"Braque's Ateliers and the Symbolic Bird" Journal of Aesthetic Education, 
University of Illinois Press, vol. 29, no 2, summer 1995.


Georges Braque "Will you not allow that I have as much of the spirit of prophecy in me as the swan? For they, when they perceive that they must die, having sung all their life long, do then sing more lustily  than ever, rejoicing in the thought that they are  going to the god they serve."                                     - Socrates, Phaedo, 85.
"Leur vol est connaissance, l'espace est leur  aliénation." [Their flight is knowledge, space is their alienation.]                        - St. John Perse, Birds.
"Il n'est en art qu'une chose qui vaille: Celle que l'on ne peut expliquer." 
[In art there is only one thing that matters: what cannot be explained.]
                                               - Georges Braque, Notebooks, (1917-1947).

  It is a truism that the "image of the bird and the process of flight are obsessively related to the soul."[ 1]  Yet, like all truisms, we tend to let this fly out of our conscious minds, much like dream images, and forget how much a part of our everyday symbology birds are. Some think man has an intuitive awareness of mortality and it is in "the experience of death" that one realizes one's finitude, although Sigmund Freud reminds us: "In the unconscious, every one of us is convinced of his own immortality."

     It became apparent to prehistoric man that death was not a temporary lapse and that the change was irreversible. What survived was something immaterial, a replica of the body, a "ghost" or "shade," a symbol of thought and imagination pertaining to the spiritual process like the loftiness of spirit, movement in time and space as well as the transience of life.  Only much later did it become a disembodied "soul" symbolized by a bird, or by wings.

Probably the earliest record of mankind's use of the bird-image as symbol is the famous painting in Lascaux cave in southern France, which is believed by some mythologists to be a shaman dressed in a bird-headpiece and holding a bird-tipped staff. The later Creto-Aegean culture was dominated by the figure of the Great Mother as nature goddess;the dove was her attribute and she remained a dove-goddess asAstarte, then Aphrodite, and later as the Virgin Mary (with the dove of the Holy Ghost)[2] in Christianity. 

Sacred birds appear in abundance in Egyptian art, often representing the soul of a human or a god; in many Egyptian paintings birds are a symbol of death resting in the Tree of Life. Jason and the Argonauts were guided by a dove; in the Bible it was a bird that Noah released  from the ark; in Judaism there is the expression, "The wings of the Shekinah" (God's immanence, or presence).[3]  In Matthew III, 16, is written: "the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove.

" The dove became a symbol of Holy Spirit and the Christian image of the Third Person of the Trinity representing the love of the Father and the Son extended to mankind. Some early Christian and medieval ecclesiastical vessels are in the shape of a dove, specifically the pyx Columba (dove), the container of the Holy Eucharist. One of best known tomb monuments in Lycia, Asia Minor, is the Harpy Tomb, discovered among  the ruins of city of Xanthos, now in the British Museum. It consists of winged Harpies carrying away the "souls of the dead."[4]  In the case of deities with pre-Hellenic connections, the occasional bird-form which they assume may be associated with the epiphanies of Minoan divinities in that shape.[5]  

          The swan from time immemorial has been a bird of prophesy; Euripides, in Iphigeneia In Tauris, wrote "... the swan, minstrel of things to be, / Doth serve the Muse and sing."  When Horace hoped to become a swan he meant he was to be recognized as a true poet, or "Apollo's chorister." In China, the image of the crane was placed on the coffin in a funeral procession to convey the soul of the departed to the "Western Heaven.[6]  Hindu master yogis went into a trance known as hamsas ("wild ganders"); in Hindu mythology a wild goose is associated with Brahma who soars through the atmosphere mounted on a gander, symbol of the creative principle.[7]  A Persian manuscript in the Metropolitan Museum, Mantiq-al-tayr [The Language of the Birds] is a mystical poem written by a twelfth century poet, in which birds are used as symbols for man's search for god.

