Picassos Guitar Licks

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What’s a week without a new Picasso show? As the Virginia Museum of Art, Richmond, gets set to open “Masterpieces from the Musée Picasso, Paris,” featuring 176 works from Picasso’s own collection [Feb. 19–May 15], the Museum of Modern Art in New York unveils “Picasso Guitars: 1912–1914,” an exhibition of some 85 sculptures, paintings and works on paper, from the period when the artist was exploring music themes within the context of Cubism [Feb. 13–June 6].

For those of us who find in this artist’s work an endless source of drama, “Guitars” is not just another Picasso show. Organized by MoMA’s Associate Curator of Painting & Sculpture, Anne Umland, it’s a focused gem of an exhibition highlighting two years of feverish creativity on the eve of World War I, a transitional time when Picasso and Braque’s Analytical Cubism was morphing into Synthetic Cubism. Picasso would soon delve into all sorts of other -isms.

The show includes some rarely exhibited works from international public and private collections. It offers an intimate view of Picasso’s seemingly effortless ability to convey a sense of pulsing rhythm in even the most rigorously abstract compositions. At times, the works suggest erotic overtones using just a few well-placed marks and shapes.

The show revolves around two guitar sculptures: the famous sheet-metal Guitar (1914) that Picasso donated to MoMA a few years before his death in 1973; and an earlier version, Guitar (1912), a wall relief in cardboard, which is the first work visitors encounter at the third floor gallery entrance. Due to its abject or banal material and outlandish construction, the piece sparked considerable controversy when it was reproduced in the 1913 journal Le Soirées de Paris. Picasso’s widow, Jacqueline, gifted the piece to the museum soon after the artist died. But it arrived disassembled and, placed in the Study Collection for works to be researched and restored rather than the museum collection proper, it was all but forgotten.

Partially reconstructed for the big 1980 Picasso retrospective at MoMA, the sculpture was missing its lower portion, a paper cutout representing a kind of tabletop base. Thought to be lost, the section was discovered in the museum’s archives only in 2005, so this is the first time the work has appeared intact since 1913. Like its better-known counterpart in metal, the sculpture resembles a guitar in some way, but Picasso seems to have turned the instrument inside out as he heightens the sensuality of its forms. He gives substance to the openings a real guitar has, such as the sound hole, which he renders with a phallic-shaped tube. The guitar’s contours—already suggestive of a voluptuous female figure—are exaggerated and doubled asymmetrically to represent both the front and back of the instrument. Perhaps contradictorily, it’s an improbable yet plausible interpretation of a musical instrument, albeit expressed as an almost topological experiment. Not merely a cerebral exercise, though, this Guitar begs to be strummed in a lovesick serenade.

A theme Picasso associated not only with the music halls of Paris, but especially with his Spanish roots and heritage, the guitar appears early on in his work, as for instance in the celebrated Blue Period painting Old Blind Guitarist (1903–04), which hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. During the years covered in this show, the guitar apparently inspired endless spatial games in two-dimensional works as well as sculpture. The exhibition contains a number of striking paintings, including Violin Hanging on the Wall (1912), in which Picasso conveys illusionistic depth with the help of heavy impasto, spackle and sand.

Perhaps most exciting of all, a series of papier collé works, including Musical Score and Guitar (1912), from the Centre Pompidou, and Guitar, Sheet Music and Glass, from the McNay Art Museum, feature cutout bits of wallpaper, newspaper and sheet music glued to the surface. In many of these works, a tonal play ensues as a single rectangle of turquoise paper interacts with the almost terracotta hue of the newspaper strips that have ripened with age. Contrasted with the larger, more symphonic paintings and sculptures, these playful compositions suggest chamber pieces or witty songs.

FROM TOP: STILL LIFE WITH GUITAR. 1915. MUSEUM OF MODERN ART. ESTATE OF PABLO PICASSO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY. VIOLIN HANGING ON THE WALL (1912–1913). KUNSTMUSEUM BERN, HERMANN AND MARGRIT RUPF FOUNDATION. © 2011 ESTATE OF PABLO PICASSO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY.