Making mystery fair game
''Mystery breaks out in full daylight. The mysterious is confused with darkness and obscurity,'' wrote Georges Braque in one of his notebooks. He should know. His late works are full of mystery.
Take several paintings of a billiard table, for example. Braque was famous for studying closely what was in front of him, meditating on it, virtually losing himself in it like Cezanne. In his paintings he portrayed the most everyday objects and scenes with which he lived. But, so far as anyone knows, Braque never had a billiard table.
So why does the billiard table appear among paintings done in his beloved Normandy studio? One can only guess. There must have been some compelling reason for Braque to picture this game table from memory, an unusual practice for him.
That is just the beginning of the mystery. Look what he does to the billiard table. He folds it in the middle as if it were a book. He bends it around corners. He tilts the top. He presents the legs from a level near the floor. This much one may, perhaps, attribute to his Cubist experiments with multiple points of view shown simultaneously. The painting becomes a sort of time machine in which a whole catalog of spatial relationships comes together on one plane.
In some variants of his theme, Braque gives the billiard table the depth of a well. He paints what look like reflections on a pane of glass in front of it. He superimposes a transparent leaf or lyre-like shape on the table as if he were looking past or through a plant. One critic has suggested the shapes represent the tips of his easel. All these devices might indicate his rendering of how one sees ''through'' an object that is close to the eyes when they are focused on a more distant point.
But what is he doing with criss crossing lines of light that not only go around the edge of the billiard table but make an X-pattern the width of the painting? What did he see? My first impression, when I saw this particular painting, was that the bright edge of the table was scintillating, as a highly varnished surface would be under bright light. The long horizontal bands, though , must be something else.
Maybe there is a clue in one of the other billiard table paintings. In it one sees a ceiling fan hanging over the table, along with a light. Is the transparent horizontal band in our painting, then, meant to show the fan from another viewpoint? If so, we are privileged to look at the table as if we were sitting on the floor, standing up, and yet hanging from the ceiling. Rather a neat trick, that.
Of course, we might think of a different explanation. We could simply be seeing ''through'' the cross piece of the easel. Who knows?
Braque's familiar bird motif appears in the background as - well - wallpaper? A view out the window? And what about the little shoelace pattern hanging from the hatrack? It is another of Braque's favorite motifs which he used in different contexts, such as for the ties of a lady's blouse or for scissor tongs near a stove in other paintings.
Braque once said, ''I only take (an object) up after it is good for nothing else but the trash can. . . . It is only then that it becomes the object of a work of art and acquires the quality of universality.'' Evidently he could then put it to whatever visual use he wished, including metaphor.
One thing standing for another can lead to ambiguity, and Braque was a master of ambiguity. What one sees in his late paintings can easily be read as one thing or another. Clues to identity are misleading. One can never say that the picture means this or that and be sure about it.
Did Braque know just what he was painting? The fine balance of line, mass, volume, and color harmonies would indicate that pictorially he certainly did. Yet he seemed to be on the track of something else in spite of a disclaimer that all he wanted to do was to make a ''pictorial event.''
He also once noted that he wanted ''to achieve unison with nature.'' Maybe what we are looking at is the record of this effort and the mysteries he encountered in the process.