     Birds were a medieval obsession in the West and subject of one of the earliest sketch books, Drawings of Birds, c. 1400, in Magdelene College, Cambridge; a fourteenth century cleric would probably have said all birds represent souls because they can fly up to God. In the Teutonic legend of Lohengrin, Sigurd, in the Volsunga Saga (or Siegfried in the Nibelungenlied), after killing the dragon and tasting its blood, was able to understand the song of birds; Dante, in his Purgatorio describes an angel (a Greek word meaning messenger) as "l'uccel divino" (divine bird); and Shakespeare referred to the "death-divining swan" in The Phoenix and the Turtle. James Frazer records shamans wearing bird costumes as late as the twentieth century, and states that the bird evidently represents the shaman's ability to fly into a trance and return at will; wherever shamanism flourished there is evidence of the bird image as a sign of spiritual power.[8] 

     Since its beginnings humanity seems to have proceeded from the conviction of a soul, and birds are still endowed with rich mythic histories as archetypal symbols. There emerged in the late nineteenth century a psychology of "Soullessness,"[9]  or what in the twentieth century has come to be known as (Jungian) "Man in Search of a Soul." The image of the soul- bird turned negative as the bird changed from a soaring, spiritual symbol to one that is demeaned and unable to fly. Cooleridge's albatross was killed, and Chekhov's seagull was turned into a dramatic symbol by being shot. The ivory tower theme of the poets' isolation and scorn for the world that excommunicates him, had been haled innumerable times before Baudelaire invented his albatross and swan. Baudelaire, le poète maudit [the accursed poet], to whom modern art owes much of its renewed awareness of the spiritual quality of beauty, writes, in l'Art romantique, "It is at once through poetry ... that the soul glimpses the splendors situated beyond the grave." In his Les Fleurs du mal the swan (which he called ce malheureux [this wretch]) represents the misery of nineteenth century Paris in transition, or more accurately, the poet isolated and immobilized in the modern city; in Le Cygne the bird appears exiled from its lake and unable to exist in the mud of the city streets. Baudelaire's swan was among the ancestor's of Mallarmé's frozen bird. Both Baudelaire and Mallarmé had a neurotic dread of artistic sterility. Stéphane Mallarmé, precieux [precious, affected], aiming at purity and transcendence, attempted to express the lofty idealism of Western humanist traditions. But his swan neglected to depart with the autumn season, was coldly immobilized, and frozen into a wintry lake.[*]

  *  Interestingly, in contrast to Mallarmé, the Hindu gander swims on the surface of the water but is not bound to it; withdrawing from its watery realm it wings into pure air where it is as much at home as in the world below. [11]

     Mallarmé's swan is the poet himself, who, having failed to act in a way to assure his unalloyed creativity, feared he was doomed to fallow inactivity, a form of death for any artist ("Pour n'avoir pas chante la region ou vivre" [for having failed to sing the realms of life]). His blanche recalls the frozen lake, the hoar-frost, the sterile winter, while his la page blanche or vierge,[10]  recalls that "Mallarméan fear" of barrenness. Whiteness, usually associated with innocence of soul and holiness of life, can be deceptive; purity may turn quickly into frigidity. Swans were sacred to Apollo, god of poetry and the sun; Mallarmé froze his in ice. While some authorities see Mallarmé's Le Cygne as a philosophical interpretation of the Platonic myth of the soul fallen from the ideal and aspiring to restoration,[12]  others see the sonnet as a study of hostility between being and becoming, "but the world cannot be surpassed no matter how insistently one is called toward the absolute."[13]  Mallarmé wrote poetry as an exercise in metaphysical analysis. In exploring obscure regions of the soul "this unknown depth" (ce fond inconnu) is the goal of his symbolist art. His was a belief in the genius of humanity, a declaration of the next century's agnostic belief against the immortality of the soul.[14]  Indeed, Picasso and Braque's dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, described Mallarmé as a source of modern art equalled only by Cezanne, and that his poetry became very influential when perused by the Cubists.[15]

     As a young man Georges Braque was large, robust and muscular, an excellent pugilist and cyclist, renowned for his great strength. He was decisive, along with Picasso, in inventing and developing Cubism. Seriously wounded in World War I, he was awarded two decorations for valor in combat; he convalesced for two years before painting again, but never regained his great physical vigor nor his younger gregariousness. 

During his convalescence he began a book of reflections, Pascal-like pensées or aphoristic meditations about art and reality entitled Notebooks, (1917-1947), each page combining thought and image. The self-appraisal involved in this effort seems to have led to change in style, and the consequent psychological impact of his painting merged complex pictorial poetics and meditation. His avian image first appeared, importantly, in his illustrations for Hesiod's Theogonie in 1929; during the war years he painted a series of still-lifes with skulls and crucifixes, establishing a vanitas theme that was to characterize much of his late work.  John Russell theorizes that Braque might have pressed on toward the Atelier series had it not been for the outbreak of war in September; [16] 
 the harmony of his 1939 Studio was certainly not affected by the political situation.   Indeed the painting could be considered a forerunner of the series with its star-shaped embryonic bird amid the studio as an all-inclusive still-life. The brushes of the palette point generatively toward the bird, all new-born pink and cubistically incipient, emerging from the canvas on a cruciform easel. John Richardson points out that the bird "is not intended to be a `real' bird, but a `painted' one, albeit one which subsequently detaches itself from its canvas."[17]  Georges Braque

         The still-life, virtuoso design or hedonistic composition, is a traditional depiction of flowers, of the table and the basic creaturely occupations of eating and drinking, of humble and personal possessions, trivial things that tell no story. But Braque was more interested in personal artifacts that exalt everyday objects; he expanded the horizons beyond the still-life to the interior of his studio with its worked‑in, lived‑in look, a discerning realization and appreciation of the jumbled space enclosed by four walls. It is remarkable that the Atelier series is related to the many things Braque had already painted; one can find numerous belongings in earlier works used in new and profoundly different ways. In view of Braque's extraordinary gifts for breathing life into inanimate objects, we can only guess at the private significance of these possessions. His work was always marvelously mellow and serene compared to Matisse's lush-hued studios, or the hyper-activity of Picasso's interior depictions (with views through chateau windows). In 1945 he underwent major surgery; after his illness he was progressively ailing and noticeably aging. Later he used a single bird to illustrate Rene Char's Le Soleil des Eaux, perhaps suggested by the emblem of the peace symbol after World War II.

      Braque, like most modern artists, was anti-renascence: "the whole Renaissance tradition is antipathetic to me;" perspective seemed wrong, he stated, because it created distance between the viewer and the object; art should bring them together to offer "the full experience of space." Of the four elements, air, or space, is most closely linked with the soul on the basis of the medium through which it travels; like air the soul is intangible and invisible, permeates and cannot be delimited.[18]  "All my life," he explained, "my great preoccupation has been to paint space."

      In the summer of 1955 Braque visited the bird sanctuary in Camargue where the saline marshes in the delta of the Rhine provide rich plant food for exotic birds; this stimulated his imagination for birds or at least confirmed his fascination for them. Braque and the poet St. John Perse were brought together in 1961 by a mutual friend at the artist's request, and he suggested they do something about birds. The artist greatly admired Seamarks, Perse's poem praising the sea as a majestic symbol enclosing the beginning and ending of life, and chose as epigram, "L'oiseau plus vaste sur son erre voit l'homme libre de son ombre, a la limite de son bien" [the bird, vast as its circle, sees man free of his shadow, at the limit of his weal].

     As Richardson said: "...the Ateliers are a microcosm of the painter's professional universe;"[19]  "...on the authority of Braque himself ... this bird is no more than a picture within a picture, and all attempts to read into it a symbolic significance are vain."[20]  Certainly in the early Ateliers the bird is not symbolicly meaningful; the bird begins as a painting within a painting. Braque's Ateliers can be seen as self-portraits, with the closed universe of the studio invaded by a mundane bird from the outside world (however "painted") - or a bird with psychic relevance.

