Painted in Paris shortly after Gris's return from Céret, where he had spent the previous three months working closely with Picasso, Guitare is an outstanding example of the Cubist still-life. It encompasses all the classic components of Gris's Cubist compositions: the faux-bois section of the table and guitar, the segments of newspaper and musical manuscript, and the complex overlapping of extravagantly colored planes.
Gris returned to Paris in November 1913, a month before he executed the present work. His close contact with Picasso during the preceding summer proved to be of crucial importance in his artistic development, which in turn had a powerful effect upon the subsequent evolution of Cubism. Lengthy discussions with Picasso led Gris to work consciously against the improvisational quality that was fundamental to the paintings which Braque and Picasso had produced up to that point. Though Gris retained much of Cubism's essential syntax, the unique strain he devised emanated with a heightened sense of clarity and a more pronounced structure and equilibrium. As Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the pre-eminent art dealer of the Cubist movement, explained:
The discussions at Céret [with Picasso] were not wasted on Gris. They made it possible for him to become aware of many things touching his own painting. What he had gained showed itself in the far greater simplicity and enhanced clarity of his pictures. (D.-H. Kahnweiler, Juan Gris: His Life and Work, New York, 1947, p. 9)
Despite his intimate contact with Picasso during this crucial moment in the development of Cubism, Gris retained his artistic independence:
By the spring of 1913 Gris had dispensed with his linear framework and had arrived at a new compositional device--deriving undoubtedly from the technique of papiers collés--namely a system of vertical, horizontal and triangular planes which overlap but which are not transparent. These planes, which are differentiated from each other tonally, and often texturally as well, provide the spatial structure of the composition as they take their place in front or behind others. On each of them Gris either represents, in its solidity, a single aspect of one or more objects, or else in outline some related aspect. These methods were purely personal and used only by Gris. (D. Cooper, exh. cat., The Cubist Epoch, County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1971, p. 202).
Examining the different attitudes which Gris and Picasso held at this time, Mark Rosenthal has argued:
Gris' approach to the object included an analytical depiction and a characterization of it, along with an interest in his own perception of and emotion before it. Picasso was generally playful or manipulative and in control of his motif. Whereas Picasso seemed to create a painting by a process of accretion, that is, adding one texture or facet to another, Gris started with a complete structural armature and added yet more complexity. He was master of compositional drama, integrating his interest and analysis of an object with a forceful presentation. (M. Rosenthal, exh. cat., Juan Gris, University Art Museum, Berkeley, 1983, p. 46)
Compare, the present picture, for example, with Picasso's Verre, guitare, bouteille (fig. 1), painted earlier in the same year and based on the manipulation of a similar group of elements.
Other critics have similarly stressed the logical, systematic quality of Gris's Cubist compositions:
Gris recovered the meaning that painting had lost in its treatment of still-life. This recovery endowed Cubism with the qualities of responsibility and respectability: Cubism was not a game... His structures always appear logical, since whatever is distorted in them owes its distortion to geometry rather than caprice. Even the urge he felt to draw painstakingly the graining in the wood of a table or of a dado stresses a contrast of textures that he had already established. In the same way a playing card, a musical score, or the headline of a newspaper are reproduced with absolute fidelity. What stimulated Gris to investigate a particular form was an appreciation of volume, but he also respected the special graphic quality of individual planes. (J.A. Gaya-Nuño, Juan Gris, London, 1975, p. 15)
The composition of the present work is dominated by the sharply diagonal positioning of the guitar, to which the viewer's eye is immediately drawn by the planes of bold yellow. This yellow is echoed by a paler shade at the edges of the work, tightening the design. Gris's selective use of black emphasizes the tonal contrasts within the painting, complementing the textural contrasts implied by the juxtaposition of guitar strings, faux-bois and the musical score. The work comes together in a triumphant combination between everyday objects, color and surface rhythm, set in relationship of deliberate spatial ambiguity.
The rich tonal contrasts exploited throughout Guitare reveal Gris's confident use of an undiluted palette, which he fully embraced in 1913.
Gris started working in 1913 with a spirit of enthusiasm and independence. As Cubism developed into the pan-european language of the avant-garde, Gris moved to the forefront in artistic creativity and influence. Most immediately notable about his work was the variety and strength of his color. Unmatched by Braque and Picasso in this regard, Gris employed color in a rich and complex manner. With this added element, his pictures took on an intensely refined subtlety that would characterize his work for the remainder of his career. (M. Rosenthal, op. cit., p. 37)
Gris executed several still-lifes based on the guitar in 1913, revealing his absorption with and relentless curiosity about the theme (Cooper nos. 30-31, 36, 40, 42, 45, 52-4, 57 & 63). These works vary dramatically, particularly in their treatment of space: for example, in La guitare sur la table (fig. 2) painted in April, eight months before the present work, Gris is clearly concerned with positioning the still-life within a fully realized space, deliberately including a carefully defined table-leg and a large area of wallpaper. When compared this work and with Guitare et verre (fig. 3), painted in July, the sophistication of the present painting becomes clear. In the earlier paintings Gris has retained obvious references to the table and wallpaper. By December he had progressed to fragment the wooden surface and to present the still-life within a largely undefined violet ground.
Guitare was originally handled by Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (fig. 4), the leading force behind the Cubist movement. Kahnweiler was a young German aesthete from Mannheim who gave up banking to become an art dealer. Knowing little about painting other than what he thought was exciting, innovative and good, Kahnweiler first bought Fauve paintings and then struck upon Cubism, purchasing a large group of early Cubist paintings by Braque in 1908. In November 1912, Gris, along with Picasso, Braque and Léger, signed a exclusive contract with Kahnweiler to sell their Cubist paintings. As a result, almost all the great masterpieces of Cubism passed through his hands.
Guitare was one of the works which the French state seized from Kahnweiler, a German citizen, at the outbreak of World War I. Kahnweiler was left stranded in Switzerland until the second half of 1920, powerless to prevent the French government from sequestering his large collection of Cubist paintings, drawings and prints. Upon his return, Kahnweiler was disqualified by law from making any purchases under his own name at the sales of his works held at the Hôtel Drouot. Instead he was represented by a syndicate of friends and relatives who bid under the fictitious name of Grassat. In this manner Kahnweiler was able to buy back Guitare in November 1921, along with many other works by Gris, Braque and Léger which then entered the inventory of his Galerie Simon on the rue d'Astorg, Paris.
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Verre, guitare, bouteille, 1913
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
(fig. 2) Juan Gris, La guitare sur la table, 1913
Private Collection (Christie's, May 11, 1988)
(fig. 3) Juan Gris, Guitare et verre, 1913
The Art Institute, Chicago
(fig. 4) Juan Gris, Portrait de Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, 1921
Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris