PRINT October 1977

Braque’s (Real) Art in the “Still Life with Violin and Pitcher”

AT CERTAIN MOMENTS IMAGINATIVE culture reformulates itself. These “moments” are generally slow movements whose significance appears only in retrospect: Romanticism, for instance, or the rise of the novel. In the instance of Cubism, however, “moment” almost literally describes the case. However the temporal parameters of Cubism are set, the years 1909 to 1914 certainly amount to its core—the period in which its achievement is most certain and its assumptions are realized in their full integrity.1

In George Braque’s Still Life with Violin and Pitcher, 1909–10, shown at the “Swiss Collections” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art last spring, the deconstruction of material reality into constituent surfaces has not reached the pitch it would in Picasso’s and Braque’s own later works. Here Braque’s violin and pitcher are, among other objects, clearly recognizable as such. But an intricate reweaving of reality has begun in force. The violin, for instance: the scroll at the top is rendered with stark clarity in a near-central position, but the strings seem to emanate from various points in the neck, then to merge into the soundboard and reappear on the other side of the bridge at a cockeyed angle. The body of the instrument has deliquesced into a series of interlocking planes which are distinct from the surrounding “not-violin” planes, but which are depicted as having the same structure—lines, planes, areas—as the surrounding space. The same is true of the pitcher (above and to the left of the violin) or the table top (immediately to the right of the violin). Each object retains its discrete particularity, but each is described in the same terms.

Braque, in other words, has broken down the concrete object into its constituent parts and reformulated it according to his own laws. The painting is not simply a replication of nature (and a violin is not exactly a natural object anyway); instead the painting is an autonomous, self-regulating world where form is dictated by the internal demands of the work itself rather than the demands of nature.2 Of course, this is as applicable to Cézanne as it is to Cubism: Cézanne’s notion that art is parallel to nature could stand as Picasso’s and Braque’s motto. Unlike Cézanne, however, the Cubists reformulate nature in atomistic terms. The object is dissolved and reconstituted, yet bears the mark of its dissolution, as here in the seemingly transparent fingerboard of the violin. This idea has complex ramifications, involving even theories of molecular bonding that were in circulation at the time, or the earlier work of Mendelev (the sense that all matter is built up from primary, atomic building blocks, following general laws). Similarly, the same expressive apparatus serves Cubism for portraying bottles, violins, people, or whatever.

But the Cubist syntax derives directly from less arcane sources. Since Cézanne it has been a commonplace for artist apprentices to rehearse the reduction of nature to elementary geometric shapes—cones, cubes, etc.—and to practice sketching spheres, say, and revising them into apples. In a sense Braque and Picasso simply reversed the process, by reducing nature to its essential geometric components without fully re-disguising these components.

The relation between Cézanne and the Cubists becomes more complex when the treatment of space is considered. If Cézanne’s mature works are flat, with Picasso and Braque a shallow, quasi-three-dimensional zone seems to hover before the canvas. An example or two will remind us of the effect: in the present Still Life with Violin and Pitcher the bottom arcs at the lip of the pitcher seem markedly closer to us than the wall behind and to the left of the pitcher; similarly, the pale aura of the violin’s scroll makes it stand out before its background.

It would be wrong, however, to regard Cubist space as a reactionary return to old-fashioned perspective; the matter is more complex than that. First, the Cubists, like Cézanne, do not permit the spectator to look “through” or even “into” the painting; indeed, the typical Cubist composition aggressively presents itself to the spectator by seeming to extend into his own space.

Second, there is the pleasant irony that Cubist space is forged from planes which are themselves, on the whole, two-dimensional.3 The violin scroll may seem to protrude into the third dimension, but it is itself as flat as can be. The reversal of Cézanne is witty: Braque (and also Picasso) employs a technique formerly used to insist on the flatness of the picture plane to insist upon the volatility of his own art. The painting does not stay on the wall, where it is supposed to belong. It seems quite literally to enter our lives.

