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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The guilt of the Artist

Georges Braque, Artist and Model, 1939 (Norton Simon Museum, Permanent Collection)

Some time ago, I sat for a while and observed Georges Braque’s painting of 1939, Artist and Model, which is in the permanent collection of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. I decided to record and write my thoughts on it, as its dazzling appearance suggested a disturbing emotion of guilt without any apparent source, and it seemed to me that the process of articulating a response might reveal such a source, as in fact it did. This is a late painting of Braque, though it still has some of the Cubist elements of his earlier work, and his preoccupation with texture is consistent with his earlier work as well. It was painted in 1939 in Paris, on the eve of the world war. Its surface is grainy and gives an overall appearance of collage, though it is not one. You may not agree with my interpretation of it, but I think it may stir you to put on it an interpretation of your own.

The objective representation in the painting is based on a very traditional motif: the artist and his model. The artist is in his studio, with his sitter, his easel in front of him, showing the painting he is painting, and his palette is in his left hand, all black, within the hemispheric darkness of his figure. It’s a motif, a scene out of real life, a “perception,” that has been painted many times before in the history of Western Art. But here, Braque has subjected the motif to a complex convolution in its creative process: he has thought out the motif in his mind’s eye to re-build it on a more symbolical conception. He has broken it down conceptually, deconstructed it, as we would say in our time, along a Cubist style of raisonnable de-construction, to then re-construct it in his mind in the act of creation, and depict it, finally, on the canvas, as it appears to us now. And that whole creative process is represented in the painting. He has painted a “reconstruction” of a reality. It is still a painting about a painting, and about ‘painting,’ but now there are a lot of new clues for the viewer to understand what the artist thought when he performed the mental reconstruction of this reality of himself in his studio while painting a female model.

For example, the role of the large black areas of the painting raises a lot of questions. What is Braque trying to tell us? Why are the artist and his palette painted in total black, as well as the back and the right side of the model, as if it were the shadow of another person behind her? These areas of pitch black could be seen simply as the part of their bodies that are in shadow, the light coming from the right background. But, as well, one could interpret the black as having a different and ulterior meaning. I think the artist is painted almost all black because he is meant to be not important, almost inconspicuous. He is meant to be seen as merely the conduit between reality and art. The artist, the part of the artist that is painting, has been obscured. But his work, his ‘art,’ is seen in the painting on the easel, which is why the palette is painted totally black, as if there was no color on it, and all the color is in the painting on the easel, a cubistic non-objective painting which, by the way, has nothing to do with what the artist is looking at, which is the model. On that little painting on the easel, the model is only faintly outlined in a thin white stripe. If you zoom in on the detail image, you can see it.

The model, meanwhile, also has the black shadow upon her, on her back and right side. A shadow envelops her and grabs her clothing from the back, but the shadow is also the model, depicted in Cubistic fashion, facing the artist directly (you can see the right eye of her face within the shadow), while the rest of her is a beautiful fleshly color and faces the viewer. That black shadow on her also suggests an ambiguity about who is undressing her, taking her corset off. In fact, the shadow of her is kissing her mouth. Since the painter is almost all black, it could be the painter himself who is undressing her, as indeed he is, in reality, when he gazes on her as he paints her. The artist is undressing his model with his eyes, and in the painting he is undressing her with that little, crawling, right sided, black, hand that, simultaneously, hides her pudenda.

The model is most beautiful. She is Hellenic, as is evident from the broken left arm, which is like the missing arms of the Venus of Melos at the Louvre, and which is also evident in the classic features of her (half) face.

In our painting, the model looks towards the viewer, but above and beyond him, towards the distance, like an ancient statue. I sat in front of the painting for a long time and observed the other viewers as they passed by. They all invariably looked towards the model first. When the viewer approaches the painting, he/she is almost lost in it because it is quite large. And the viewer almost invariably looks towards the model. She is very erotic and appealing. She is a sexual goddess. There are some Cubistic elements even in her classic rendering, like for example that strange nipple in the middle of her right breast, which is rather an odd finding, since the outline of the breasts both point towards a downward looking nipple of their own. But she is beautiful, and her skin has been painted in the color of human flesh.

The entire experience felt as if I was witnessing an outrage, although also, at the same time, a great moment of artistic creation. I think the painting calls for a reading of it that is of the “image as witness.” We are seeing something happening. And in my interpretation, we are witnessing an outrage. A beautiful outrage, but an outrage nonetheless.

The artist, who is almost all in shadow, is literally non-descript. But his profile is rather rakish, with its triangular satanic jaw and beard, and the cigarette dangling from his mouth. And also it is a profile that is enhanced by its background, which is actually a little more lime color than the almost pure yellow you see in the reproduction. The background exalts the painter, shows him as surrounded by a heavenly radiance.

It reminds me of the Byzantine icons, or the early Italian Sienese paintings, where the background is all done in gold leaf to represent the light of Heaven. If you zoom in on the picture you’ll see what I mean. The painter is in heaven, the heaven of redemption through art. He is also the inspired creator, inspired by the light of his Muse. But you see that in his background, not in himself, for he is almost all hidden in the dark, in his black shadow. The artist is a vehicle for the idea, which is to be conveyed from his inspiration to the viewer. And his darkness is also behind the model, undressing her.

Theodor Adorno says in his book, Aesthetic Theory, that when Modernist Art broke away, in the first decade of the twentieth century, from its traditional bondage to institutions, - to the Church, to the Court, and, later to its rich bourgeois patrons -, it took upon itself the promise of an emancipation of mankind. But as the world became uglier all around it, in the course of the twentieth century, and nothing changed, Art became uncertain as to its role and purpose in society. It became guilty. I think this painting of Braque shows that guilt of the artist. That is the ‘outrage’ I referred to above. It is here represented in the very act of creating, because the creation necessitates an outrage: the undressing gaze upon the young woman, her possession in the mind of the artist, her being stolen, as it were, and her ultimate alienation on the canvas, where she will remain as a picture forever, pinned down by the gaze of the artist. This act of painting a young woman, a very traditional motif in Western art, becomes here the object of the artist’s guilt. We are witnesses, in short, to the guilt of the artist and to the outrage that causes it.


  1. Have you seen this film about how Braque and Picasso were influenced by the cinema?

  2. I love this painting and your interpretation is grand, can you tell me what you think the yellow and gray shapes on the back of the chair represent?

  3. Thanks JoyceE. I took those 'rabbit ears' to be merely a design on the back of the chair. However, there is something phallic about them, as there is in the cigarette and the thumb of the artist. One must be cautious of over-interpretation though.