“At that time I was very friendly with Picasso,” Braque recalled to Dora Vallier in 1954, as he discussed the years 1907-1914, when he and Picasso together invented cubism. “Our temperaments were very different, but we had the same idea...We were living in Montmartre, we used to meet every day, we used to talk... In those years Picasso and I said things to each other that nobody will ever say again, that nobody could say any more...We were rather like a pair of climbers roped together” (R. Friedenthal, ed., Letters of the Great Artists, London, 1963, p. 264).
Braque painted Le guéridon in the spring of 1911, the key, decisive year in their creative partnership. Some four months later, in mid-August, he joined Picasso in the town of Céret in the French Pyrenees. “Although they were together for no more than three weeks,” John Richardson has written, “the two artists challenged each other to such good effect that–to revert to Braque’s mountaineering image–they finally made it to the summit” (A Life of Picasso, Vol. II: 1907-1917, New York, 1996, p. 193). In Le guéridon and other still-lifes painted in Paris before departing for the South, Braque set his table for this transformative encounter.
Because cubism is essentially an art that seeks to understand our perception of physical reality, it is also a statement of individual subjectivity, or as John Golding noted, “in some ways an expression of the private life and experience of the painter” (Cubism: A History and An Analysis, London, 1968, p. 89). Le guéridon is a self-portrait of the artist, not in any conventional sense as the man himself, but as the tools of his profession: a palette (in cubist double-exposure), a painter’s stick and brush, a container of linseed oil or turpentine, as well as a cup for cleaning his brushes (thrice repeated in fragmented views obliquely along the upper left edge). Braque depicted two tubes of oil paint at lower left. The color band of one displays the ochre tone of its contents, which Braque employed in the lower part of Le guéridon. Placed atop it is a tube containing chrome green, not visible elsewhere in the painting, except where Braque may have mixed this pigment with bone black and lead white to create some of the neutral tones in the gray passages.
Early in his friendship with Picasso, as their experimentation with the object in space showed the first promising results, Braque suggested that they not sign their completed canvases on the front. “I considered that the painter’s personality should be kept out of things,” Braque told Vallier, “and therefore the pictures should remain anonymous” (quoted in R. Friedenthal, ed., op. cit., 1963, p. 265). Picasso agreed. Braque signed Le guéridon on the reverse of the canvas, as Picasso for a time did the same on his paintings. “They were automatically emphasizing the autonomous existence of their creations,” Golding explained. “The painters themselves talked a great deal about ‘le tableau objet’...The cubists saw their paintings as constructed objects having their own existence, as small self-contained worlds, not reflecting the outside world but recreating it in a completely new form” (op. cit., 1968, pp. 93 and 94).
The development of cubism had been from the outset a process in progress, as Braque and Picasso each navigated the fundamental tension that exists between the external reality of nature and the internal reality of art. They had embarked upon the radical dismantling of the conventions—and the traditional notion altogether—of representation in Western art since the Renaissance. “The hard and fast rules of perspective which [the Renaissance] succeeded in imposing upon art were a ghastly mistake, which has taken four centuries to address,” Braque declared. “Scientific perspective is nothing but eye-fooling illusionism...a bad trick which makes it impossible for an artist to convey a full experience of space. Perspective is too mechanical to allow one to take full possession of things” (quoted in J. Richardson, G Braque, London, 1961, p. 10).
Their every exploration on canvas was a calculated step into a dark, unfamiliar room of uncertain dimensions. Braque and Picasso could count on only each other’s words of criticism and advice to guide them along the way. All efforts were tentative and relative; there would be no single solution nor ever any particular end in sight. “If cubism is an art of transition,” Picasso wrote in 1923, “I am sure that the only thing that will come out of it is another form of cubism” (D. Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art, New York, 1972, p. 6). Braque took a philosophical view about how they should proceed: “One should always have two ideas: one to destroy the other” (Cahiers, Paris, 1952, p. 21).
Both artists, taking their cue from lessons they understood in Cézanne’s painting, forged in their early cubism of 1908-1909 an impressively vital, sculptural, and volumetric presence for the figure, landscape, and objects in space. As if in adherence to Braque’s dictum of the two ideas, both artists then undertook in 1910 to subvert the illusion of three-dimensionality, dematerialize the solidity, and even contradict the identity of the object. Picasso conceived the task at hand, in their dealer D.-H. Kahnweiler’s terms, as the necessity of “shattering the closed form” (P. Daix and J. Rosselet, Picasso: The Cubist Years, London, 1979, p. 81). Both artists made the fragmentation of form, in increasingly complex faceting of the initially large planar elements seen in earlier cubism, the essential means of their analytic procedure.
For Braque, in contrast to Picasso, it was not so much the primacy of the object, but space itself—“a tactile space...a manual space”–that had become the point of his research. “Fragmentation enabled me to establish space and movement within space,” Braque explained. “I was unable to introduce the object until I had created the space” (quoted in J. Golding, op. cit., 1968, pp. 82 and 85). “Braque’s decomposition of solids into air-borne, twinkling facets is as fully advanced as in any of Picasso’s work at this time”—Robert Rosenblum wrote—“and creates perhaps even richer visual and intellectual paradoxes” (Cubism and Twentieth Century Art, New York, 1976, p. 44). “Of the two painters, Braque was the more painterly,” Golding asserted. “He was always more conscious than Picasso of the actual surface quality of his work, and moreover more consistently conscious of the need for respecting the demands of the picture plane” (op. cit., 1968, p. 84).
On 12 April 1911, “liberated” (as he wrote Picasso) from seventeen days of obligatory military service in Saint-Mars-la Brière, Braque returned to his studio in Paris. Happy to resume work, he completed this composition based on his painter’s table. He is believed to have created, around this time, a series of paper sculptures, all lost, only one of which is known today from a sole photograph taken in 1914. One may speculate that Braque utilized one such three-dimensional construction to guide his rendering of Le guéridon in the complex, fragmented syntax of the analytical mode. This composition displays exceptional clarity and transparency, as well as simultaneous but nonetheless compatible suggestions of flattened and recessive space.
These constructions piqued Picasso’s interest; he nicknamed his confrère “Wilbourg”, after Wilbur Wright, who flew one of his wood, cloth, and wire machines at Le Mans in 1908. It was not until October 1912 that Picasso made his first cardboard construction, Guitare (Spies, no. 27a; The Museum of Modern Art, New York), and also responded to Braque’s then most recent innovation, dated to early September 1912, those works in papiers collés that heralded the end of the preliminary analytical phase in cubism, and gave rise to the more expansive and inclusive period of synthetic cubism to come.