April 23, 2011

"Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914" at MoMA

"What is it?"
"Does it rest on a pedestal?"
"Does it hang on a wall?"
"What is it, painting or sculpture?"

So wondered the bewildered visitors to Picasso's studio at 242 Boulevard Raspail in Paris when confronted with his latest creation.

"It's nothing, it's el guitare" responded the artist nonchalantly. The time was late 1912, and Pablo Picasso had made a guitar. Not a wooden instrument with frets and steel strings, but a cardboard version that had been cut and folded and and threaded with twine and looked a little like a guitar if you used your imagination but evidently posed more questions than it answered.

El guitare became Picasso's obsession for the next two years as he created several variations on the cardboard construction and finally, in 1914, a sheet metal form with metal wires as strings. What these seemingly childish pursuits were, in fact, was a breakthrough period in Picasso's work that led to the development of Cubism and other 20th Century art movements. The cardboard guitar, in all its simplicity, paved the way for de-construction of planes and shapes and inspired a whole new way of looking at things.

These two cutting edge guitars were eventually donated by the artist to New York's Museum of Modern Art where they are currently on display along with 70 closely connected collages, drawings, paintings and photographs that they inspired. "Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914" is a special exhibition devoted to this very particular, watershed period in Pablo Picasso's career. Very specific, not overwhelming and extremely interesting, this small but excellent show clearly demonstrates the profound influence the guitar form had on Picasso, his art, and eventually on his fellow artists.

Following the initial fabrication of the cardboard guitar, Picasso set forth on an exploration of unconventional techniques and materials. With the guitar as a theme he created collages and paintings using "Papery Procedures" incorporating newspaper, wallpaper and sheet music onto the canvas and "Powdery Procedures" where the pigment was mixed with grit to give it texture, or painted to look like wood grain or marble as a trompe l'œuil. The results were stunning and the guitar became the central subject of many works, often in combination with wine bottles and glasses, cups of coffee, with the head of a girl or a man and with "F holes" added to become a violin.

Interestingly, Picasso did not publicly exhibit his pre-World War I musical instrument works until the late 1960s, but he did have them photographed at the time, often in groups as a documentation of what he was working on. These photographs were published shortly after in avant garde journals such as "Les Soirées de Paris" and give an amazing glimpse into the world of this visionary artist.

Pablo Picasso was a larger than life artist and personality and his legend continues to grow. This exhibition explores just a tiny chapter in his career, but an important one, and puts a lot of his later work into better perspective. "Picasso: Guitars" is on view at MoMA until June 6th.

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