Sometimes a Guitar

John Haber
in New York City

Pablo Picasso: Guitars

Paul Cézanne: Card Players

Sometime before November 1913, Pablo Picasso hung a guitar on the wall and called it art. And it was art, not least because he had made it himself out of cardboard, with thread for the strings.

The response was overwhelming—and not because he had churned out arena rock 'n' roll. The avant-garde then was a small community always on the move and always hungry for more. As Max Jacob, André Breton, Guillaume Apollinaire, and others flocked to Picasso's studio in Montparnasse, they knew that they had seen something astounding, but exactly what? Was it painting or sculpture, for one thing? It was, Picasso had to reply, a guitar. One might even call it a Spanish guitar. Pablo Picasso's Still Life with Guitar (Museum of Modern Art, c. 1913)

Paul Cézanne gave his still life the weight of mountains and Mont Sainte-Victoire the personality of an old friend. He could also treat people like still life. He made his dealer, Ambroise Vollard, sit unmoving hour after hour and still declared the portrait undone. He painted his own wife without a hint of desire, like the objectivity of Rembrandt without the tenderness. When it came to working men, though, he allows them dignity and an inner life. His Card Players combine every one of those impulses and then some.

The music of Cubism

An exhibition of Picasso's guitars opens with a wall of quotes, vividly evoking that moment, when Modernism was not yet a bourgeois delusion or an institution. Jacob had admired Pablo Picasso for over a decade, while Apollinaire, under arrest just the year before, had slyly blamed him for stealing the Mona Lisa. Madness was in the air, and they loved every minute of it. War was also in the air, and after its horrors Breton was to write a manifesto of Surrealism. Apollinaire, wounded in the war, coined the word. In his own way, Picasso had dreamed it up already with cardboard and a knife.

But what was it? MoMA has an answer. Guitars were central to a new art form, Synthetic Cubism, and the exhibition, organized by Anne Umland with Blair Hartzell, dives into that art in extraordinary depth. It covers barely three years, from 1912 through 1914, with more than sixty works, although it leaves out such crucial elements in the story as Georges Braque and Juan Gris. The works include both versions of the cutout—along with spare drawings, collage, painting, and every possible hybrid of them all. They cover a single, wide-open space, to suggest the openness of the time and the studio, which gets a huge photograph on the gallery wall. They make a telling contrast with the Met's exhibition of Cézanne's Card Players and Smokers, which can muster only five of the nine examples.

And what was Synthetic Cubism? For starters, it was cheap, when violins and often guitars meant fine wood and master craftsmanship. British visitors to Montmartre, Wyndham Lewis and Vanessa Bell, were especially put out. Those painters had embraced Analytic Cubism for its formalism, and surely the Picasso could have kept at something more like art—something held together by more than pins and glue. But he did not want to make rare objects for the few back then, and he may well have found his own greatest work from those years too arcane, not unlike much of the public today. Asked to turn his cardboard into proper Picasso sculpture, he came up with the second version in plain sheet metal.

By the same token, it was fragile and ephemeral, vanishing into the air like music. Where Cézanne had worked so hard to find permanence in the subjects and materials of Impressionism, Picasso transformed the art of museums into the art of the moment. He wrote Braque, his co-conspirator in Cubism, with his excitement at incorporating dust into painting. Whatever dust there was, the twentieth century must have vacuumed it up, but he sure threw in everything else. Synthetic Cubism started when Picasso found that he could sketch on and cut up newsprint—itself a record of changes from day to day. It came to include musical scores, real and imitation specks of marble, fake wood grain, real wallpaper, and raw pigment.

Like a newspaper, it was about daily life. Picasso loved the found word for newspaper in the masthead, Journal, and it turns up everywhere as the very best of Picasso in black and white. The clippings single out such mundane events as police reports ("A Chauffeur Kills His Wife") and funerals. Picasso's collage takes on art's most mundane genre, for the modern still life. Starting in 1907, Braque wrote, he and Picasso were like mountain climbers roped together, scaling together the peak that became modern art. Here Picasso seems happy just to hoist himself onto a spare table and off a dusty floor.

And that daily life meant life in the studio, the place of artists, musicians, and packing materials. A wine glass and a seltzer bottle, a violin or guitar, and a newspaper on a tabletop may now conjure up the romance of Paris from another era. Think of them instead as a half-empty beer bottle, an electric guitar, and a cell phone on a dirty sofa. Not that Picasso would take Brooklyn bands too seriously—not after Edouard Manet had treated a Spanish guitarist as a coarse specimen. In a portrait, crumpled and flattened paper for a beret weighs down like an ice pack after a hangover. The student's pipe, his long arched nose, the beret, and the charcoal curls of his long hair speak of a prematurely pretentious intellectual.

The J in journal

The sophisticated and the ordinary, the cultures of violins and guitars, in fact grow harder and harder to tell apart. Un coup de théatre, in Eastern Europe on the eve of war, has become Un coup de thé, a mere spot of tea. That clipped headline also toys with Un coup de dés, by Stéphane Mallarmé, which lays out words on the page much like a collage. Mallarmé's book-length poem had never made it into print with its proper spacing, but Picasso would have known of a 1914 edition in the works by Vollard. The dealer had handled the artist, who in turn like Cézanne before him had painted a Portrait of Vollard. In the same circle, Jacob was to publish Le cornet à dés, "The Dice Box," in 1917.

Traces like these announce a newfound economy, after the subtler density of the Analytic Cubism of Picasso and Braque. Drawings as spare as a few curves on blank paper give Henri Matisse a run for his money. Anything can stand for anything, in an economy of ever-shifting, circulating signs. In less theoretical language, Picasso is taking chances and having fun. A cutout J from Journal supplies an elegant shape, like the f-hole of a violin. A fragment like jou hints at jour (day), jeu (game or gambling), jou-jou (toy), or joie (joy).

