Braque, Georges: Rio Tinto Factories at L'Estaque (1910)

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"These our actors,/ as I foretold you, were all spirits and/ are melted into air, into thin air..." says Prospero in The Tempest. "'All right,' said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of its tail..." wrote Lewis Carroll in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. And we think we can picture these scenes. Bodies that exist in a see-through, insubstantial state, bodies that fade into and out of existence – these phenomena are part of our visual currency, the stock imagery of ghost stories, fantasy, science fiction.

When it comes to presenting an apparition, a hallucination, a mirage, some kind of transparency or semi-vanishing seems the way to do it. You may associate these visual effects with trick photography's double exposures, or with trick stagecraft. But the traditional image technology of oil painting, with its super-dilute suspensions of pigment, its elusively gradual blurs, can handle dematerialisations masterfully.

If it chooses to. But in fact, the older Old Masters don't do it much. There are one or two images – by Bosch and Tintoretto – where spirit phenomena are represented by bodies that have gone see-through or are partly fading away. But generally, a phantom or a vision is depicted as something solid. The dematerialised supernatural only becomes normal with Romantic art. After that, the spirit realm is almost always designated by being merely half-there.

Turner is a great, but ambiguous performer in this mode. In his art, it's not just the occasional body but the whole world that goes into shimmering, gaseous meltdown. The earth, the sea and the sky disappear and blend in glare and haze and mist. Whether these fades and dissolves signify natural atmospherics or supernatural manifestations is a point that Turner usually leaves up in the air.

Impressionism, on the other hand, blurs appearances thoroughly, but it doesn't indulge in any dematerialisation effects. Behind the loss of focus, the physical world remains substantial, opaque, secular. Though edges may get very fuzzy, there's no suggestion that things are fading away or fading into one another.

But the painted fade-out has another high point in European art, in a body of paintings made by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1909 and 1911 – landscapes, still-lives and portraits, for which the standard name is Cubism. These pictures are full of dematerialisations. It's hard to see them as either optical or spiritual. Still, together with a profusion of short, sharp dividing lines, dematerialisation is Cubism's leading visual characteristic.

The landscape of Provence was established art country. Braque's Rio Tinto Factories at l'Estaque takes as its notional subject a modern intrusion into Cezanne's terrain. These factories, producing sodium salts and sulphuric acid, were built in the 1880s, overlooking the sea at Marseilles. But apart from a glimpse of factory chimney, which could as well be a church steeple, Braque doesn't dwell on the specifics of the chemical industry or exploit the potential dissonance of the scene. Nothing is ever quite clear enough.

At first sight, you feel that you have a kind of view of the scene. You see an arrangement of houses, or of house-shapes, very simple "Monopoly" houses, oblong solids with pitched roofs, which sometimes suggest Mediterranean red roofs. They seem to be gathered together in a shared space – rising up on top of one another, like a hillside settlement, but also overlapping, as if the lower buildings were in front of the higher ones. And there are suggestions of ground and shadow, between and around them, in the patches of darker grey and green.

But even as you describe this "scene", you lose it. You've already got too close. You're giving the picture a level of attention at which the thing you're trying to grasp – the huddle of separate buildings – begins to disperse and disintegrate. None of those hard-edged houses amounts to a complete solid. Their edges and planes don't fit together properly. Ground cuts into building. Near and far switch. Forms interpenetrate and dissolve.

You realise that your eye was picking up on, and then making too much of, a scattering of hints. Here and there, the picture offers something definite. Two planes meet at an angle; one is bright, the other dark, and you inevitably see a corner of a solid building. What's more, the light always comes from the same direction: the right. Add some roof-shapes, some reds and greens, some overlaps and you fill in the picture. But there isn't really a scene there – if only you could work it out! What you have is a series of false starts. And what happens everywhere is that things, having begun, then blur, dematerialise, fade. The picture is made up of super-imposed vanishing acts.

Like a traditional vignette, the whole image fades out at its perimeter, into the surrounding margin of blank canvas. And within the image, for every firm straight line that establishes an edge or a corner, there is a fade, in which one defined area blends into another – wall into roof, building into ground, ground into background.

Not that these dissolves are executed seamlessly, imperceptibly. There's none of the "magic" of Turner's oil paint. Braque puts the paint on like a heavy-handed Impressionist, in patches of juddery dabs. When these patches dissolve, they do so by petering out into blankness, or by encroaching into one another like mingling flocks. The dematerialisations have a blunt, unmysterious, material obviousness.

The picture surface is a field of pulsation, as the promise of a scene keeps being made and keeps being broken, as definition alternates with dissolve, as things go in and out of grasp, plain enough – but catching you every time.

The artist

Georges Braque (1882-1963) is often cast as tortoise to Picasso's hare. For a few years, they were, as Braque put it, "roped together like mountaineers". Around 1910, they were engaged in the invention of Cubism, a period in which the work of the two is hardly distinguishable. Thereafter, Picasso expanded. Braque respected his own limitations, concentrating on still-life and interior scenes. In muted colours, these variations on fruit bowls, billiard-tables and birds in flight are compositions of inexhaustible complexity, which are about very much more than they're of.