Pablo Picasso, Guitar Hero

By Gopnik, Blake | Newsweek, February 28, 2011 | Go to article overview

Pablo Picasso, Guitar Hero


Gopnik, Blake, Newsweek


Byline: Blake Gopnik

How a simple musical instrument inspired the Spanish artist to think out of the cubist box and create a symphony of work that would change art forever.

One of the greatest, most probing episodes in the career of one of the greatest, most probing artists of all time looks as though it was inspired by a humble guitar. That's one conclusion to draw from Picasso Guitars: 1912-1914, a wonderful new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The fall of 1912 was a watershed for the 31-year-old Picasso. Over the previous three years, he and his friend Georges Braque had invented cubism, thinking they'd discovered a new kind of depiction that could rival the high realism of Michelangelo and Rembrandt. By the end of year three, they'd come to realize that cubism could pull the world apart, but it couldn't put it back together in ways our brains could use. Yet cubism's failure was so glorious that it counted as a huge success: rather than singling out one way forward, cubism, in its failure, showed that the task ahead for modern art was to open up as many new directions as it could. (Lovers of "isms" have always labeled the 1909 style "analytic cubism," and the post-1912 work "synthetic cubism," but these terms are pretty much useless.)

Picasso would have done fine resting on the laurels that he won in 1909. Instead, in 1912, he decided to push forward onto new paths.

We see the first signs of a crossroads in late summer, when he shot a photograph of four classic cubist pictures leaning up against the wall, as complex and confusing as any art could be. And above those hang two new oval canvases, clear and bold and crisp, as though they were clearing out cubism's fogs. Both those ovals depicted guitars.

Looking at the stunningly profound and complex art on view at MoMA, one single question nagged at me more than any: of all the objects Picasso could have used to launch this second revolution in his art, why choose the guitar?

Here are some attempts at an answer.

1. El Guitare

Any of Picasso's pictures of Spanish guitars, painted and looked at in Paris, always count as a stand-in for Picasso himself, the Spanish artist who settled in Hispanophilic France. They let Picasso proclaim his Spanishness. They may also have helped him merge that Spanish identity into the French bohemia around him, since that was a culture that was also guitar-friendly. Early studio photos show Picasso flagging his native land by hanging an image of a bottle of Catalan anisette next to his great paper guitar--which was possibly the first sculpture ever made from separate elements, assembled. Questioned about what one of his guitar assemblages was--painting or sculpture (or junk)--Picasso proclaimed, "It's nothing, it's el guitare," casting a Spanish word into a French conversation. For a Spaniard, you could say that the guitar was the iconic tangible object--what it took to free Picasso from the miasmas of earlier cubism.

"Guitar." Museum of Modern Art, New York.

2. A Tool Kit for Art

A guitar comes preloaded with almost all the building blocks of art that Picasso wanted to mess with: straight lines, volumes and curves, surfaces of many colors and types. All guitars are born cubist, you could say. In Picasso's art, every guitar was almost begging to be pulled apart into its component parts of body, neck, strings, and tuning pegs. Sometimes you think you've spotted a guitar lurking even in a picture that isn't clearly of the instrument itself, which gives some idea of how protean an object it is, and how suited to the protean Picasso.

"Guitar." Nasjonalmuseet for Kunst, Arkitektur og Design, Oslo.

3. Air on the G String

If the whole guitar is like a drawerful of cubist art supplies, its strings are the most useful of all. Picasso used them to many different ends. The backbone of all old-master realism had been the grid of parallel and converging lines that help define perspective. …

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