The cubist paintings of Braque and Picasso instigated the most far-reaching and revolutionary reassessment of spatial conventions in Western art since the development of perspective during the Renaissance. The two artists likened themselves to a pair of mountain climbers roped to each other by their safety line, or the pioneer aviators Orville and Wilbur Wright—Picasso was fond of addressing Braque as "Wilbourg," and Braque occasionally signed himself as such in letters to his dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. Their quest seemed no less audacious, for they sought to upend and supplant all prior values and priorities concerning visual perception and pictorial illusion. Braque later told John Richardson: "The whole Renaissance tradition is repugnant to me. The hard-and-fast rules of perspective which it succeeded in imposing on art were a ghastly mistake which it has taken four centuries to redress; Cézanne and after him, Picasso and myself can take a lot of the credit for this. Scientific perspective is nothing but eye-fooling illusionism; it is simply a trick—a bad trick—which makes it impossible for artists to convey a full experience of space, since it forces the objects in a picture to disappear away from the beholder instead of bringing them within his reach, as painting should. Perspective is too mechanical to allow one to take full possession of things. It has its origins in a single viewpoint and never gets away from it...When we arrived at this conclusion, everything changed—you have no idea how much" (quoted in J. Richardson, Braque, London, 1961, p. 10).
The still-life proved to be the most effective genre in spearheading their efforts—it was from the outset the cubist subject par excellence. Braque and Picasso realized their radical aims in subjects unaccompanied by either fanfare or drama, for they brought to the table the most humble and familiar of everyday objects. Within the present work, Braque incorporates two of these ordinary elements: a guitar and a newspaper weekly. Karen Wilkin has observed that "Braque turns the commonplace, by now predictable iconography of the cubist studio into some of the most elegant, intelligent painting of the twentieth century" (Georges Braque, New York, 1991, p. 58).
Its modestly scaled format notwithstanding, Braque recapitulates in Guitare et journal: STAL many of the astonishing innovations that he and Picasso had introduced into painting during the past four years of their "rope climbing party.” Braque, in fact, led the way in many instances. His father had been a house-painter and contractor, and as Braque grew up he learned many of the decorative skills of the trade, which he now adapted for his revisionist assault with Picasso on the conventions of "high" art. In 1910 Braque included a trompe-l'oeil rendering of a nail in several compositions, by which he created the playful illusion of having nailed the canvas to the wall. In the same year he introduced stenciled and hand-drawn lettering into his paintings (seen here as well, three years later) and thereafter both he and Picasso frequently employed words, letters and numbers as active pictorial elements (fig. 1). Richardson has noted, "Braque's refusal to be bound by convention in his handling of artist's materials resulted in his exploitation of unorthodox paint-surfaces and a new kind to tactile values" (ibid., p. 8). He employed a house painter's comb to rake the surface of paint film in order to simulate a wood-grain surface. He added sand to his oil colors. Braque felt the strong need to ground himself in reality as he and his colleague dismantled the spatial framework that painting had long since taken for granted, to avoid the tendency to abstraction, which had become real possibility during the hermetic phase of analytic Cubism in 1912. The use of such real elements, which he called "certainties," played a major role in establishing the painting as a tableau-objet, a fabrication that perched daringly on the very boundary between painting and reality, and, as the artists claimed, was entirely concrete and real in its own right.
Both Braque and Picasso had been using oval-shaped compositions since 1910, and the format and various elements in the present work were used in several paintings in 1911-1912 (figs. 2-3). Isabelle Monod-Fontaine has noted that, "the real support of the objects making up the still life is transposed into the particular format of these works. The tondo or oval shape permits the viewer concretely to experience the tactile space intended by the painter, the proximity of the assembled objects. Better, in any case, than the more abstract 'window' formed by the traditional rectangular frame" (in Georges Braque, Order & Emotion, exh. cat., Goulandris Foundation, Andros, Greece, 2003, pp. 21-22). Both artists had noticed that the presence of corners in the conventional rectangular canvas was especially problematic in still-life painting. The definition of space becomes ambiguous in these outlying areas, a situation that the corner-less tondo remedied, allowing the painter to create a compact space around the subject, and to concentrate more closely on the still-life objects themselves. The oval shape moreover served as a foil to the rectilinear cubist grid within the composition. Braque stated, "The point of my oval compositions was that they allowed me to rediscover the contrast between horizontals and verticals" (quoted in J. Richardson, ibid, p. 11).
Interestingly, a drawing on the reverse of the present lot depicts a literal copy of the head of Picasso’s 1910 masterpiece Jeune fille a la mandoline (Fanny Tellier), now in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York (fig. 4). There are no other known copies by Braque of Picasso or vice versa, and Braque admitted he could not remember when or why he made it (J. Richardson, op. cit., p. 29).
Braque was mobilized for military service in early August 1914 following the outbreak of the First World War. As a foreign national from a neutral country, Picasso was not obliged to don a uniform, and he continued painting while his friend, his "pardner" or "pard," as he called him, could not. These events marked the end of an era for Braque, when he was at the height of his powers. He did not resume painting until 1917, having suffered a grievous head wound which required trepanation and nearly two years of convalescence. When Braque and André Derain, another good friend, boarded the train in Avignon in August 1914 to return to Paris and serve their country, Picasso lamented, "I never saw them again." Of course, he did encounter them again, but the camaraderie and mutually stimulating dialogue of the halcyon days of pre-war Cubism were now only memories, and come what may, life and art would never be the same.