Just as in American art landscape and what happens in that landscape often stands as the artist’s observation of contemporary events — if you see a thunderstorm in an American landscape painting from, say, 1860 or 1861, you can damn well bet that the artist is portending a feared war between the states– so too the still-life in European art. Sure, sometimes a still-life painting of dead fish is just a still-life painting of a traditional subject. But for centuries European artists have used paintings of, er, particularly dead fish as a way of commenting on current events.
Previously I’ve noted how Goya did this when Napoleon invaded Spain and how Marsden Hartley picked up on the tradition to make a painting that is likely about the coming second World War. Dutch painters marked the Eighty Years’ War with dead-fish paintings too.
Georges Braque did it too. As curator Karen Butler and I discussed on this week’s Modern Art Notes Podcast, Braque painted numerous still-lifes of black fish while he was more-or-less confined to his Paris home and studio during World War II. Here’s a little bit of a picture narrative:
Before the war: Healthy-looking fish.
During the war: Black fish. The first three paintings are in the Kemper/Phillips Collection exhibition, this last one is not. It’s at the Pompidou.
Braque first exhibited these black-fish paintings in 1946-47 at the Galerie Maeght, where they caused a minor sensation. At the conclusion of the show, Braque pointedly gave this last one to the Musee National d’Art Moderne. The museum’s director at the time was Jean Cassou, who had been a brave fighter in the Resistance. Point made, twice.
Braque’s contemporaries seemed to understand the black fish paintings. In his 2005 Braque biography, Alex Danchev tells of a visit poet Francis Ponge made to Braque’s home and studio during the war. Near the end of Ponge’s visit, Braque showed Ponge one of the black-fish canvases. “I was seized by an irrepressible sob… a sort of spasm between the pharynx and the esophagus,” Ponge wrote later, adding that the painting prompted tears. “No doubt a certain nervous disorder had something to do with it: we were all still rather under-nourished at that time. But painting has hardly ever affected me like that.”
Braque’s friend and critic Jean Paulhan (an essay of whose is included in the catalogue for the current show) also understood: “The fish makes me reflect on your personal mixture of extreme violence and serenity,” Paulhan wrote in a letter to Braque. (The letter is quoted in Braque: The Late Works, the catalogue for a 1997 Menil exhibition.)