During 1924, Picasso created a number of lyrical and innovative still life paintings that combined a new manipulation of line and colour with an atmosphere of romance and musicality. This is clearly evident in Compotier et guitare, painted that year, and extensively exhibited during the artist's own lifetime. Here, the composition comprises of a guitar, fruit in a bowl and wine, the perfect accoutrements for an intoxicating evening of indulgence of the senses, of ears, eyes and taste alike. This is made all the more intimate and atmospheric by the inclusion of the scattered stars that punctuate the upper reaches of this picture. Compotier et guitare shares similarities with some of the other great still life paintings of that year, not least Nature morte à la guitare in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Mandoline et guitare in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York and Nature morte à la galette in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. It is a tribute to the importance of Compotier et guitare that it was formerly owned by Walter Bareiss, a German-born businessman who later moved to the United States; many of the objects that were in his collection are now in several American museums.
Music had long interested Picasso, and during the period in which he painted Compotier et guitare, many of his friends and acquaintances were involved with music, be it as composers, such as Eric Satie and Igor Stravinsky, or through ballet: he was a friend and collaborator with Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of the legendary Ballets russes, and had married Olga Khokhlova, that company's former prima ballerina. This made the inclusion of the guitar a logical one in Compotier et guitare, all the more so since it is an instrument so closely related to his native Spain. Considering the Neo-Classical aesthetic that was still present in some of Picasso's other works during this period, this link to Spain and its own still life tradition in the works of artists such as Zurbaran and Cotán shows the artist looking backwards, perhaps towards more innocent times; however, he has revolutionised and reinvigorated the genre, both in terms of the history of art and in terms of his own development. For, in Compotier et guitare, the fields of colour are largely comprised of fairly geometric structures, recalling the Purism of artists such as Léger, Le Corbusier and Ozenfant that characterised another side of the Rappel à l'ordre that had been the response of so many artists to the chaos and turmoil of the First World War. In Neo-Classicism and Purism alike, there was a quest for a timeless sense of order.
In Compotier et guitare, the Purist-like fields of colour are playfully disrupted by Picasso by the strange, jagged-edged curves and curlicues with which he has delineated the forms of the guitar, table, fruit bowl and bottle, to say nothing of the wavy lines that evoke the wood or the deliberately child-like depiction of the scattered stars. In this, Picasso was exploring a new separation of drawing and painting with which he had briefly dabbled some years earlier but which would come to characterise much of his work in 1924, not least in the sets and designs for the ballet Mercure, organised by his friend Count Etienne de Beaumont. A legendary decadent figure from an ancient family with an immense fortune, Beaumont was equally willing to dispense vast sums on the arts as he was on his notorious masked balls. These were so over-the-top that he would come to be the inspiration for Raymond Radiguet's Le bal du comte d'Orgel. Picasso's designs for Mercure showed the same use of geometric colour forms in the background with wire-like 'drawing' in the foreground, and indeed in reality he used wire structures on the stage.
The link between Picasso's set design and Compotier et guitare extends to his witty abuse of trompe-l'oeil techniques in the frame-within-a-frame which recalls his theatre-within-a-theatre set design for Diaghilev's Cuadro Flamenco three years earlier. The dark border that he has painted within Compotier et guitare acts as a frame in its own right, but it is breached by the floor which, with its wavy faux-grained surface, appears to 'jut' into our space with deliberately false perspective-- the edges are at right-angles to the framing border, rather than tapering slightly into the distance. Picasso is irreverently playing with the conventions of painting, be they traditional or even Cubist. Indeed, this patently overt device within a work that utilises a lyrical form of Synthetic Cubism itself punctures some of the concepts of viewing from many angles that had characterised that earlier movement. Meanwhile, the disruption of the tradition of trompe-l'oeil is deepened by Picasso's hand-made attempt to represent the grain of the wood, creating a humorous parody of the collage techniques that he had used to such avail in the previous decade. Compotier et guitare, then, represents Picasso's playful attack on the suspension of disbelief that is necessary to view a painting.
Mercure baffled the wider public, but Picasso's décor found enthusiastic advocates both in Diaghilev, who was entranced by it all, and among the Surrealists. In the sets for the ballet, they saw an unwitting Surrealist. So too in the forms that comprise Compotier et guitare, there is a strange Surreal quality, with the guitar, with its tooth-edged outline, perhaps resembling a head or even a strange fish, with the neck representing its tail. Some of the forms have taken on an increasingly amorphous quality, heightening the lyricism that is at the painting's heart. It is this lyricism, embodied perhaps best by the innocence of the stars that litter the background and which featured in several of the still life pictures that Picasso created that year, not least during the summer when he was staying in Juan-les-Pins with Olga. It was during his time there that he also created the strange, constellation-like drawings of various objects that consisted of dots linked by lines. These appear to show an interest in the stars during this time, while also perhaps showing him looking more towards the suggestiveness that so fascinated some of the Surrealists. Crucially, though, in Compotier et guitare the stars, like the wavy lines of the wood, the skewed perspectives and the curving, flowing forms of the objects themselves, invoke a charmed life of visual and musical lyricism, of inspiration and romance and star-lit nights.
Walter Bareiss, who formerly owned Compotier et guitare, was a legendary collector, having purchased his first etching by Picasso at the age of only 13. An incredibly erudite and wide-ranging collector, Bareiss managed to accumulate a remarkable array of limited-edition artist's books, which he donated to the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio; his classical pottery was bought by the J. Paul Getty Museum; his immense collection of African art travelled the nation extensively; he acquired numerous works of contemporary art, not least from his native Germany, and his expertise in modern art was reflected in his being appointed interim Director of MoMA as well as a Trustee of the museum for almost a decade.