The Birth of Synthetic Cubism: Picasso's Guitars

Museum of Modern Art, New York - February 13 to June 6, 2011

Pablo Picasso - Violin Hanging on the Wall, 1912-13
© 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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 mustached 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.

The Guitar Constructions Explain Cubism

The Guitar constructions made of cardboard paper (1912) and sheet metal (1914) clearly demonstrate the formal considerations of Cubism. As Jack Flam wrote in "Cubiquitous," a better word for Cubism would have been "Planarism," since the artists conceptualized reality in terms of the different faces or planes of an object (front, back, top, bottom, and sides) depicted on one surface -- a.k.a. simultaneity.

Picasso explained the collages to the sculptor Julio Gonzales: "It would have sufficed to cut them up -- the colors, after all, being no more than indications of differences in perspective, of planes inclined one way or the other -- and then assemble them according to the indications given by the color, in order to be confronted with a 'sculpture'." (Roland Penrose, The Life and Work of Picasso, third edition, 1981, p.265)

The Guitar constructions occurred as Picasso worked on the collages. The flat planes deployed on flat surfaces became flat planes projecting from the wall in a three-dimension arrangement located in real space.

Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, Picasso's dealer at the time, believed that the Guitar constructions were based on the artist's Grebo masks, which he acquired in August 1912. These three-dimensional objects represent the eyes as cylinders projecting from the flat surface of the mask, as indeed Picasso's Guitar constructions represent the sound hole as a cylinder projecting from the body of the guitar.

André Salmon inferred in La jeune sculpture française that Picasso looked at contemporary toys, such as a tiny tin fish suspended in a circle of tin ribbon that represented the fish swimming in its bowl.

William Rubin suggested in his catalogue for the Picasso and Braque show of 1989 that airplane gliders captured Picasso's imagination. (Picasso called Braque "Wilbur," after one of the Wright brothers, whose historic flight took place on December 17, 1903. Wilbur had just died on May 30, 1912. Orville died on January 30, 1948.)

From Traditional to Avant-garde Sculpture

Picasso's Guitar constructions broke with the continuous skin of conventional sculpture. In his 1909 Head (Fernande), a bumpy, lumpy contiguous series of planes represent the hair and face of the woman he loved at this time. These planes are positioned in such a manner to maximize the reflection of light on certain surfaces, similar to the depicted planes illuminated by light in Analytic Cubist paintings. These lit surfaces become colorful surfaces in the collages.

The cardboard Guitar construction depends on flat planes. It is composed of only 8 parts: the "front and "back" of the guitar, a box for its body, the "sound hole" (which looks like the cardboard cylinder inside a roll of toilet paper), the neck (which curves upward like an elongated trough), a triangle pointing down to indicate the guitar's head and a short folded paper near the triangle threaded with "guitar strings." Ordinary strings strung vertically, represent the guitar strings, and laterally (in a comically droopy way) represent the frets. A semi-circular piece, attached to the bottom of the maquette represents a table top location for the guitar and completes the original appearance of the work.

The cardboard Guitar and the sheet metal Guitar seem to simultaneously represent the inside and outside of the real instrument.

"El Guitare"

During the spring of 1914, the art critic André Salmon wrote:

"I have seen what no man has seen before in Picasso's studio. Leaving aside painting for the moment, Picasso built this immense guitar out of sheet metal with parts that could be given to any idiot in the universe who on his own might put the object together as well as the artist himself. More phantasmagorical than Faust's laboratory, this studio (which certain people might claim had no art in the conventional sense of the term) was furnished with the newest of objects. All the visible forms surrounding me appeared absolutely new. I had never seen such new things before. I didn't even know what a new object could be.

Some visitors, already shocked by the things that they saw covering the walls, refused to call these objects paintings (because they were made of oil-cloth, packing paper and newspaper). They pointed a condescending finger at the object of Picasso's clever pains, and said: 'What is it? Does you put it on a pedestal? Does you hang it on a wall? Is it painting or is it sculpture?'

Picasso dressed in the blue of a Parisian worker responded in his finest Andalusian voice: 'It's nothing. It's el guitare!'

And there you have it! The watertight compartments of art are demolished. We are now liberated from painting and sculpture just as we were liberated from the idiotic tyranny of academic genres. It's no longer this or that. It's nothing. It's el guitare!"

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Gersh-Nesic, Beth. "The Birth of Synthetic Cubism: Picasso's Guitars." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Gersh-Nesic, Beth. (2023, April 5). The Birth of Synthetic Cubism: Picasso's Guitars. Retrieved from Gersh-Nesic, Beth. "The Birth of Synthetic Cubism: Picasso's Guitars." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).