In this respect, Cubist technique appears not as a reactionary tendency, but as a radical revision of Cézanne. Especially in works a little later than Still Life with Violin and Pitcher—Braque’s 1911 The Portuguese, for example, or Picasso’s 1911–12 Ma Jolie—it is possible to observe how the painting has been “built up” from its edges, or, more precisely, to observe the means by which the effect of a build-up is produced. Near the sides of these works the canvas itself often shows through (yet another testimony to Cézanne’s influence), and where there is paint applied it is sparse, almost translucent. But in the center, that part of the work which anyway seems three-dimensional, the paint is clearly denser and more extensively applied. This subtlety ratifies our sense that we are dealing with an art which adds to nature, even as paint is added to the canvas to evoke three-dimensionality.4

Still Life with Violin and Pitcher is thus a self-conscious declaration of the artist’s right to reconstruct quotidian reality, to give form to what is essential in the world around us and not merely to transpose it. It “re-produces” reality. The pun is unfortunate but necessary, for while the Cubists produced an art independent of nature, it is an art which refers back to nature nonetheless. The pitcher in Braque’s painting is like no pitcher you will find in everyday life; still, it is demonstrably a pitcher of sorts and not an ice-cream cone or a woman. The point I am groping toward is that when Cubism deals with the Abstract and the Ideal at all, it does so by allowing them to emerge from the Sensible and the Tangible.

The complex transaction between art and nature in Cubism is evident here in this Still Life in the curious trompe-l’oeil nail (and its trompe-l’oeil shadow) at the top of the painting. Its a very funny touch—imagine banging a real nail through a Braque to hang it on your wall—but it has wide connotations. This is not a “real” nail, but a painted nail. On the other hand, paintings are nothing if not real, as anyone who tried to smash a nail through this particular canvas would discover in short order. In part the nail is an ironic allusion to the possibility of “naturalism”: with it Braque reminds us that he could have made his painting as grossly mimetic as he liked, and forces us to consider the implications of his deliberate refusal to do so.

This dialectic between the concrete and the abstract is basic to Cubism, and its operation may be traced elsewhere in the painting. The soundboard of the violin, for instance, has been transformed into an opaque collection of ochre planes, but the soundhole has been literally rendered. That is, the hole remains even after the matter surrounding it and defining it has been suspended.

The persistence of the hole as a form after the erasure of the surrounding material into which it had been “cut” engages the same ideas as the curious nail, and is almost as funny. Plainly the hole is not “real” in the sense that you could put a finger through it, but it unmistakably refers to the genuine holes in violins. Braque wittily confounds the categories of nature and artifice by representing nature at the moment when, loosely speaking, it is nothingness.5 And the nothingness is transformed into a something-ness: black daubs of paint on a canvas. If the nail is an unreal version of a real thing, the hole is a real version of an “unreal” thing. Or the hole is as “unreal” as the nail is.

Or just as real.

Such tension between abstract and concrete, real and unreal, artifice and nature, operates everywhere in Cubism. It is necessary for convenience and clarity to speak of Braque’s and Picasso’s works as having reference to nature, but this “nature” is generally composed, as in the Still Life, exclusively of everyday cultural objects. This sets them apart from Cézanne, and distinguishes their interest in the ordinary from that of the Impressionists, who characteristically attempted to freeze on canvas only those facts of the workaday world that somehow were already set apart from the workaday world. A double irony operates: Cubism forces us to see the remarkable in what might seem plain objects of culture by first transforming cultural objects into what, in painterly terms, are natural objects—outside motifs (which were, in usual terms, “cultural” objects the whole time)—and then into cultural objects, as the components of a painting.

Similarly, Braque and Picasso are attracted to objects which inherently refer to abstraction, or liminal objects which somehow refer to art, even as Cubism refers to nature. Letters, like those in Ma Jolie, are the vehicles of words . . . meaning, of abstractions. The architectural molding in the upper right of the Still Life represents a concrete object, but one which is ornamental, without obvious function, and motivated by the artistic impulse.

This paradoxical tension is also evident in the violin and the pitcher. Pitchers are vessels which give form to otherwise amorphous liquids, even as paintings give form to objects—although Braque ironically deforms the pitcher into a series of planes. When transparent, pitchers are like blank canvases: they take on the color of what they contain. Violins actually have art incorporated in them, as with the scroll and the soundholes, and they are used to effect an art—music—which may fairly be termed abstract. And there is the additional irony that the violin is portrayed as more fragile and translucent than the glass pitcher: Braque’s art implicitly conflates them.6

It would be senseless to attempt a massive, systematic exegesis of the various ways in which the essential themes of Cubism are deployed. Braque and Picasso were not systematic proto-structuralists interested in precise binary oppositions. Rather, a great deal of free play around certain fixed concerns—art and nature, abstract and concrete, and so forth—marks their artistic strategy. In fact, just as irony and paradox are no small elements in the Cubist esthetic, so in the nature of the case it is difficult to say anything very tidy about the movement as a whole, or even any single Cubist painting. But it is possible to remark on the general parameters within which Cubist free play occurs, and even to observe certain characteristics of Cubism as they manifest themselves in collateral developments elsewhere in culture.