Georges Braque In Atelier II the disorder of the studio is in flux with a plethora of real objects and invented shapes which metaphorically interpenetrate. The bird is woven into an intricate enclosure of descending vertical lines, suggesting Mallarmé's pli selon pli [phase over phase], as it traverses through light beams that descend from the skylight like the rays of the spectrum in Bernini's Gloria or The Ecstasy of St. Theresa. The bird acquires color and iridescence as it flies toward the cross-shaped easel, countering the movement of the arrow below; the bust (probably Hesperis
which Braque sculpted in 1939/40) is also looking right, along with the large white arrow which prevents the bird's movement from reigning over the composition.
  Georges Braque.Georges Braque
The bird is in full flight in Atelier IV, its orbed wings suggest the artist's palette as it approaches the easel. The converging lines no longer suggest rays of light; perhaps the fractured lines represent the flight of the bird through curtains, or past window mullions and wainscotting, or even picture rails, mahl stick, and the display easel Braque often used to show his work. But these linear areas play an important role in the spatial structure of the picture which depends on an elaborate play of verticals and diagonals helped by lines of direction. The bird and easel dominate as the brushes in the vase point upward to the bird, while the brushes in the palette point horizontally toward the Mozarabic decoration.

Georges Braque

Atelier V is a luxuriant, complex work. The bird fills the upper part of the picture; the brushes are recumbent in the palette, which, along with the bird, now dominate the composition. The studio is now the setting of a drama in which each of the articles of daily use within it plays a subsidiary part.  
     The perky young bird in Atelier VI sits atop a long-legged easel as though ready to depart; its white coloring is positive and uplifting, energized in part because it is associated with light, the source of growth. The studio is piled high with "a compendium of Braque's collected and utilized objects: jars, jugs, lamps, palettes, paints, and brushes."[21] The word "CAHIER" [workbook] probably refers to Braque's Notebooks, 1917-1947 as well as to Christian Zervos's Cahier d'Art, which published material on the painter. In the hourglass just above the word "CAHIER" the sands are running low, while the brushes  Georges Braque
  are horizontally docile in the palette.  The bird is similar to the early Christian and medieval ecclesiastical container for the Holy Eucharist, the sacrament of the last rites.  
     The winged creature was never intended as a real bird or symbol; it originated as a painted bird on canvas, but its presence increased the element of flux and mystery as it persisted in the artist's oeuvre.  In a sketch for Atelier VIII Braque wrote the word "Blanc" within the bird;other colors were barely 
Georges Braque

 noted.  White is traditionally associated with the idea of purity and new life, red with pulsing vitality. The red canvas (the bird was pink in the 1939 Studio) from which the bird has detached itself is now free of constraining lines and becomes a primary image as it glides independently and at will.
    Georges Braque

The foreground forms in Atelier VIII represents the folders in which he stored papers, prints, and drawings; to the right of a still-life of fruit is the palette with dashes of bright oil colors. The brushes again are down.  

Georges Braque

The bird seems to strive toward the pink palette in the final Atelier IX; the former vertical and diagonal lines of force are now quadrilaterally squared in relation to the painting which is itself square. This square format is no longer a multiplicity of vanishing points nor sinuous movement. An arrow is aimed at the fluttering bird where it is cubistically crystallized, fragmented, and impaled on cruciform scaffolding, as though

     Braque tried to dispel the emerging ideas of a symbolic bird. Braque always denied any symbolic significence: "... il n'ya jamais eu aucun symbole dans ma pienture." [There has never been a symbol in my painting].

      As a non-believer, Braque saw life's ultimate destiny, like Freud's concept of death, as a submission to the inevitable and a return to the inorganic. The paintings of his last decades were a time when the formal means of le maìtre never slackened; there was not the obsessive concern with themes of sex, impotence and death that gave Picasso's work their extraordinary force.  "Objects do not exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them, and between them and myself," recounted Braque. "When one attains this harmony, one reaches a sort of intellectual non-existence - what I can only describe as a state of peace - which makes everything possible and right. Life then becomes a perpetual revelation." The mind in tranquillity, having lost all interest for the material world is an attitude common to religious mystics.

