Picasso’s Post-Breakup Breakthrough

The exhibition “Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914,” at the Museum of Modern Art, is not about guitars, violins, bottles or cups, the subjects of the 65 drawings, collages, constructions, paintings and photographs on view. It’s about what is possible in a studio when everything clicks. Entering the show, organized by Anne Umland with Blair Hartzell, you find yourself both among these ostensible, quotidian themes, and witnessing the creation of a new universe.

Thirty-two years old in October 1912, Pablo Picasso had one major painting under his belt (Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907). He had found a smart gallerist in Daniel Kahnweiler. He had just left Montmartre for Montparnasse (neighborhoods as far away from each other as you can get in Paris, like leaving Harlem for Red Hook). He was newly in love; in moving he had quit an eight-year relationship for Marcelle Humbert, whom he called “Ma Jolie.” Something is happening when you dump your old girlfriend, move your studio to the other end of town, leave behind the weight of an old project and launch into something completely new.

In a photograph, we see Picasso’s new studio at 242 Boulevard Raspail. Drawings and a paperboard sculpture of a guitar hang above a bed covered with cut newspaper scraps. A turned-over African mask in one corner is an artifact from his recent fascination with primitive art. If it took 16 sketchbooks to plan the Demoiselles, and if that large painting was still sitting in this studio unsold, here Picasso is working more quickly and with more transitory materials: cardboard, newspaper, scissors, charcoal. It must have felt liberating. It is exhilarating to see.

The drawings pull you into their logic. At the exhibition, I saw a man and his daughter playing a game of trying to decipher which parts of the guitar were represented by which line, strip of newsprint or collaged wallpaper square. Picasso has his fantastical moments, too. Some lines and shapes are never going to match up with anything but the gleeful desire to make a mark. Watch for the flipping of the newspaper sheet in Violin (Dec. 3, 1912, or later), where a cut newspaper square cartwheels in space simply to rhyme itself. These are giddy visual puns, three-dimensional games–in Violin (1912), a sketched button, shaded as if it were casting a shadow, tacks a taut drawn violin string up to a bare paper wall. By the time I got to Musical Score and Guitar (1912), I laughed out loud at the real straight pin holding a scrap of paper to the picture.

As is often the case upon first learning a language, the vocabulary is deliberately restricted and what is really under investigation is syntax. His building blocks are fake wood, fake marble, newspaper, wallpaper, paperboard, cardboard, charcoal, ink and sheet metal, things that are either utterly evident or exist to trouble the line between real and illusion. In the drawings, Picasso’s charcoal lines are breathing, syncopated, not executed mechanically in a single stroke but segmented and rhythmic. The support is often raw canvas or paper.

There is something to seeing these yellowed, nearly hundred-year-old newspaper cutouts. A newspaper is an inherently unstable, fast-aging medium. The idea that a newspaper sheet like this page could be not tomorrow’s trash, but art–that was new. Suddenly the world was not just art’s subject, but also its stuff. Incorporating grit, newspaper and show tunes on a flat surface–this went beyond painting modern life. (If newspapers die, we may have a different relationship to these Picassos. Maybe it’s worth seeing them while we still remember what they feel like and how they work.)

The paintings aren’t the Cubist oils he had begun making with Georges Braque, those slightly scaly, coppery, silvery monochromes with the gridded and tilted planes. Here, paintings are colorful pink and green, just as the paper collages are patterned with decorative wallpaper, and the drawings sparse but sly. This is synthetic (rather than analytic) Cubism, but most of all it is fun, the way language can be fun if you take apart words or sentences and put them back together.

By late 1913, the works aren’t as exhilaratingly inventive, but they are more beautiful, calm. Bar Table with Guitar (1913) is held together with many pins, drawing as dressmaking. Picasso brings in new kinds of surfaces, like glitter. If the start of the show is the paperboard-and-string Still Life with Guitar, provisional, awkward (and newly reassembled with a recently identified missing piece), the end is the 1914 sheet metal sculpture Guitar, materially more confident but a less exuberant copy of the first. The books will tell you: This was the invention of collage. The guitars have transformed representational painting. The best ones are still in the present tense, however–that’s the magic. A sequence of works like this shows that if there is an origin to any universe, it’s in the most ordinary stuff: in newspapers and music-hall tunes, in wine, in wallpaper and in a couple years of confident, focused work.

editorial@observer.com Picasso’s Post-Breakup Breakthrough