The Cubists, although dependent on nature for their subject matter, create a secondary world which operates in accord with its own regulating ideas, which does not claim to present the visible without mediation, and which in fact gives priority to the singular perceptions of the artist.

That is, Cubism is not at all bound to a transcendental interdiction against presuming to improve upon creation. This breakthrough was first effected by Cézanne in the twilight of the Victorian age, but the quantitative extension of the idea by the Cubists strikes me as tantamount to a qualitative leap. Even Cézanne remained responsible enough to the notion that apples ought to look like apples of some sort (albeit his sort) to have been mistaken by certain lunkheaded scholars for an Impressionist. But Braque and Picasso revise the visible world far more completely and robustly than any artists before them.

The breakthrough, of course, was intimately related to the “Death of God,” an event whose date is not entirely certain, although it seems that at least a generation or two of artists must have passed between His departure and Cubism’s arrival. Nonetheless, Braque and Picasso remain exceptional in the degree to which they straightforwardly accept and calmly exploit the possibilities for the artist in the new situation. Nietzsche himself, who announced God’s lamented passing and declared that all things were now possible, confessed that the realization caused him the sensation of weightlessness, a feeling that while man was now free to take his place among the angels there was nothing on earth secure and sustaining. No such ambivalence appears in the Still Life. The pitcher is secure in midair, it belongs there; we do not feel that someone has dropped it, or that it is about to shatter. Indeed, in one sense it has already shattered; but that too is its natural, native state.

With the assumption by Braque and Picasso of the role of unsponsored Creator, there necessarily follows an art whose originating impulse is deeply subjective. For all its allegiance to the objective world, it concentrates on those aspects of the world which answer to the economic demands the artist himself has set for the painting. And it is worth reiterating that the artist creates a personal world which has its most essential origin in his own self, however stunningly that world is objectified on canvas.

Mention of the intense subjectivity of literature early in this century hardly needs to be made, but a particularly interesting example is Virginia Woolf. Unlike Joyce, who used a vast number of narrative modes, Mrs. Woolf combined the “stream of consciousness” technique with a single narrative voice, even as Cubism portrays an object seen from any number of perspectives by means of a single style. As she put it in the programmatic essay “Modern Fiction”:

The mind receives a myriad of impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old. . . . Life is not a series of gig lamps arranged symmetrically; but a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscripted spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?7

The passage may remind us of work being done currently in particle physics, as well as of the Cubist fondness for quotidian objects. Art, like literature, firmly turned its attention to the significance of the ordinary. Finally, it is worth noting that Woolf’s writing is an excellent index of how thoroughly and quickly Cubism had altered the artistic climate by 1925, despite a strong presumption against any direct influence (she herself thought painters were “an abominable race,” and painting, “an inferior art”).8

Also of interest is the rise of phenomenology in philosophy, developed by Edmund Husserl from 1900 and culminating in his massive Ideas (1913; translated into English 1931). I do not pretend to have probed all the grottoes of this dense and difficult work, but in proposing a philosophy of Transcendental Subjectivity, as he sometimes termed it, Husserl gave expression to the problem of apprehending objects in their essence, and of describing human thought and experience with exactitude.

Parallels in music are richer still. In Stravinsky (and, less clearly, some of his predecessors) chords and harmonies of a traditional sort give way to single notes or to clusters of dissonant notes in which each individual note stands out and maintains its integrity rather than blending into others. Schoenberg and Webern went further still in this direction with austere polyphonous compositions wherein each of the 12 tones of the scale must be enunciated before any are repeated—a DNA-ization of music, so to speak. Finally, to complete this circling cultural reconnaissance, one follower of Schoenberg, Luigi Dallapiccola, named James Joyce himself as one of the chief influences on his own adoption of serial composition. “The love of the word in Joyce,” he wrote, is

so near to the love of the note (regained in the music of our own time). . . . My observations on Joyce’s prose encouraged me and showed me that, at bottom, the problems of all the arts are a single problem. The assonances I had noticed in Joyce had led me to realize that, in the use of a Twelve-note series, the most careful and conscientious effort must be devoted to its arrangement . . . (italics his).9

