"Braque's Ateliers and the Symbolic
Bird" Journal of Aesthetic Education,
University of Illinois Press, vol. 29, no 2, summer 1995.
BRAQUE'S ATELIERS AND THE SYMBOLIC BIRD
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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," 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. 
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,
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,
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."
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.
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
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.
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. "All
my life," he explained, "my great preoccupation has been to
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;"
"...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."
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.
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
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.
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
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
..." Can we surmise
that Braque's objects have taken on transcendental meaning?
"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
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
of death as the end of a person's life is supposed to be the harmonious
achievement of conscious and unconscious..."
"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.
J. Abelson, The Immanence of God in Rabbinical Literature, Hermon
Press, N.Y., 1969,
[ 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.
 Philip E. Cranston, "In Hoc Signo: An Explication of Mallarmé's `Cygne'," Kentucky Romance Quarterly, vol. 28 (1), 1981.
 Zimmer, loc. cit.
 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.
 Wallace Fowlie, Mallarmé, London and Chicago, 1953, p. 97.
 Charles Mauron, Introduction to the Psychoanalysis of Stéphane Mallarmé, tr. Henderson and McLendon, University of California Press, 1963.
 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."
 John Russell, Georges Braque, London, 1959, p. 30.
John Richardson, "The Ateliers of Braque," Burlington,
vol. XCVII, no. 627
 Nalbantian, op. cit., p. 1.
 Richardson, loc. cit.
 Alvin Martin, "The Late Braque at the Phillips and Some Comments on the Centennial," Art Journal, vol. 43, no. 1 (Spring 1983).
 John Richardson, Georges Braque, Greenwich, Conn., 1961, p. 26.
 Douglas Cooper, Braque: The Great Years, Chicago, 1972, p. 98-99.
 Abelson, op. cit., p. 92.
 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.