Anne Umland, curator in the department of painting and sculpture, and her assistant Blair Hartzell, have organized a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study Picasso's 1912-14 Guitar series in one beautiful installation. This team assembled 85 works from over 35 public and private collections -- a heroic feat indeed.
Why Picasso’s Guitar Series?
Most art historians credit the Guitar series as the definitive transition from Analytic to Synthetic Cubism. However, the guitars launched so much more. After a slow and careful examination of all the collages and constructions, it is clear that the Guitar series (which includes a few violins as well) crystallized Picasso's brand of Cubism. The series establishes a repertoire of signs that remained active in the artist's visual vocabulary through the Parade sketches and into the Cubo-Surrealist works of the 1920s.
When Did the Guitar Series Begin?
We don't know exactly when the Guitar series began. The collages include snippets of newspapers dated to November and December 1912. Black and white photographs of Picasso's studio on the Boulevard Raspail, published in Les Soirées de Paris, no. 18 (November 1913), show the cream-colored construction paper guitar surrounded by numerous collages and drawings of guitars or violins set up side by side on one wall.
Picasso gave his 1914 metal Guitar to the Museum of Modern Art in 1971. At that time, the director of paintings and drawings, William Rubin, believed that the "maquette" (model) cardboard guitar dated to the early part of 1912. (The museum acquired the "maquette" in 1973, after Picasso's death, in accordance with his wishes.)
During the preparation for the huge Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism exhibition in 1989, Rubin shifted the date to October 1912. Art historian Ruth Marcus agreed with Rubin in her 1996 article on the Guitar series, which convincingly explains the transitional significance of the series. The current MoMA exhibition sets the date for the "maquette" at October to December 1912.
How Do We Study the Guitar Series?
The best way to study the Guitar series is to notice two things: the wide variety of media and the repertoire of repeated shapes that mean different things within different contexts.
The collages integrate real substances such as wallpaper, sand, straight pins, ordinary string, brand labels, packaging, musical scores, and newspaper with the artist's drawn or painted versions of the same or similar objects. The combination of elements broke with traditional two-dimensional art practices, not only in terms of incorporating such humble materials but also because these materials referred to modern life in the streets, in the studios and in the cafés. This interplay of real-world items mirrors the integration of contemporary street imagery in his friends' avant-garde poetry, or what Guillaume Apollinaire called la nouveauté poésie (novelty poetry) - an early form of Pop Art.
Another Way to Study the Guitars
The second way to study the Guitar series requires a scavenger hunt for Picasso's repertoire of shapes that appear in most of the works. The MoMA exhibition provides an excellent opportunity to cross-check references and contexts. Together, the collages and Guitar constructions seem to reveal the artist's internal conversation: his criteria and his ambitions. We see the various short-hand signs to indicate objects or body parts migrate from one context to another, reinforcing and shifting meanings with only the context as a guide.
For example, the curvy side of a guitar in one work resembles the curve of a man's ear along his "head" in another. A circle may indicate a guitar's sound hole in one section of the collage and a bottle's bottom in another. Or a circle can be the top of the bottle's cork and simultaneously resemble a top hat neatly positioned on a moustached gentleman's face.
Ascertaining this repertory of shapes helps us understand the synecdoche in Cubism (those little shapes that indicate the whole in order to say: here is a violin, here is a table, here is a glass and here is a human being). This repertoire of signs developed during the Analytic Cubism Period became simplified shapes of this Synthetic Cubism Period.