An up-front insistence on exhibiting the alphabet from which the work of art is constructed, an intensely subjective orientation on the artist’s part, the explicit and implicit comprehension of the artist’s place in a world where transcendental authority has lapsed . . . the list of implications is nowhere near complete, nor have I adduced more than fragmentary parallels to the (itself) fractional list of visual features confronting us in the Still Life with Violin and Pitcher. To do either would be a massive undertaking. But even in such a short space I hope that some indication has been given of the thematic and formal cogency of Braque’s remarkable and beautiful painting, and of its underlying pertinence. For we are all Braque’s children (and Picasso’s too).

Edward Foye is a sports writer for The Sun of Lowell, Massachusetts.



1. At several points the present essay is indebted to Robert Rosenblum’s classic Cubism and Twentieth Century Art, New York, 1961.

2. This idea has been developed by, among others, W.H. Auden, Secondary Worlds, New York, 1968; William Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life, New York, 1970; and Steven Marcus, Representations, New York, 1975.

3. Not precisely true in all instances, since the planes sometimes seem to curve back or to the side where, near the perimeter, shadowlike washes of paint appear. But if my intuition regarding their use of space is correct—if it does seem to most observers that the painting extrudes from the surface, rather than receding from it—then the superimposition of planes is the dominant force at work, and it is tolerably correct to say no single plane gives the impression of three-dimensionality by itself.

4. So in one sense it may be called reactionary “illusionism,” though I prefer to think of it as revisionism, a use of an old idea in a new way for a new purpose. There is also the pleasant irony that the illusion has a sound basis in fact. Mr. Greenberg notwithstanding, painting is indeed three-dimensional: the application of paint to a canvas automatically extends the surface “plane” into the third dimension, even if you must measure the extension in micrometers. Cubist space insists on the reality of a painting as an achieved form, in which paint is quite literally added to a blank surface.

5. Strictly speaking, of course, there is a great deal there: atoms and molecules and whatnot swirling around. Another ironic instance where Cubism is more faithful to reality than trompe-l’oeil painting.

6. It is a bit out of place here, but since I have said what I think are the thematic referents of most of the objects depicted in Still Life, some attention ought to be given to the table-top at the right. To some extent it is a witty backward glance at traditional still-lifes, where the objects painted were on the table. Primarily, however, I think the table’s iconographic significance lies in the domain of space; it is a three-dimensional object, but only the top, a two-dimensional plane, is the part which commands attention: it is useful to put flowers on, to draw on, etc., in the same way that a painting is three dimensional (all mounted canvases have depth) but is interesting only for what is on its surface, which we customarily think of as two-dimensional.

7. The essay is printed in the First Series of The Common Reader, New York, 1925.

8. Letter to Violet Dickinson, 24 December 1912, in The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume II, New York, 1977. She did, however, know Roger Fry and would later become his biographer, and in the mid-’20s carried on a correspondence with the French painter Jacques Raverat. The letters are mostly chat, but she has a kind word or two for painters, perhaps out of personal regard for Raverat. And she does add at one point “I think you’ve [i.e. painters as a class] broached some of the problems of the writers too, who are trying to catch and consolidate and consummate (whatever the word is for making literature) those splashes of yours,” 3 October 1924). The last phrase would indicate that she saw herself as something of an Impressionist, although “catch and consolidate” rather indicates that she stands in a revisionist relation to that movement. Her not knowing that painters after Impressionism were also attempting the same thing argues against direct influence by Cézanne or the Cubists. Certainly anyone who has read her carefully wrought, elaborately cadenced prose, and who recognizes her interest in “the life of Monday and Tuesday,” will not mistake Woolf for an Impressionist.

9. In the context of arranging notes, Dallapiccola cites this passage from the Siren episode of Ulysses: “He heard Joe Maas sing that one night. Ah, what M’Guckin! Yes, in his way. Choirboy style. Maas was the boy Massboy.” The essay, “On the Twelve Tone Road,” appears in Music Survey, IV, October, 1951, pp. 318–332.