"I'm delighted to tell you that I've been discharged," Braque wrote to Picasso in March 1917. "I'm longing to pick up my brushes again. By the end of the month I think I'll be on my way" (quoted in A. Danchev, Georges Braque: A Life, New York, 2005, p. 134). It had been nearly three long and physically painful years since Braque had been able to paint. He was mobilized for military service immediately after the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914, disrupting the most audacious and immensely creative adventure in the history of modern art: the formation and development of cubism. Picasso, his fellow cubist pioneer, was exempt from service as a Spanish national; Braque, however, became a lieutenant in a frontline infantry regiment and suffered a severe head wound in May 1915. His condition was critical, and his recovery was frustratingly, achingly slow. "It wasn't so much the wound I suffered," he later told André Verdet, "but the impossibility of painting for those long months. It was more the mental than the physical wounding. What use would I be, deprived of painting?" (quoted in ibid., p. 129).
When Braque finally returned to his easel in mid-1917, he lost no time in reclaiming his pre-war position of artistic authority. He had already signed a contract under quite favorable terms with Léonce Rosenberg, who had taken the helm of the cubist market when the German-born Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler fled France. "By the summer of 1918," Henry Hope has declared, "Braque had recovered full control of his creative force" (exh. cat., op. cit., New York, 1949, p. 75). There was no question of renewing his old partnership with Picasso. Braque disapproved of the recent classicizing developments in Picasso's painting, and he resented the spectacle of his erstwhile comrade's worldly success and fame. Instead, Braque forged his own way, working with great single-mindedness and introspection to create a post-war style that balanced the geometric austerities of cubism with a new tendency toward sensuality. "The work that followed caught observers unawares. It was plush, supple, undulant," Alex Danchev has written.
Braque painted Guitare et rhum in 1918, the first full year of this post-war renaissance. The flat, overlapping planes of the still-life composition are familiar from his earlier synthetic cubist idiom, and the oval format, which evokes the real tabletop support of the assembled objects, is one that Braque and Picasso had both explored as early as 1910. Now, however, the ordering of the planes is looser, the rectilinear forms bounded by a free, meandering curve, and the complexity of pattern and texture reveals a new delight in the painterly modulation of surfaces. Braque has painted certain passages to resemble chair caning, others with parallel waves or loose hatch marks; darker areas are rendered with small, dry strokes and lighter forms with a thick, broad, luxuriant touch. The contrasting brush marks and pigments in the painting are like the different types of paper in a papiers collé, creating a tension between the formal flattening of the picture plane and the tactile weight of the surface. "Braque was trying in these late cubist paintings to arouse in the spectator not so much a visual or intellectual as a tactile experience of reality and space," Douglas Cooper has written. "This was his personal contribution to the expressive range of late cubism, and he continued to elaborate it in a succession of luscious, sonorous still lifes during the next ten years" (The Cubist Epoch, London, 1971, p. 221).
Guitare et rhum is also noteworthy for its rich, velvety black ground, which Braque himself considered one of the most original and important features of his post-war work. "You know, or rather you don't know that I'm now doing my canvases on a black background," the artist wrote in 1919 to Kahnweiler, who remained in Switzerland. "It's a color that we've been deprived of for so long by Impressionism and is so beautiful. It's a little like the pasted white of my papiers collés in reverse. I'm pleased with the results and it has served me well. Working every day you acquire surer means and for me, the means, that's a lot" (quoted in A. Danchev, op. cit., 2005, p. 144). The black ground enabled Braque to restore a sense of depth to the composition without resorting to illusionistic tactics, and it also provides a rich, sonorous counterpoint to the lively textural decoration woven across the surface of the canvas. "The generous use of white, in the soft beige and gray glazes on a black ground," Bernard Zurcher has written, "emphasizes through its extremely seductive, tactile effect the decorative power of the surfaces" (op. cit., 1988, p. 134).
The preponderance of black in Guitare et rhum also creates a mood of meditation and elegy that contradicts the seemingly convivial aspect of the still-life objects. "The deep notes of black give the picture the greatest dignity and sobriety," Hope has written (exh. cat., op. cit., New York, 1949, p. 82). Indeed, it is very possible that Braque painted this canvas as a memorial to his close friend and fellow veteran, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who succumbed to the Spanish flu pandemic in November 1918, just two days before the Armistice was signed. The bottle labeled RHUM may refer to an encounter that Vollard had with Apollinaire less than a week before his death, in which the ailing poet brandished a bottle of rum and declared, "With this I can laugh at the epidemic" (quoted in J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso: 1917-1932, New York, 2007, vol. III, p. 98). The pipe at the right of the composition could allude to Apollinaire's proclivity for tobacco (he is shown smoking in a photograph by Picasso and a portrait drawing by Metzinger, both circa 1911), and more specifically to an expensive pipe that Jean Cocteau is said to have given Apollinaire on his deathbed. Finally, the ace of clubs–a favored motif in cubist painting for its auspicious connotations–may represent either Braque's futile wishes for his friend's recovery or a comment on the cruel vagaries of fortune, by which one man lives and another dies.
That Braque would have been profoundly affected by Apollinaire's death is not surprising. The poet had been a tireless defender of cubism from its inception, and he and Braque had both served on the front lines during the war and both suffered serious head wounds that required trepanation. Early in 1917, their friends hosted two banquets within a fortnight to celebrate first Apollinaire's recovery and then Braque's; the wounded comrades attended together in identical uniform, right down to their bandaged heads. In Guitare et rhum, Braque has taken a set of stock cubist still-life motifs, which in the halcyon pre-war years might have evoked an evening of music and merry-making, and has transformed them (much as Picasso would do in this period with the figure of Harlequin) into a moving requiem, both for his departed friend and for the untroubled, bohemian camaraderie of bygone days.
More than four decades later, Braque still carried with him the memory of Apollinaire and their shared experience during the Great War. In 1962, the year before his own death, Braque published a set of eighteen engravings to accompany poems from Apollinaire's Poèmes à Lou, which the artist himself selected and edited. As the title of the volume, Braque chose Si je mourais là-bas (If I Should Die Out There), from a verse that Apollinaire had penned on the eve of his mobilization: "If I should die out there at the front / You would weep for a day, beloved Lou / And then my memory would burn out like a / Shell bursting on the front lines, / A shell pretty as mimosas in bloom."
The formal power and iconographic complexity of Guitare et rhum attracted the attention of no less discerning a connoisseur than Gottlieb Friedrich Reber, a successful German industrialist and one of the foremost collectors of Cubism in the years after the First World War. The painting subsequently belonged to Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., publisher of the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch and chairman of the board responsible for awarding the Pulitzer Prizes, which his grandfather had established. In addition to his reputation as a journalist, Pulitzer was also known for his stellar collection of modern art.
ARTIST PHOTO: Braque, 1922. Photograph by Man Ray. BARCODE: nyrphhsg
FIG. A Georges Braque, Nature morte à la pipe, 1914. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. BARCODE: nyrphhse
FIG. B Georges Braque, Le Buffet, 1920. Albertina Museum, Vienna. BARCODE: nyrphhsf
FIG. C Juan Gris, Guitare et compotier, 1918. Kunstmuseum, Basel. BARCODE: nyrphhsd