Painted in 1938, Nature morte à la guitare (rideaux rouge) dates from a crucial period when Georges Braque began to create elaborate still life and interior compositions that were filled with a new vitality, in part due to the more ambitious scale of the motifs depicted. In the case of Nature morte à la guitare (rideaux rouge), this is evident in the fact that the table - the guéridon, that icon of late Cubism - is viewed from a distance that incorporates the various elements, be it the fruit, the crockery, the musical instrument or indeed the curtains themselves within the view. Rather than showing a clutch of objects in close-up, this gives a richer sense of the fabric of the interior in Braque's own world, plunging the viewer into his universe.
Nature morte à la guitare (rideaux rouge) dates from a brief window towards the end of the 1930s when Braque had developed this wider sense of a view for his still life and interior compositions, yet before the forceful yet menacing entrance that the vanitas was to make in his pictures only a year later. In this picture, Braque has continued to explore the fluid, post-Cubist lyricism that marked out his pictures after the First World War, allowing the various forms to sing with an intensity that is heightened by various areas of rich colour. This was itself a relative innovation in his works, which had often focussed on an organic and earthen palette. Now, by contrast, he was creating pictures with red curtains, pink tablecloths and so forth, adding an extra dimension of vitality.
Having learnt to paint with his friends Emile Othon Friesz and Raoul Dufy in Le Havre, where he had been brought up, Braque had soon moved away from the Fauve idiom that those artists embraced and instead had become, alongside Picasso, one of the true founders of Cubism. During the last years of the first decade and the beginning of the second decade of the Twentieth Century, the two artists had considered themselves to be the Wright Brothers of painting, pioneers bravely breaking down the hitherto accepted boundaries of their discipline. This teamwork had essentially come to an end at the outbreak of the First World War; while Picasso, as a Spanish national, was not obliged to join up and fight and therefore had several years of relatively tranquil artistic exploration ahead of him, Braque was called up and was wounded, even losing his sight briefly due to the head injury he received in 1915 at Carency.
When he returned to civilian life, Braque brought a new clarity to his pictures, and the highly analytical Cubism that he had pioneered alongside Picasso was tempered increasingly with a new sensuality. While retaining an interest in the architecture of his compositions, Braque began to loosen them, to create paintings that appealed more openly to the senses. Earlier in their careers, Picasso and Braque had developed what they referred to as the 'armpit test', whereby they attempted to see if their paintings could convey the smell of the models depicted, and this added sensory information was something that both artists explored in a more overt manner in their later works. After the end of the First World War, this was a dimension that was to take increasing prominence in Braque's work. He sought to convey not the appearance of his subject, but its reality, and in so doing to introduce it as a concept into the mind of the viewer. 'I want an object to lose its usual function,' he explained. 'It is only art which can give it a universal character' (Braque, quoted in M. Gieure, G. Braque, London, 1956, p. 67).
This resulted in the increasingly fluid evolution of the compositional rigidity of his early works, as they featured an increasingly rhythmic and supine line, banishing the struts and scaffolding of high Cubism. This development would reach a new peak in the late 1930s in pictures such as Nature morte à la guitare (rideaux rouge), where the curves of the fruit, the jug and even the guitar are all the more emphasised by their contrast with the criss-crossing of the tablecloth and the jutting angularity of the wooden panelling shown in the background. Likewise, there is a sense of transparency in this painting, of forms superimposed, one upon the other, sometimes to the exclusion of the underlying one. This grants the picture a palimpsest-like character, adding to the notion of time passing which many critics felt was an integral part of Cubism, a means of depicting objects in four dimensions within the two dimensions of the canvas. There is a feeling of flux, of change, and therefore of a certain timelessness in this picture in the arcing forms that snake their way through the composition, hinting at layers of extra information, of a depth and density of truth in this still life.
Braque has added both to that density and to the eloquent sense of playful freedom in Nature morte à la guitare (rideaux rouge) with the vigorous, self-apparent brushwork with which he has painted so much of the picture. The substantiality of his brushwork is made all the more vivid by the artist's use of sand within the composition and within his oil paints; this was a technique that he had had introduced during his early Cubist days to add more weight to the oil areas of his pictures, and which he continued to use throughout his career, often allowing him to build up the picture surface, to grant it an added sensual component and to allow it to blur all the more the boundaries between picture and viewer, and indeed to introduce that sense of the tactile that was so crucial to him.
That use of an element from the real world to thicken and add extra texture to his picture appears to reveal Braque in part making reference to his earlier works in Nature morte à la guitare (rideaux rouge), a notion that is emphasised by several stylistic devices that recall some of the more ludic still life compositions of Braque and indeed of his former fellow pioneer Picasso during the early 1910s. The check of the tablecloth, combed brushwork giving a trompe-l'oeil sense of some of the woodwork, the embroidered border of the blue area on the table and the fictive patterning in the background all resonate with the almost shorthand techniques of those earlier pictures, as do the curlicue forms of the table legs. Meanwhile, the transparency of the bottle in the background may owe something to that third Musketeer of Cubism, Juan Gris, who was unparalleled in his depiction of glass in his pictures of the period.
The composition of Nature morte à la guitare (rideaux rouge) recalls the paintings of a guéridon in front of a window that had been such a staple of Picasso's post-Cubist work after the First World War. At the same time, the presence of the window and the curtains within the context of this interior view recalls the example of one of the other great pioneers of Twentieth Century painting, Henri Matisse. While the dominant red of the curtains in the background evokes such pictures by Matisse as L'atelier rouge of 1911, now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the presence of the window was a motif that recurred throughout his career. In this way, Braque appears to be making reference to both his own art historical past, and to that of his fellow travellers in the great trailblazing avant garde of the modern era. He has managed to blend the Cubism with which he and Picasso had made their name with some of the colourism of Matisse, yet has done so in such a way that these various references all combine to create something new. The fact that Braque has panned back, as it were, focussing not on a small and tight composition of objects but instead on an entire section of a room, plunges the viewer into the artist's milieu. This world of fruit, wine and music has been vividly captured in a domestic interior that relates to the Atelier and tablecloth pictures that Braque was painting during the late 1930s, such as La nappe rose in the Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia, of 1933, the work of the same title in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid from 1938 or L'atelier in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, of 1939. Comparison with these works shows Nature morte à la guitare (rideaux rouge) as part of an arc, a series of depictions in which Braque was dragging the viewer's eye to more and more of the canvas, rather than focussing on a central composition. In this way, he was achieving a new totality in his vision.
It is a tribute to the quality of Nature morte à la guitare (rideaux rouge) that it was acquired by Albert Davis Lasker, who is considered one of the fathers of modern advertising, having towered over the industry that he had helped to create during the first half of the Twentieth Century. Having initially worked as a journalist, and even founded his own successful newspaper, as a child, he was found a position in a Chicago advertising agency by his father, who did not approve of his interest in newspapers. This launched Lasker on a meteoric rise: he was a full partner of the company he had joined, Lord & Thomas, while still in his early 20s and revolutionised the industry. Lasker managed to combine his business interests with philanthropy and education, and the Lasker Foundation and the Lasker Prize that bear his name that bear his name and which he founded continue to promote medical science in particular. The tradition of collecting was continued by his daughter, who married Sidney F. Brody; their own collection was sold at Christie's New York in November 2010 to worldwide press attention and included Picasso's 1932 Nude, Green Leaves and Bust which achieved the world record price for a work of art when it reached a price of $106,482,500.