This is the third and final part of MAN’s review of “Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914″ at the Museum of Modern Art. In part one I discussed the art historical discourse that curator Anne Umland was joining with her show and asked: Why did Picasso start making cubist guitars? In part two I provided what I think is one of the two answers: Because a battle had begun and the driver killed his wife. The second answer follows…
When Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso worked together, cubism was the art that showed humble, everyday objects. Cubist still-lifes were filled only with objects that were intended to be touched, to be used: Pipes, bottles, fans, newspapers, glasses and so on. Those objects were often presented to the viewer on tabletops as if to present them for tactile examination. This was the foundational pun on which cubism was based: Picasso and Braque may have been pushing painted objects toward the viewer, up against the picture plane, and they may have been showing us objects from multiple angles all at once, but we still couldn’t actually touch them. It was just oil paint. When Picasso felt himself falling ‘behind’ Braque when it came to innovating within cubism, that bedrock pun was the first thing at which he started kicking. [Image: Picasso, Musical Score and Guitar, autumn 1912. Collection of the Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne.]
In my last post on MoMA’s excellent “Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914,” I wrote that Picasso embraced the guiatar, a traditional Spanish instrument, as a way of separating himself from his collaboration with the Frenchman Braque, as a way of re-emerging as a solo act. Curator Anne Umland’s show revealed that one way Picasso did that was via a long, intense series of (mostly) guitars in a variety of media. Her exhibition also presents the way Picasso pivoted away from the touchable subjects of tag-team cubism to focus on making an artwork that could not be used: Picasso’s 1912 paperboard Guitar (below), the first readymade and the ur-object of the exhibition. Cubist painting merely simulated the third dimension; with Guitar, Picasso made a three-dimensional cubist object and the viewer still can’t touch or use it.
Well, maybe you could touch or handle Guitar, but it would probably disintegrate pretty quickly. Certainly you can’t play it — it’s a guitar made out of paperboard, paper and string, a variation on the classic cubist pun about what’s real and what’s not. Picasso thought this through: None of the three paperboard Guitars in the exhibition even have ‘strings’ that explicitly cross the ‘guitar’s’ sound hole, the place from which the instrument’s sound would come (if it really as an instrument, which it’s not). This was no accident. Instead, it seems to have been one of Picasso’s motivating principles: There are 85 artworks in the exhibition; In only three works (plus one page from a sketchbook) are strings joined to the guitar across the guitar’s sound hole.
(Side note about the power of Picasso’s visual language: A writer has to resort to a variety of quote marks, parentheticals, em-dashes and doubling-back to refer to all the cubist puns and jokes that Picasso packs into just a single object.)
As Picasso began to make guitars in two-dimensional media — mostly after the paperboard Guitars — he further developed this tactic of making the cubist object impossible. In Musical Score and Guitar (at top, autumn 1912), Picasso omits the sound hole altogether. The strings are reduced to two black lines on a piece of colored paper. That piece of paper is smack in the middle of the composition, explicitly not attached to the guitar, but instead attached to the colored paper on which the composition is built. The un-realness of the guitar is as explicit as Picasso could make it.
While Picasso was chipping away at cubism’s foundational pun, he took advantage of the new thing he’d found — no, not Eva Gouel, his new girlfriend , I mean guitars. Picasso jumped into exploring the puns his new object allowed. (True: There are a handful of what would seem to be mandolins in Picasso’s earlier cubism — Picasso didn’t title his works, hence the hedge — but they were typically being played, often by women and weren’t available for more than the one, obvious sound hole-derived pun.)
It’s that sound hole that provided Picasso with the most opportunities for punning with his guitars. Cubism had long played with the way the circular rim of a glass or bottle could be flat against the picture plane and still symbolize something that receded away from the viewer, all while standing in for both the top of the object and the mark it leaves on a table. Picasso’s guitar paintings and papier colles explore that rhyme, including in in Glass, Guitar and Bottle (early 1913, at right) and in Bottle of Marc de Bourgogne, Wineglass and Newspaper (December 1912 or later).
Picasso was also impishly fond of sexual puns, and the guitar’s shape and sound hole gave him abundant opportunities to play. The know-what-I-mean, know-what-I-mean references started with Picasso’s earliest guitars, such as late 1912’s Guitar on a Table, in which a recumbent guitar’s curves swell as breasts and where a sound hole serves as one orifice and a glass just below it provides another. (A mis-cropped JPEG of the papier colle is here. The actual work is not square.)
In Head of a Girl (early 1913, at left) he transforms a guitar into a girl’s head, complete with a wood comb-made coif. Her mouth is the guitar’s sound hole. The most explicit sexual pun in the show comes via Guitar and Bottle, a terrific rarely seen late 1912/early 1913 drawing in the collection of the National Gallery of Art (which apparently has not photographed it). The drawing features a guitar’s curves and sound hole, flanked by two bottles. On the right, a bottle in the white is merely outlined and its stiff neck points straight up. The bottle on the left is shaded-in and its (shorter) neck points down.
Ultimately, Picasso seized upon the guitar because he felt he needed to regain the upper hand over his old comrade Braque. Umland’s exhibition shows how Picasso advanced — and how quickly! — after he’d created the space he needed. Braque would be wounded in World War I and after recovering he would make great art until the end of his life. But he never again rivaled Picasso.