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Georges Braque’s Candlestick and Playing Cards on a Table

Georges Braque’s Candlestick and Playing Cards on a Table, 1910, from The Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a classic example of a “High” Analytic Cubist painting, a phase spanning from 1910-1912. Like all works typified by this phase, Candlestick and Playing Cards on a Table is characterized by images of mundane naturalistic objects, in this case a genre scene/still-life, whose legibility has been subjected to a rejection of traditional perspectival space, an abstract treatment of volume and space, faceted and intersecting planes, and a muted grisaille palette. In this painting, Braque has created a tightly constructed world arranged through an unconventional grid of diagonal lines and curves. Essential to the work’s visual and intellectual appeal is the use of the oval shaped canvas, which eliminates empty corners usually found in rectangular Cubist works, whose action is clumped in the center generating a surrounding airy space. This oval canvas then provides us with another deliberate formal innovation that Braque introduced during this “High” Analytic Cubist phase, sparking new ways of thinking about the appearance and purpose of art.

It is important to note that this work is illegible, not abstract, as some elements of reality are still apparent. Due to a greater lack of attainability, the work poses many questions and thus captures the attention of the viewer. By providing subtle visual cues - such as the jutting table corner, a stylized eyebrow, neck and chin, the base of the candlestick, and the two playing cards implied via signage that suggests a six of diamonds and an ace of hearts - Braque prompts the viewer to recognize that the painting depicts a candlestick and someone playing cards on a table. Here is a conventional subject – a genre scene / still life - presented with an avant-garde artistic language that does not rely on illusionistic representation. Moreover, the undercurrent of light, created by multiple light sources, infiltrates the painting and falls on individual, arbitrary facets; the light may seem naturalistic, but fails to create logical, coherent space and volume. Therefore, Candlestick and Playing Cards on a Table is not bound to absolutes, nor is it bound to a single interpretation of reality or a single point of entry.

Although the work lacks a single point of entry due to a lack of single point perspective, the cumbersome “T” shape functions to anchor us into the picture. The “T” is the darkest element in the work and sits above the action of the genre scene/still-life to create an illusion of space and three-dimensionality. We are initially pulled into the picture plane via the hooking “T”, however, quickly pushed back out due to the unconvincing space and unconventional illusionism. Moreover, the shallow space reminds us that this work of art is a flat object that has no inside or outside, thus it exists in a world of its own giving rise to the work’s ambiguity and great room for interpretation. Evidently, Braque is playing an intellectual, visual, semiotic game with classical tradition, which is also made clear when examining his use of color.

Candlestick and Playing Cards on a Table consists of somber and muted earth tones. Because of this grisaille palette, decidedly devoid of bright colors, the issues associated with color are exorcised, leaving the work’s emotive content cool and indifferent. In keeping with notions of “High” Analytic Cubism, Braque has divorced himself from emotion-evoking and provoking color to focus only on tensions of space and the breaking down of form, structure, and line. Interestingly, the seemingly weightless, wash-like application of paint, characterized by restrained deliberate short brush strokes, adds to the spatial tension and cool emotive content. Furthermore, in making the nature and physicality of the oil medium obvious, the artist grounds the painting into object-hood, reminding the viewer that it is a painting and not an illusionistic representation of reality.  The cool emotive content perhaps sheds light onto the psyche of the artist, whose questioning of the very foundations of art, notions of traditional perspective, and representation within his painting can be understood as a visual manifestation of an existential crisis. By subjecting conventional subject matter to non-mimetic representation, the work is a visual pun that reflects an idea of the avant-garde lifestyle of the artist as creator and inventor.

The notion that the avant-garde is a cultivated lifestyle and when visually manifested, rejects stylistic tradition in art is a characteristic of Renato Poggioli's definition of the avant-garde found in his “The Theory of the Avant-Garde.” Reaching beyond individual examples of artwork, like Braque’s Candlestick and Playing Cards on a Table, Poggioli illustrates that avant-garde artists share certain alternative, sometimes radical ideologies and tend to live non-conformist lifestyles. If we implement Poggioli’s definition when looking at Braque’s lifestyle and painting, we can assert that in the case of this artist, his avant-garde tendencies are culturally and aesthetically driven, and not necessarily politically motivated. The painting has broken down traditional means of depiction, providing an advanced visual twist that mirrors the disposition and lifestyle of the artist. Accordingly, Braque has painted a mental picture that visually represents a window onto the mind of the artist

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