Painted in 1939-1940, Mandoline à la sonate counts among the most ambitious and joyous still-lifes Braque painted as the darkness of war descended on Europe. The work's sensual qualities are unmistakable: the fruit which litters the table, the wine implied by the carafe, or the music invoked by the mandolin and the book of sheet music upon which it perches, covering most of the letters of the sonate of the title. These elements all sit on a guéridon, the small table that became such an iconic motif in the early pictures of Braque and his Cubist colleague Picasso. Similarly, the patterning of the various wooden elements in Mandoline à la sonate, with the deliberately playful wood effects painted on by the artist himself, appears to pay tribute to the continuing legacy of Cubism. Meanwhile, the clear sense of space and spatial relationships in this interior view reveal the importance of Braque's continuing artistic investigations during the 1930s, which brought about a lyrical and highly legible style which would underpin his work for the rest of his career.
All of these factors help to explain the exceptional early provenance of Mandoline à la sonate, which was formerly in the collection of Gustav Zumsteg, the influential Zurich-based collector who inherited the famous Kronenhalle restaurant and filled it with important works of art. Zumsteg was a notable patron of the Kunsthaus Zurich, to which he donated works and funds both during his life and in his bequests. It also featured in two important lifetime museum exhibitions of Braque's work, the first in 1953 held at the Kunsthalle in Bern and the Kunsthaus in Zurich, the second organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain, which took place in 1956 at the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, and the Tate Gallery, London.
The sensuality of Mandoline à la sonate may owe some of its lyricism to the influence of the eighteenth-century painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (fig. 1). Certainly, during the 1930s, Braque appeared to reveal the influence of still life works by Chardin such as La nappe blanche, with its scattered assemblage of objects on the white tablecloth of the title; this is a motif that is again invoked by Mandoline à la sonate. The informality of Chardin's pictures, echoed through the scattered juxtaposition of objects in Mandoline à la sonate, also complemented the foundations of Paul Cézanne, the edifice upon which so much of Cubism had originally been built and a continuing touchstone for Braque throughout his career. In Mandoline à la sonate, the fruit and tablecloth can be seen to link Braque to the Master of Aix, continuing his dialogue with the past. Meanwhile, the presence of the mandolin and the fragment of writing from the depicted sonata,two attributes that illustrate Braque's longstanding passion for music, combine with the mock staining of the wooden areas depicted to recall Braque's own still life compositions from the heady days of the birth of Cubism.
These references to the past belie the spatial innovations that underpinned Braque's still life compositions from the 1930s. In a sense, Braque appears to have deliberately reconfigured the visual vocabulary of the past--both his past and that of art in general--in order to come to new solutions through these familiar forms. As he would explain in 1948, "Restricted means engender new forms, lead to creativity, determine the style. Progress in art consists not in extending its boundaries but in knowing them better" (Braque, quoted in E. Mullins, The Art of Georges Braque, New York, 1968, p. 132). Braque's career comprised a continual and rigorous investigation that allowed him to achieve an incredible variety of effects and discover an impressive range of pictorial solutions through his explorations of many aspects of the same devices. Thus, while the objects shown in Mandoline à la sonate may recall those earlier pictures by himself and others, the composition of Mandoline à la sonate itself remains novel, filled with lively color, with the ornamental backdrop which is reminiscent of Henri Matisse's paintings, with frenetic passages of paint which speak of the enthusiasm of the artist himself for this subject.
Many of Braque's works from the years leading up to and during the Second World War display the anxieties of the age: increasingly, the skull became his subject matter, introducing a morbid memento mori-like element that recalled Picasso's images of similar objects from the same period (fig. 2). Madoline à la sonate provides a marked contrast to those pictures. The palette is restrained and somber, perhaps revealing the atmosphere of the times, a transition evident when the picture is seen in relation to a light still life from a few years earlier, Le Concert (fig. 3). However, Mandoline à la sonate is dominated by the flashes of yellow of the fruit, the mandolin and the patterns on the wall in the background. Similarly, the subject matter of Mandoline à la sonate appears to be dominated by joyful themes of sensuality: fruit, wine and music are depicted against a backdrop that has an exotic, almost Ottoman splendor (fig. 4).
The subject of whether artists were influenced by current affairs was one that Braque himself addressed in 1939, around the time that Mandoline à la sonate was begun. "Contemporary events influence the painter, that goes without saying, but to what extent and in what form they mingle in his work, that cannot be determined," he explained. "In any case, the artist should not be expected to deliver a rounded verdict on the future of civilisation. His role is not to prophesy. For all that, he still belongs to his time, even if he refuses to acknowledge certain à priori facts concerning either external events or the inner life... Changes of régime necessarily affect the life of the painter since, like everyone else, he endures his age. But his work depends too much on the past for him to accommodate to the changes of the hour with a clear conscience. Who said: "We have to live out our previous life?" Fulfilment requires physical time; if it takes ten years to conceive and execute a canvas, how is the painter supposed to stay abreast of events? A painting is not a snapshot. Once again, this does not mean that the painter is not influenced, concerned and more by history; he can suffer without being militant. Only let us distinguish, categorically, between art and current affairs" (quoted in A. Danchev, Georges Braque: A Life, New York, 2005, pp. 202-03).
(fig. 1) Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin (1699-1799), Still Life with Grapes and Pomegranates, 1763. Louvre, Paris.
(fig. 2) Georges Braque, Composition with a Guitar, 1918-1919. Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris, France.
(fig. 3) Georges Braque, Concert, 1937. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
(fig. 4) Georges Braque, The Studio, 1939. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.