Puns and play do not mean unalloyed pleasure. As Mallarmé's title goes, "a throw of the dice will never obliterate chance." Along with the torn and the ephemeral comes mortality, even before World War I. One can see it in the crime and funeral reports. One can see it in sheet music showing only the lyrics -la-me / et morts, as if to say larmes et morts—tears and death. The risk of a pun is not just that anything can be anything, but anything can be what it is not.

Newsprint serves first as a low-budget sketchpad, then as a shorthand for aged wood. The artist may run a carpenter's comb through paint to temper his virtuosity with a kind of conceptual art, or he may carefully mimic the house painter's shortcut for wood grain with a brush. In the three-dimensional guitars, part of the solid body becomes empty space, while the sound hole projects forward with a bit of a cardboard tube. Despite its promise, the exhibition does not by any means restrict itself to guitars, because the art does not. Picasso's portraits appear especially often, just as music implies a portrait of the artist. Sound holes can pass for eyes, and the redoubled curve of a cheek can pass for the side of a guitar seen almost from the front.

Art like this should come with a warning: what you see is what you get. Or maybe it should come with three warnings, since what you see is also not what you get, and what you get is not just what you see. Time and again, people learn that Cubism is about different views of the same thing. In place of Western art's single-point perspective, it is about multiple perspectives—like stereo vision multiplied to infinity. Wrong, dead wrong. That infinity is only the beginning, and sometimes vision is beside the point.

In Cubism, a sign can stand for the seen, but also for a shape, a texture, a color, a tactile sensation, or a sound. It can represent a solid thing or space, a word or a work of art, a true report or a fiction. It can be an illusion, a memory, a dream, the sign alone, or its contradiction. It can be nothing at all or the thing itself. No one will ever play Picasso's guitar, and you might cut your hand if you tried, but he may have had it right after all. Sometimes a guitar is just a guitar.

Playing his cards right

Paul Cézanne may have scrambled genres, portraying Madame Cézanne almost as a mountain, but he wanted to master them all. His early work makes explicit the violent longings lurking beneath the surface ever after, but his Bathers compete with Renaissance Venice, and he was part of an age that recovered the "lesser" art of the Dutch and Flemish for tradition. The Met has three of his five Card Players, among twenty-two revealing paintings and works on paper. It opens, however, with mediocre prints after painters he admired, to trace the evolution of the theme. Starting with an early Caravaggio, card players meant cheaters and gulls, and they quickly became moral lessons and tavern scenes. Cézanne studied them all, while eliminating the indulgence, the excess, the moralizing, and the commotion.

He eliminated, for that matter, obvious human interaction. The Met quotes Meyer Schapiro, who called the scenes "collective solitaire"—but they are also balancing acts, in which the shifting relationships between the players gives them their undercurrents and their majesty. Moving from one version to another, one can see the wine bottle slide, the table tilt and realign, and observers come and go without disturbing the strict alignment of a man's swirling cape with the curtain behind him. Within any one painting, one can see a bulkier figure fade, his partner's axis rotate forward, playing cards shift from light to dark, and the first figures hands come forward. Patches of color vibrate, the space between the players' knees becomes another cavern, and their hats grow into mountaintops. Schapiro saw the collective solitaire as an emblem for Cézanne's art.

That art certainly foretells Modernism. The ledge behind the two card players holds a view onto landscape and, in one version, an urn with a red flower, but one could mistake it for a mirror reflection of the interior. The only visible card on the table looks like abstract art, in a three by three grid of color. Paul Cezanne's Card Players (Musee d'Orsay, c. 1892–1896)The one painting on the wall, in a scene with three card players, is cut off just above its bottom edge. A solo portrait clearly does take an earlier painting for its background, but then the man blends into it, furthering the confusion of life and art. The Met also includes two Smokers, because the card players come with pipes, but one cannot say for sure which portraits have the same sitters.

Even the sequence of the paintings has room for uncertainty, although they move roughly from small to large, much as the artist moves from rough sketches to the art of museums. The Met displays two of the five as photographs in black and white, presumably so as not to dissemble their actual color—or not to outshine its meager borrowings. The first version, in the museum's permanent collection, is the clearest, palest, and most thinly painted, like other work from around 1890. A larger version with three card players in the Barnes Foundation keeps almost precisely the same poses and the same pipes on the wall, while adding a rack on the table for the cards, the painting on the wall, a shelf, and a second observer. Of the three versions with two players (the third in a private collection), Schapiro took the one in Paris as last and best, with a renewed darkness and monumentality. Some argue now for the version in the Courtauld, in which the table all but levitates off the ground.

As always, though, Cézanne is after more than uncertainty. He wanted the light and color of Impressionism along with the firm spatial construction of older art, and both committed him to objects and vision. Stand back from a smear of blue in another portrait, and the brightness of a white shirt emerges. The murky background in the two finest paintings combines rich colors with ordinary or extraordinary depth of field. In other still-life painting, starting years before, a rumpled tablecloth adds more mountains, and the tabletop manages to drop an inch or two as it passes beneath. With the Card Players, the balancing act largely dispenses with exaggeration.

Ultimately that extreme focus matters most. It unites the rampaging paint with the symmetry and a player's stoicism with high stakes. Cézanne worked on the family estate with the hired help as sitters, and the sense of isolation in his late work is strictly personal. Jean-Siméon Chardin had already painted men seated calmly and without self-indulgence, and smokers had long symbolized philosophers. Now brushwork itself has to take over from blowing smoke. Desire is still present, if one knows where to look.

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"Pablo Picasso: Guitars 1912–1914" ran at The Museum of Modern Art through June 6, 2011, Cézanne's "Card Players" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 8.


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