Your Collection: Two Cubist Masterpieces by Georges Braque and Liubov Popova

Upon visiting the Modern European galleries, one encounters an inconspicuous painting by French painter Georges Braque entitled The Glass of Absinthe (1911). This oval canvas is a testament to one of the most exciting developments in Modern art, whereby sculptors and painters challenged the common notion on how to render illusionistic space.

Braque was among the leaders of the avant-garde, seeking a new approach alongside his friend Pablo Picasso. Together, the two artists explored new non-spatial configurations in their paintings, giving birth to Cubism. Objects from everyday life were deconstructed and reassembled, as in The Glass of Absinthe.

Absinthe had been popular among artists in France since the middle of the 19th century, as they believed it to boost sensory perception and creativity. Green in colour, the liquor was served with chilled water and was poured slowly into the glass over a sugar cube on a slotted spoon.

In Braque’s painting, this elaborate process is barely recognizable. Each detail of the composition is broken down into facets, which in turn are flattened and compressed. The stem of the glass is simply suggested by a diagonal line; the spoon with the sugar cube appears to be floating disjointedly at the top left. Coupled with Braque’s use of a monochromatic palette with dabs of jet-black and warmer tones, this creates a compact, vibrant surface, which is characteristic of Braque’s and Picasso’s Cubist experiments of 1910–1911.

Interestingly, this painting went through a number of stages before Braque considered it final. We know this from a photograph taken in Braque’s studio that dates from 1911. Here, the artist poses informally on a stool with a squeezebox in his hands. The Glass of Absinthe figures prominently on the back wall, alongside an eclectic display of musical instruments and African masks.

Braque often depicted musical instruments in his paintings, and an x-ray of The Glass of Absinthe shows an oblong object — possibly a flute — that he later painted over. The photograph of the studio also shows that Braque made further changes, as the image on the wall differs from the final version. One could argue that, by placing the canvas on the wall, Braque took his time in working out the perfect balance between the elements and surface.

In a 1971 article in The Hudson Review entitled “The Varieties of Cubism,” art historian Charles W. Milliard aptly described the challenge Braque had to overcome. A dense composition, he said, “would choke the picture to death”; and, if a structure were “too uncontrolled,” it “would allow it to fall apart.” The studio photograph therefore reveals Braque’s measured and meditative approach to painting. Because of its unique history, The Glass of Absinthe remains unframed to this day — just as it was displayed in the artist’s atelier.

 

Liubov Popova, The Pianist (1914–15), oil on canvas, 106.5 x 88.7 cm. NGC

Just a few steps from Braque’s small oval hangs a major Cubo-Futurist work by the Russian artist Liubov Popova, entitled The Pianist (1914–1915). Born into a wealthy merchant family and trained in Moscow, Popova first encountered the art of the Parisian avant-garde at the mansion of Sergei Shchukin, a Russian businessman who collected the latest paintings by Matisse, Braque and Picasso, among others.

Popova spent the winter of 1912–1913 studying in Paris, and also travelled to Italy in 1915. While the artist embraced the Cubists’ analysis of the human figure, she also was drawn to the dynamic spatial relationships in the work of Italian Futurists. In The Pianist, a large and ambitious painting, we find that both influences come together in a remarkable synthesis that takes time to explore.

Popova’s composition follows an intricate rhythm featuring sharp facets and curvilinear shapes that seem to morph into one another. She also chose a deliberately muted palette to emphasize the figure’s kaleidoscopic treatment, and greatly varied her technique using, for example, Cubist stippling on the left, and a comb-like pattern on the bottom to suggest wood grain. The coarse section on the top recalls Cubist experiments with elements of collage. As such, this painting is representative of the Russian artist’s observation and adaption of avant-garde styles that she explored first-hand.

The Pianist stayed in the Popova family until the late 1950s, when it was acquired by a Canadian diplomat in Moscow, who brought it with him to Canada. Georges Braque’s painting made its way into the national collections via France, Switzerland, England, Venezuela and the United States in 1981.

Taken together, The Glass of Absinthe and The Pianist reflect a pivotal period in art history. The work by Braque is situated right at the birth of Cubism; and, in the painting by Popova, you can see how this style evolved. As avant-garde artists such as Braque and Popova deconstructed and reimagined physical space and physical surfaces, they were in fact paving the way for new generations of artists, who further pushed the boundaries of non-figural painting such as, for example, the Abstract Expressionists, who are also well represented in the Gallery’s collection with work by Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman.

The Glass of Absinthe and The Pianist can be seen in the Modern European galleries at the National Gallery of Canada.

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