     Braque's bird became idea, then metaphor, metaphor became metamorphosis and symbol. Symbology and poetry are mysterious in that they deal with visions that belong to imagination, that borderland between personal and impersonal. Metamorphosis is for the artist what ecstasy is for the mystic, a relinquishing of the material world. Symbols are created subjectively no matter how much their creator is consciously or unconsciously bound to a different culture. "Myths have a vital meaning," wrote Carl Jung, "not merely do they represent, they are the psychic life." Braque's relationship to the things in his studio became increasingly complex as the abstract quality of his pictorial language moved him away from a familiar representation of things.

All his personal still-life "props" were present - palettes, brushes, colors, varnishes, urns, compotes, plants, easels, etc.  The paraphenalia of surviving memories were the odds and ends of an elder craftsman who knew the living values of what his mind and hands had worked with and created over a lifetime.  

Every article enjoyed a special tranquillity as he exalted everyday objects and magnified their personal distinction.   Egyptian burial furnishings reached their peak in the tombs of the Pharoahs of the New Kingdom; in addition to clothing, jewels, amulets, and flowers, the tombs contained furniture, carts, pottery, receptacles, games, and writing instruments. Braque's workplace seemed to provide him with all the necessities of an "afterlife" also.

Georges Braque

Georges Braque

          Richardson described his studio: "... canvases and frames are stacked; on a lectern is a pile of sketchbooks which Braque claims he uses as `cookerybooks' to provide ideas and suggest subjects for compositions ... tables are laden with artists' materials, while others are covered with pots, vases, musical instruments, bowls of fruit, pieces of sculpture, objets trouvés, philodendron plants and all kinds of odds-and-ends..."[22]  Douglas Cooper said there "were small tables and stools on which stood pots, vases, jars, plants and flowers, as well as Braque's palette, brushes and a supply of colors and varnishes;" he also mentioned "Pens, pencils, brushes, and the like were carefully arranged on top of the desk ..."[23]  Can we surmise that Braque's objects have taken on transcendental meaning?      

Bird Returning to its Nest     Greatly simplified, Bird Returning to its Nest was created on the eve of Braque's seventy-fifth birthday and was one of his favorites. The bird is soaring freely beyond the confines of the studio and has associations of immortality. The flying bird, devoid of the studio and its many possessions, is still passing right to left (as do all good omens); is it from the painting on the easel? passing outside the studio window? from the artist's poetic unconscious? Plato conceived of the soul as having wings: "The soul...when perfect and fully winged, soars upward;" the bird comes to be an
image of "God's protective care which covers the world, just as the wings of the bird cover and protect her young."[24]  The luminous color spiritualizes his paintings, elevates them from the mundane to the celestial. The nocturnal, almost beatific rendering in which the whites of the bird and the eggs are muted to a warm off-white while all around are browns so dark they verge on ominous, cosmic black. The star-shape of the nest is similar to the star-shape of the emerging bird in the 1939 Studio; in the nest are three eggs, the traditional number for beginning, middle, and end. While Mallarmé saw his swan in the frozen lake as the whiteness of barrenness and sterility, Braque, no symbolist, or painter with a "forest of symbols" in his studio, unknowingly makes his pictorially living entities resonate with symbolic meaning. "The bird is the summing up of all my art - it is more than painting." Some might say it was his revelation.  

     "There are within us dimensions of which we cannot become aware except through symbols," said Paul Tillich. Symbolism expresses an escape from earthly limitations; it is transcendence, the marriage of worldly and otherworldly. Braque's mental and peaceable world was unpenetrated by faith or despair; his soul was a repository of esthetic feelings. He captured the symbol of freedom in the graceful movement of the bird; there is no sky, no heaven, no cosmos, the studio is life and afterlife.

