Sometime after November 18, 1912, Pablo Picasso whipped together what might be his most famous papier colle, Guitar, Sheet Music, and Glass (image at right, collection of the McNay Art Museum). It’s not just spectacularly composed, it features the latest cubist innovations: Hand-painted faux bois (wood grain) and papier colle, the mixture of added objects such as sheet music, cut-paper or a newspaper clipping and painting. (The only oil paint on this Guitar is the faux bois, or painting masquerading as something natural, the kind of doubling-back-on-itself pun that Picasso adored.)
Despite all that, the reason Guitar, Sheet Music, and Glass receives so much attention from art historians is the little bit of newspaper in the lower left-hand corner. Just about every Picasso scholar has interpreted Picasso’s use of the paper’s headline, “La Bataille s’est engage” (the battle has begun) as Picasso speaking to cubist collaborator Georges Braque through one of Braque’s own innovations: papier colle. The work is one of the stars of curator Anne Umland’s outstanding “Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914,” which is on view at the Museum of Modern Art. (I began my multi-part review of the exhibition yesterday.)
The battle to which Picasso refers is his own battle with Braque, the two-man struggle to push cubism in new directions. Between the summer of 1911 and when Picasso made this Guitar in late 1912, Braque — not Picasso, but Braque — made either two or three of cubism’s greatest innovations: First, in 1911, Braque made paper sculptures out of everyday materials such as newspaper and apparently cardboard. The work or works survive only in a single photograph. (Which is too bad, but Picasso obviously took note.)
The next innovation was hand-painted woodgraining. Cubism scholar Pierre Daix and Picasso biographer John Richardson seem to disagree on who first used the tactic: In “Picasso: Life and Art,” Daix cites Picasso’s Souvenir du Havre (May, 1912) as the first use of the technique, while in the second volume of his Picasso biography the famously partisan Richardson concedes that Souvenir ‘borrows’ the woodgraining “Braque had exploited imaginatively in his recent work.”
The last of the three innovations was Braque’s introduction of papier colle in August, 1912, a breakthrough he reached with the painting Fruit Dish and Glass (at left, not in the exhibition). Braque made the painting in Avignon — and he waited to make it until Picasso was out of town. (Forty years later, all of this still bothered Picasso: “He waited until I’d turned my back,” Picasso told Richardson and collector Douglas Cooper.)
The newspaper attached to the McNay painting sends a jocular, even friendly message about Braque’s recent successes. Less well-known — and as best I can find, unmentioned in the Picasso literature (seems unlikely, so: readers?) — is a similar salvo-via-newspaper that Picasso sent to Braque at almost the same time. Picasso’s second broadside comes in another work featured in Umland’s show: Violin and Newspaper from the collection of the Ludwig Museum in Cologne (made not before Dec. 1, 1912, below right). It even shares a page in Umland’s introductory pre-catalogue with the McNay artwork.
Like the McNay piece, Violin and Newspaper features faux bois and papier colle. However, the Ludwig painting is more confrontational: It features a violin, an instrument that both Picasso and Braque painted as they developed cubism together. However, the faux bois on the left hand side of the piece is more guitar-shaped than violin-shaped, and there appears to be a small soundhole below the violin strings. One of Picasso’s favorite cubist portraiture tricks was to present a figure and then to use a few tricks or symbols to identify who a subject was: Richardson cites a letter Picasso wrote to Braque in which Picasso explains how he does this in The Aficionado (below left, collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel) in the summer of 1912, how he turned a portrait of a bagpiper into an Aficionado by adding a tiny bit of hat, a tan and a large mustache. In Violin and Newspaper (not Picasso’s title), which he made only a few months after The Aficionado, I think we see Picasso using a version of that trick to turn a violin into a guitar.
Picasso didn’t stop there. Picasso included a newspaper clipping in the lower left-hand corner of Violin and Newspaper as well. This time the headline is more confrontational: “Un chauffeur tue sa femme,” Picasso declares. Translated, it means “A driver kills his wife.” In five words Picasso both consigned Braque to (what was then considered) a secondary role, and bumped him off. Picasso also added insult to fatal injury: His choice of instrument may have been new to him, but it wasn’t new to Braque, who had painted plenty of cubist guitars during the time he and Picasso had worked together. Picasso didn’t just want to slay his wife, he wanted to do it with a new-to-Picasso weapon taken from his ‘wife’s’ paintings. It’s an exceptionally ruthless moment both in Picasso’s oeuvre and in the history of 20th-century art.
So why did Picasso do it? Umland’s exhibition effectively explains that by showing how Picasso’s hyper-competitive streak took over, how Braque had become the Agatha Christie character who said one word too many in the presence of the murderer — and who ends up dead the next day. That second newspaper clipping is a reminder that for the ten or so months before Picasso began making his cubist guitars, Braque was out-innovating Picasso: Paper sculpture, painted faux bois and finally papier colle.
Sometime around when Picasso made the McNay and Ludwig works, he seems to have realized that he needed some time alone to, well, catch up. (Daix argues that Picasso innovated most when he worked alone.) Sure enough: Umland’s exhibition captures the precise period when Braque and Picasso began to work apart. In the period that Umland examines, late summer 1912 through mid-January 1914, Picasso worked mostly alone. According to Daix, Picasso and Braque were only in contact for the last three weeks of 1912, for six weeks from the end of January, 1913 until the beginning of March, 1913 and that they didn’t so much as meet again until December, 1913.
As a result, Umland’s show isn’t just about Picasso’s guitars, it’s about how Picasso used his guitars to push himself through a key moment in cubism, the year or so during which he and Braque pivoted from being partners to being rivals. This is the moment during which the artist who believed he was the driver of cubism killed his wife.