, and the two moved from painting landscapes to picturing still lifes. Using subjects more tactile, they could take an object, break it up, analyze it, and reassemble it in an abstracted form. They began to depict objects from various viewpoints, removing any coherent sense of depth. Working closely together from late 1908 through 1914, the two developed Cubism, which was adopted by the avant-garde painters. Their work was monochromatic, for they believed that color would detract from the subject of the painting. They worked so closely together that, because they often did not sign their work, the painter of any one picture is sometimes in doubt.

But an artist does not stand still. Soon, to add come color and texture to his work without returning to pre-Cubist painting, Braque began to paste pieces of newspaper, wallpaper, wood, and fragments of cardboard into his work. These constructions became known as collage, and the paste-ons became an integral part of the composition. A familiar work of this new style is Picasso’s Still Life with Chair-caning, which includes oil cloth pasted on the canvas. Another collage is Braque’s Fruit Dish and Glass of 1912. He had bought a roll of faux bois (oak grain) paper in a shop and incorporated it into a still life. This technique permitted him to add elements that had a color and texture of their own, and allowed the cut outs to become a colored plane. Collage became a means of freeing art from restraining traditional practices.

In 1914 Braque joined the French army and was severely wounded. When he began to paint again, his forms became larger, he used color and he incorporated some elements of Surrealism into his work. But he remained devoted to his Cubist technique of simultaneous perspective and fragmentation.

Braque’s work is generally characterized by a fundamental sense of order with an elegance of line and a harmonious variation in color. Though his paintings consist mostly of still lifes, he also did woodcuts, etchings, lithographs, and some sculpture. Venturing into the field of architecture, he fashioned stained glass windows for a chapel in Vence, near Nice, and for a church in Normandy. He also did a ceiling painting for a room in the Louvre Museum. His work can be found in the collections of museums throughout the world.

1913_building1One of the Memorial Art Gallery’s early endowments was the Marion Stratton Gould acquisition fund, presented to MAG in the late thirties. Through this fund, Isabel and Gertrude Herdle began to expand the MAG collection into areas not formerly represented. Still Life with Pipe was one of their purchases.

Source: Curatorial files; Memorial Art Gallery: An Introduction to the Collection; Google.

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