It sounds like such a small detail: Sometime during or just before the summer of 1912, Pablo Picasso started making cubist guitars. He made them on paper. He painted them in oil. He made them in papier colle, which roughly translates to ‘paper-and-glue construction plus oil painting.’ Perhaps most famously, Picasso made Guitar (1912, at left) out of cardboard and another Guitar (1914, below) out of ferrous sheet metal. Then tellingly, near the end of his life, he gave both to the Museum of Modern Art.
Those two Guitars are the bookends of a new MoMA exhibit, “Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914,” which smartly follows the bread crumbs that Picasso stashed at MoMA in the early 1970s. The show, curated by Anne Umland, suggests that Picasso’s introduction of guitars into his cubist vocabulary was a significant art historical moment, one that marked a major shift in Picasso’s artistic practice, in cubism and ultimately in the history of modern art. The exhibition is as thrilling as it is important and beautiful. (Alas: The show’s catalogue is a 104-page placeholder that merely introduces the exhibition and provides the museum with something to sell in its shop. MoMA says a forthcoming digital publication will present a more thorough scholarly examination of the exhibition.)
The show doesn’t just present an argument about the art historical importance of Picasso’s guitars — more on that in parts two and three of my review — but it presents an particular point of view about Picasso scholarship. At first glance and as with Umland’s last ‘dates’ show, there’s room to quibble with the beginning and end dates she has imposed on art history with her the exhibition. MoMA says the two guitars with which Umland begins and ends her show “bracket an intense period of experimentation,” which is true. But Picasso’s experimentation with guitar forms didn’t end in 1914 (a superb 1926 Guitar in the collection of the National Gallery of Art and bevy of1926 guitar constructions at the Musee Picasso in Paris are among the evidence that Picasso remained fascinated with the object). The dating of many of Picasso’s cubist works is difficult to establish, but it’s likely that Picasso’s exploration of the guitar form began even earlier than MoMA’s exhibition does. (According to Pierre Daix, MoMA’s Ma Jolie was titled Femme a la cithare by Picasso. He started it in the winter of 1911 and finished it in 1912.)
However, that may be part of Umland’s point: By terminating her exhibition with the 1914 sheet metal Guitar in MoMA’s collection, Umland is effectively countering the biographical approach some scholars have taken to Picasso’s art. The most prominent proponent of such is the most-read Picasso biographer, John Richardson. In recent years scholars — and now Umland — have been begun pushing back against the path Richardson and others have taken, the tendency to impose biography onto Picasso’s oeuvre and, conversely, to read Picasso’s art through his biography. (Another recent Richardson & Co. respondent is art historian TJ Clark, who used his 2009 Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art in 2009 to respond to both Picasso’s work and to Richardson’s approach to it. Clark talked about such in a MAN Q&A here and here.)
In the case of the period covered by MoMA’s show, many Picasso scholars and biographers, most notably Richardson but also Daix, have linked Picasso’s 1912-1914 guitars to the artist’s relationship with Eva Gouel: In came Eva, with her the guitars. Furthermore, in the third volume of his Picasso biography, Richardson ties Picasso’s 1926 re-engagement with guitars to the deterioration of the artist’s marriage to dancer Olga Khokhlova. Richardson posits that just as Picasso made guitars from 1912-1914 for reasons tied to his life — his passion for Eva! — he made them again to re-kindle his own fires, to help him exorcise Olga and her influence from his work.
Umland’s exhibition allies her approach with Clark’s and presents a narrative for us via the 85 artworks she presents. Her exhibition invites us to reconsider Picasso’s late cubism itself, particularly the questions: Why did Picasso started making guitars?, and Why does it matter if he was making guitars or something else?
I think the exhibition suggests that Picasso started making cubist guitars for two reasons: Picasso was responding to a particular moment in his relationship with cubist collaborator Georges Braque; and because guitars offered Picasso opportunities to explore cubist, visual and sexual puns, word-object-games that had become fundamental to his practice. I explore those two answers in: