“ Every act of creation is first an act of destruction” ~ Pablo Picasso
Georges Braque, French painter, and one of the important revolutionaries of 20th-century art developed Cubism along with his contemporary, Pablo Picasso. In its time, Cubism seemed difficult and wild and was constantly targeted by the conservatives. They were dismayed upon its failure of vision and sanity, touting it as a decline of society. Oddly, this rejection and mockery of cubism by the cynics is one of the factors that bolstered cubism’s reputation as a progressive movement. The Cubists’ experiments with space and form shattered the earlier ideas of perspective, depth, and illusion to create a new fragmented form that was multi-dimensional. It was the critic Louis Vauxcelles, who unknowingly coined the movement as Cubism, when he derisively described Braque’s 1908 work ‘Houses at L’Estaque’, which was composed of cubes, as ‘Bizarre Cubiques’ or Cubic Oddities.
Cubism had two phases, the initial and more austere Analytical cubism (1909- 12) painted with varying viewpoints and dark, muted colors, and a later phase of cubism known as Synthetic cubism (1912-14) which introduced the idea of adding other materials in a collage form and a brighter color palette.
From Tradition to Innovation
Georges Braque, French painter, and one of the important revolutionaries of 20th-century art developed Cubism along with his contemporary, Pablo Picasso.
Braque had been fascinated by Paul Cezanne’s works with geometric compositions in his landscapes. From him, he borrowed several artistic elements mainly the unidirectional, uniform brushwork, and flat spatial planes, and integrated it with the radical simplification of form and use of geometric shapes to define objects.
‘Violin and Palette’ marked an era in George Braque’s journey through painting. It was Braque’s first break away from simple faceting to display subject matter, towards a style where facets flow with their own logic. This artwork represents two things that were extremely close to Braque, music, and art. He was trained in music and art was his passion. It is therefore not surprising that he presented them both, in his own interpretation.
When you look carefully at this work it is a still life painting ( if you can call it that) where the segmented parts of the violin, the sheets of music, and the artist’s palette are vertically arranged to heighten its traditional two-dimensional surface, pulled out from memory. This traditional engagement of subjects is typical of the first phase of Analytical Cubism.
And that’s where it ends.
You see the traditional pillars of perspective, form, and depth being discarded to create a contrasting representation of a more innovative, modern version. The form of the violin is distorted into abstraction and geometric shapes to create a combination of several different viewpoints to a single depiction. Braque painted from different viewpoints, exploring every perspective of the object so that one felt as if they were able to move around within the painting. Through the use of various intertwining planes, he gave the illusion of volume and space. It was a battle of pictorial form against fragmentation, where the form was broken down and literally taken apart only to come together with an ambiguous structure and dimensionality that redefined visual vocabulary.
Braque drew the viewer in with shifting forms over and over again, deceiving you and making you wonder what form and object you are actually seeing. It becomes impossible to read the object because the artist has broken the three-dimensional form into 2D only to layer it again into a space that is so real that it is no longer real. The viewer embarks on a journey of ambiguity and doubt because you are no longer sure about the fractured forms and objects.
“The hard-and-fast rules of perspective which it succeeded in imposing on art were a ghastly mistake which it has taken four centuries to redress,” Braque explained to The Observer in 1957. “Cézanne, and after him, Picasso and myself can take a lot of credit for this. Scientific perspective forces the objects in a picture to disappear away from the beholder instead of bringing them within his reach as painting should.”
This brings us to Braque’s color palette in Violin and Palette.
Unlike his earlier Fauvist expressions in color, seen in works like ‘Landscape at Antwerp’ Braque moved back to a more traditional approach with color. He not only restricted his subjects to the traditional genres of still life, but he also limited his palette to traditional earth tones and muted grays in order to lessen the clarity between the fragmented shapes and objects. He tended to show objects that were fractured, with elements of the visual space drawing into the center of the composition. With this neutral palette of muted greys, shadowed tans and browns, and mossy greens, the viewer would stay engaged with the subject and not be distracted by the colors. This elimination of color is aimed to focus on the structural and spatial form of the objects. The muted colors allow the play of light and shadows so that the various pieces seem to move or merge with other pieces. Due to the innovative layering of the overlapping opaque and transparent planes and the limited color palette, the violin takes on a persona that dissolves at the edges and into the background.
Surprising the observer in this modern, innovative drama, is the setting of the music sheet, the curtain, the nail, and the palette above the violin and the traditional shadowing techniques used to highlight them.
Though the sheet itself is flat and the grey tone recedes it the background, Braque gives it a shading to create a tangible form and gives it its own identity against the violin. Above it, Braque painted a green curtain and a palette hanging from a nail. Both these objects refer to traditional naturalistic representations of still life.
Although the palette is painted flat and could’ve been lost in the painting, Braque gives it shadows around its curved edges that stand in contrast to the violin.
The curtain has been used conventionally to frame subjects in a number of European paintings but in Braque’s painting the curtain frames the palette, in a trompe l’oeil (or ‘fool the eye’) illusion So that the eye does not stop at the curtain, Braque balances the green color in the center to the violin, to draw the viewer back to the center again. Next, the eye moves to the ubiquitous nail in the upper left corner, casting a shadow so strong onto the palette, that one cannot ignore it. In a play of color and shadow, Braque created an illusion where the objects receded and advanced on canvas.
He created magic
George Braque became a part of art history but Cubism is not just a movement confined to art history. Its legacy continues to inspire the work of many contemporary artists even today. Cubism at that point transcended artistic aesthetics and became a way of seeing unto itself. It was this new way of perceiving that would radically alter the fine arts and the way we view the world.
“ Cubism is not a reality you can take in your hand. It’s more like a perfume in from of you, behind you, to the sides, the scent is everywhere but you don’t quite know where it comes from”~ Pablo Picasso
As a whole, Violin and Palette present naturalistic representations pitted against the Cubist fragmentation to indicate that these new techniques are alternative yet in harmony with the style of depiction.