Meeting Braque Halfway

Georges Braque, The Round Table, 1929. Oil, sand, charcoal on canvas, 57 3/8 x 44 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1934 © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Georges Braque, The Round Table, 1929. Oil, sand, charcoal on canvas, 57 3/8 x 44 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1934 © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

A few weeks after the exhibition Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928–1945 opened, I incorporated a quote by Duncan Phillips into my tour of Braque’s The Round Table. It’s from his 1926 book A Collection in the Making.

 “No matter how sound the museum director’s policy of ‘playing safe,’ there must be collectors bold enough to make mistakes while encouraging development and progress…. I cannot resist the temptation to introduce a few of these challenging young artists in our midst.” 

 When Phillips added The Round Table to his collection in 1934 it was the largest, most abstract, and what some considered the most challenging work he displayed to date.

After I read this quote, I invite viewers to spend a minute or so looking closely at The Round Table and thinking about what they see in the painting that might be challenging. The most common responses are:

  • Perspective – some do not see any perspective; others see many different perspectives
  • Size
  • Colors
  • Objects on the table look like they are about to fall off
  • Combination of abstraction and figuration
  • Cubist elements
  • Texture
  • The round table isn’t round!

Watching the visitors look for the challenges in Braque’s work and listening to their responses, I have noticed a change in the overall reaction to The Round Table. Many more visitors react positively, and as they share their ideas with the rest of the group, I can often see the satisfaction they feel in rising to the challenge of Braque’s work.

Sometimes we see a challenging work and dismiss it without digging deeper. Since I began my graduate studies in art history at George Washington University I have tried harder to unpack challenging works, or what some refer to as “meeting the work halfway.” It is not always easy, but I think it is worth the effort!

Beth Rizley Evans, Graduate Intern for Programs and Lectures



Photo of Amanda Jirón-Murphy giving her last spotlight tour

Amanda Jirón-Murphy gives her last spotlight tour on Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880-81. Photo: Sarah Osborne Bender

On her last day at the Phillips, Amanda says farewell the way she said hello, with a spotlight tour of, what else, Luncheon of the Boating Party. Who else can discuss the industrial revolution, the  advent of tubed oil paints, gallery lighting techniques, the history of the museum, quote T.J. Clarke and Émile Zola, use the word “higgledy-piggledy,” and include a healthy dose of fashion, all with the poise of a film star from a bygone era–in just 15 minutes? We’ll miss her and wish her well!

Seal, Unsealed

Morris Louis, Seal, 1959. Acrylic on canvas, 101-1/8 x 140-3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Gift of Marcella Brenner Revocable Trust, 2011 ©1993 Marcella Louis Brenner

Last Thursday, I stood in front of Seal for the Spotlight Tour on Morris Louis, confronted with the colossal stretch of raw canvas covered in black, blue, and green paint, staring at the work in its overwhelming enormity and pondering the paradox presented by its name. I had joined the tour as Paul Ruther, Manager of Teacher Programs, was telling the story of how the painting, one of a series done for a New York gallery in 1959, was dubbed Seal by Clement Greenberg despite Louis’s aversion to naming his work.

Why Seal? Paul asked the group. I couldn’t help but think that “seal,” in its many meanings, represented exactly what Louis was trying to avoid with his nameless paintings, as his work was an attempt at art freed from illusion and association, art unmediated by narrative. I thought of a “seal” as an emblem, a symbol, a stamp; an adhesive, some binding substance. Does a name have the power to seal-off our response to a painting, to direct or limit our thoughts and emotions, to force us to find symbolism only where the name suggests it exists? Would this painting be better off unSealed?

However, “seal” proved to be as slippery a word as the animal it signifies, and its multitudinous meanings generated a series of thoughtful comments. The washes of black and gray swim amongst blues and greens: a partly-submerged seal. The paint, as Paul pointed out, is adhered to the raw canvas, “sealed” to it, forming not paint-on-canvas but a single object. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that the artist never intended to name his painting, for the associations we make are just one way we connect to his work.

I also couldn’t help but wonder about Louis’s mysterious methods, though apparently this type of speculation is often discouraged. What I did learn about this particular piece, though, is that the canvas was so large he never worked with it stretched, but curled, furled, twisted, and draped. I can only picture Louis, locked away in his room, canvas sprawled everywhere, maybe meditative, maybe frenzied, puffing through a pack of cigarettes and painting and painting, the finished piece a mystery even to its creator.

I think it may be the mystery itself that speaks so astutely to the creative process, and to the act of responding to or interpreting art. Artistic expression creates its own language; it speaks to the private, the hidden, the indescribable, and illogical, yet it somehow makes sense, as the motivation behind and responses to these works often transcend verbal description and enter the realm of the inexplicably universal, moving us in ways we cannot name. Despite the name of this painting and the associations it invites, we inevitably connect to it in ways we can’t quite articulate, our reactions a mystery even to us.

Amanda Hickok, Marketing Intern