Painted between 1927 and 1929, and dated accordingly by the artist, Compotier et guitare presents the viewer with a still life that combines several threads of Picasso's painting. All at once, it hints at the Rappel à l'ordre of the 1920s, at the Purism of Ozenfant, Le Corbusier and Léger, at the Cubism of the 1910s and, most importantly, reveals a generous dash of Picasso's own sense of humour-- perhaps even hinting at his increasing interest in Surrealism. This is perhaps the reason that, as documented by several photographs taken at various points during the work's creation, Picasso revisited it, adding the figurative elements to what had been an essentially abstract picture (as illustrated in Cahiers d'Art) and creating something that is at once lyrical, whimsical and complete.
The Purism of this work is evident in the colour fields and in the use of geometric lines and forms in order to build up the image of fruit, bowl and guitar. Arcs, triangles, and fields of almost uniform colour recall the crisp 1920s still life paintings of the Purists, a style that Picasso had himself explored rigorously in some of his earlier works. Yet here he is clearly chomping at the bit, and has in fact galloped off in his disruption of that style. There is a clear flamboyance evident in all the shapes, and especially in the sweeping arcs, which speak more of the artist's own virtuoso draughtsmanship than of compasses, stencils and protractors. Even the fields of colour have become openly painterly and in parts include tone and shading. Meanwhile, the background, which Picasso has deliberately coloured the beige-brown of board in such a way as to make it look un-coloured, has been created with painstaking care and deep irony in order to look almost sketch-like, despite the clear attention that has been devoted to its mimicking this look. This is clear in the simple lines and shapes with which Picasso has depicted the skirting boards and wallpaper.
The deliberate restraint in the background palette serves a double purpose, also thrusting the central objects into bold relief. With their rich and bold fields of colour, they appear to burst from the canvas, an effect that is made all the more explicit by the 'protruding' neck of the guitar. Here, with immense artistic wit, Picasso has deliberately created a false succession of painted frames within the frame of the picture, and has shown the guitar breaching the first of these boundaries. This mock trompe-l'oeil is made all the more humorous by the fact that the stylisation of Picasso's presentation of the scene is so clearly far from being true trompe-l'oeil. There is no sense of illusion in this context in the projected guitar, which has been rendered with the utmost economy as a white field articulated by the three lines of the strings. In a sense, Picasso is nimbly bringing our attention all the more forcefully to questions of the nature of representation, of the purpose of art. Above all, though, he is filling his work with an unfettered atmosphere of unorthodox fun.
This may in part reflect the changes that were occurring during Picasso's life during the period that he executed Compotier et guitare. On the one hand, it reflects his interest in Surrealism as much as it does his now-waned interest in Purism. The deliberately false trompe-l'oeil raises questions similar to those of Magritte's La trahison des images of the same period, in which the picture of a pipe was accompanied by the statement that, 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe.' On the other hand, the humour, music and the fruit too reflect some of the exuberance in Picasso's own life during the earliest period of his relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter, who was to become one of the most important of all his Muses. It was in 1927, the year that Compotier et guitare was begun, that Picasso famously approached the then 17-year old Marie-Thérèse and told her, 'I am Picasso! You and I are going to do great things together' (P. Daix, La vie de peintre de Pablo Picasso, Paris, 1977, p. 217). Within a short time, Marie-Thérèse had become model and lover, her vivacity and youth having an invigorating effect on the artist, who was feeling increasingly constrained by the rigidity of his bourgeois life and marriage to Olga Khokhlova. It appears to be an aspect of this new-found exuberance that is on such engaging display in Compotier et guitare.
It is a reflection of the quality of this immensely stylish and character-filled still life that it has had such a distinguished history of ownership. Among its early owners were Mr. and Mrs. W. Averell Harriman, of New York. Averill Harriman, as well as being an accomplished businessman, initially within the realms of his family's own companies, and then as a highly successful entrepreneur in his own right. Among his own ventures was included what was, at the time, one of the world's largest merchant fleets. Following this and various other business coups, Harriman had become increasingly active on the political front, and on the outbreak of the Second World War he negotiated a position in Washington D.C.; within a short time, he was a highly respected diplomat, serving as wartime ambassador to the USSR-- he was even present at the Big Three conferences. He also served as ambassador to the United Kingdom, and remained a key political figure for several decades. His second wife, Marie Norton Whitney, whom he married in 1930, was one of New York's great hostesses of the period, and it is a reflection of her love of the arts that she also ran the Marie Harriman Gallery for just over a decade. After passing through the hands of the Galerie Rosengart, Compotier et guitare was owned by Dr. Fritz Heer. It then entered the celebrated collection of the Belgian industrialist and connoisseur, Philippe Dotremont, primarily noted as an enthusiastic advocate of Post-War art, a tribute to the pulsing modernity and character with which this picture is filled.