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Clarinet and Bottle of Rum on a Mantelpiece 1911 is an oil painting on canvas by the French artist Georges Braque. The composition comprises a variety of objects presented as a series of disassembled, largely geometric layered shapes which form sharp angles and lines across the canvas. A clarinet, bottle of rum, a nail and a mantelpiece can be discerned. The clarinet appears just above the centre of the composition, lying horizontally across the bold diagonal of the mantelpiece. The clarinet is viewed from above almost bisecting the canvas and the mantelpiece is represented by two bold black lines that run parallel and diagonal to each other from the lower left corner towards the top edge of the painting. The side edge of the mantelpiece may be visible as it follows the course of the right-hand bold line until it is interrupted by an elaborate twisting corbel. A third view of the mantelpiece may appear in the lines which run in a counter-direction to the main mantelpiece from top-left to bottom-right. A final, fourth view is offered by a series of three lines briefly delineating a rectangular shape that runs from the mid-left of the canvas to the clarinet. A rum bottle sits upright on the main mantelpiece obscuring the middle part of the instrument. The letters ‘RHU’ form part of the French word ‘Rhum’ (‘rum’), and a small nail has been painted to the right of the bottle. The word ‘Valse’ (‘waltz’) appears at the lower centre to add to the musical theme of the work and various small shapes resembling musical notes and clefs are visible across the surface of the main mantelpiece. The work’s palette is limited, featuring blacks, muted greys, dull yellows and browns. These colours overlap, much in the same way as the lines and fragmented picture planes. Braque’s descriptive title draws the viewer’s attention to key objects within the composition and prevents the painting from appearing non-representational.
An inscription on the back of Clarinet and Bottle of Rum on a Mantelpiece indicates that it was painted in 1911 in Céret in the French Pyrenees, where Braque was spending the summer with Pablo Picasso. The painting was built up using a mixture of short brushstrokes (in areas of shadow) and longer brushstrokes (for instance in the thick black lines of the mantelpiece). Braque has also applied the paint delicately and thinly in some areas to accentuate the transparency of the layers. Art historian Douglas Cooper has observed that in the Céret period these artists explored ‘broken brushwork which they used to create a luminous palpitation, to differentiate between planes and to make the surface of the canvas more vibrant and tactile’ (Douglas Cooper, The Cubist Epoch, London 1994, p.53).
Clarinet and Bottle of Rum on a Mantelpiece is Braque’s first painting of a still life arrangement on a mantelpiece. The still life genre was particularly significant to Braque and he drew on its traditions in French art to represent the modern world. The artist explained that he found a ‘more objective element in still life’ than in subjects such as landscape (quoted in Philip Cooper, Cubism, London 2002, p.44). Braque often used instruments in his cubist paintings, ‘because I was surrounded by them and also because their forms, their volume, came into the ken of the still life’ (quoted in Cooper 2002, p.44). Like Picasso, Braque found that still life objects allowed him to analyse reality and represent the experience of three-dimensionality on a flat picture surface. The plasticity and volume of the clarinet, the mantelpiece, the bottle, the nail and the architectural features are evident in this painting. Douglas Cooper commented in 1994 that the letters (first introduced by Braque during his stay in Céret) are ‘active pictorial elements’ that ‘contribute to the realism of the presentation’ and he compares them to the ‘trompe-l’oeil nail’ which also features in his work, ‘paradoxically emphasising the schism between painting and reality’ (Cooper 1994, p.54). In Clarinet and Bottle of Rum on a Mantelpiece Braque shows the viewer key objects from several angles, but has also analysed and deconstructed the spaces between these objects, as denoted by the short hatched brushstrokes. These spaces were as significant as the objects themselves to Braque: ‘this “in between” is a no less important element than what they call the “object.” In fact, it is the relationship between objects themselves, and with the “in between”, which constitutes the subject matter’ (quoted in Cooper 1972, p.51).
The mantelpiece theme preoccupied Braque between 1921 and 1923 (see, for example, Guitar and Still Life on a Mantelpiece 1921, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). It was also during this period that his artistic collaboration with Picasso was at its closest, and Picasso experimented with the same theme in works such as Guitar and Clarinet on a Mantelpiece 1915 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Stylistically, Clarinet and Bottle of Rum on a Mantelpiece is one of Braque’s most pure expressions of analytical cubism; a style he pioneered with Picasso, which saw them reach ‘the frontier of non-figuration’ (Cooper 1994, p.51). At the same time this painting also resides in the French still life tradition and is particularly responsive to Paul Cézanne’s contributions to this genre, such as Still Life with Water Jug c.1892–3 (Tate N04725).
Douglas Cooper, Braque: The Great Years, exhibition catalogue, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago 1972, reproduced p.49.
Charles Harrison, Gill Perry and Francis Frascina, Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century, New Haven 1993, reproduced p.145.
Michelle Dantini, Modern and Contemporary Art, New York 2008, reproduced p.43.