     When did our psychic isolation, from what Teilhard de Chardin called "the divine milieu," begin? Some locate the change during the Renaissance when Man was placed in the center of the cosmos and became the measure of all things, including heaven. Freud's bleak view of human nature is well known; but he had shown that true and great art represents a synthesis of life and death in harmony; or as Martin Grotjahn stated, "The final

integration of death as the end of a person's life is supposed to be the harmonious achievement of conscious and unconscious..."[25]

Georges Braque in his Paris studio

     "Mysteries have to be respected if they are to retain their power," said Braque. All his still‑life possessions project the special creation of untranslatable order, harmony and insight that convey more than they say. These graphic symbols allowed the venerable painter to externalize his psychic processes and meditate on his world of art and artifacts. The birds are forms which allowed him to begin to relate to the necessity of dying; they epitomize the ultimate mystery of human expression. His was the comfort of complete achievement. His was the artistic fusion of life's passions with the repose of death; "Avec l'âge, l'art et la vie ne font qu'un." [With the years, art and life are one]. This is an accomplishment in the rarest moments of great art.



[ 1] Suzanne Nalbantian, The Symbol of the Soul From Hölderlin to Yeats: A Study in Metonymy, Columbia University Press, N.Y., 1977, p. 108.

[ 2] Erich Neumann, Origins of the History of Consciousness, tr. R.F.C. Hull, Princeton University Press, 1970, p. 76.

[ 3] J. Abelson, The Immanence of God in Rabbinical Literature, Hermon Press, N.Y., 1969, 
p. 89 ff.

[ 4] Gisela M.A. Richter, Handbook of Greek Art, Greenwich Conn., 1963, p. 79. See also Erwin Panofsky, Tomb Sculpture, N.Y., p. 23.

[ 5] M P Nilsson, The Minoan-Mycenaean Religion and its Survival in Greek Religion, 2d. rev. ed., N.Y., 1971, p. 285 ff.

[ 6] C.A.S. Williams, Encyclopedia of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives, N.Y., 1960, p. 100, 224.

[ 7] Heinrich Zimmer, Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, Princeton University Press, 1946, p.48.

[ 8] James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 12 vols., London, 1911-15.

[ 9] Nalbantian, loc. cit., p. 119.

[10] Philip E. Cranston, "In Hoc Signo: An Explication of Mallarmé's `Cygne'," Kentucky Romance Quarterly, vol. 28 (1), 1981. 

[11] Zimmer, loc. cit.

[12] Albert Mockel, Stéphane Mallarmé, Un héros (Mercure de France, 1899): quoted in James R. Lawler, "A Reading of Mallarmé's `le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui...'," Journal of Australasian Universities, Modern Language Association, vol. 9, 1958.

[13] Wallace Fowlie, Mallarmé, London and Chicago, 1953, p. 97. 

[14] Charles Mauron, Introduction to the Psychoanalysis of Stéphane Mallarmé, tr. Henderson and McLendon, University of California Press, 1963.

[15] D.H. Kahnweiler, "Mallarmé and Painting," reprinted in Marcel Raymond, From Baudelaire to Surrealism, Wittenborn, N.Y., 1949, p. 363. This belief was echoed by Robert Motherwell in his preface: "Mallarmé was responsible for the atmosphere in which Cubism became possible."

[16] John Russell, Georges Braque, London, 1959, p. 30.

[17] John Richardson, "The Ateliers of Braque," Burlington, vol. XCVII, no. 627 
(June, 1955).

[18] Nalbantian, op. cit., p. 1.

[19] Richardson, loc. cit.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Alvin Martin, "The Late Braque at the Phillips and Some Comments on the Centennial," Art    Journal, vol. 43, no. 1 (Spring 1983). 

[22] John Richardson, Georges Braque, Greenwich, Conn., 1961, p. 26. 

[23] Douglas Cooper, Braque: The Great Years, Chicago, 1972, p. 98-99.

[24] Abelson, op. cit., p. 92.

[25] Martin Grotjahn, "The Representation of Death in the Art of Antiquity and in the Unconscious of Modern Man," in Psychoanalysis and Culture: Essays in Honor of Geza Roheim, G.B. Wilbur (ed.), N.Y. 1951, p. 424.

This paper was written with the help of a Release-Time Research Grant from Long Island University, the Brooklyn Campus. I wish to thank Sr. Carol L. Ries, S.N.J.M. for her suggestions in preparing this study. 





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