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The skull, cross and rosary are typically Catholic symbols, suggesting that the painting’s subject is mortality and faith. (Photo: The Kreeger Museum)

Art history is often presented with various kinds of puzzles, including how to reconcile what an artist has said about a work when its visual evidence suggests the opposite. The great “Vanitas I” by Georges Braque, at the Kreeger Museum in Washington, is a classic example.

This bold and intensely colored composition was painted in 1938, the first of several related still-life works Braque would create over the next six years, the artist selecting from a menu of skull, cross, water pitcher, fish and rosary. (A second “Vanitas,” featuring a vase, palette and skull, is also owned by the Kreeger and currently on display.) And these things are rendered to be quite identifiable, differing from the near-abstraction of the Cubist works Braque and Pablo Picasso had created three decades earlier.

Of course, art historians might be quick to say that these gathered items can—or, with the rosary and the cross, do—represent Catholic Christian symbols, and to suggest that Braque’s real subject matter was mortality, faith, prayer and one or more of the Sacraments.

Curiously, Braque took steps to deny these connections. In 1958 he told Picasso biographer John Richardson that these “Vanitas” pictures actually offered no symbolism; that in presenting the skull and the rosary he had only been “fascinated by the tactile quality of the rosary and the formal problems of mass and composition posed by the skull.” Moreover, he said these pictures are “not allusions to the fact that mankind is mortal.”

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E. A. Carmean Jr.
Wall Street Journal

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