Guitar on a Table
Oil, sand, charcoal on canvas
Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, Class of 1930; P.975.79
Pablo Picasso’s Guitar on a Table is a masterful example of the style known as cubism. One of a series of similar compositions Picasso produced during the autumn of 1912, the still life conveys the typical geometric and collage-like features of cubist representation. The formal subject matter—a guitar and books on a table—is here rendered as a series of textures, colors, volumes, and fragmented geometric planes. The effect on the viewer, far from that of a classic still life painting, is stimulating and unsettling. To look at this relatively small painting is to feel the full, challenging force of one of the most important movements of European modernism.
By 1912, Picasso had already embarked on a remarkable path of artistic innovation. His 1907 masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a work that in its powerful, monstrous rendering of the female form remains shocking to this day, is credited with initiating the cubist movement. But in fact it was Picasso’s meeting in that same year with a young French painter named Georges Braque that provided the stimulus for an extraordinary new direction in art. Over the next seven years, from 1907 to 1914, Picasso and Braque challenged each other to begin thinking about painting in ways that diverged radically from pre-twentieth-century conceptions of visual representation. Questioning the primacy of three-dimensionality and the single unified scene, the cubists fragmented perspective in favor of multiple points of view to underscore the illusoriness of pictorial depth. Challenging the realist notion of the art work as a mirror or faithful reflection of reality, cubism emphasized the opacity of the canvas, its sheer presence as an object in itself. In two successive periods of concentrated work—the “analytical” period of 1907-12, which focused on the disassembling and reassembling of form, and the “synthetic” period of 1912-14, which sought to reduce form to color, abstract shape, and texture—Picasso and Braque radically reshaped the terrain of modern art. “Mountaineers roped together” (Braque’s description of himself and Picasso), the two painters saw their cubist work as heroic, subversive, and revolutionary, epitomizing the modernist edict to be “absolutely new.”
All of cubism’s shattering energy can be felt in Picasso’s Guitar on a Table. The form of the guitar remains recognizable in this painting only as a series of fragments, planes, and volumes. Intersecting charcoal lines define and disperse these volumes. Sharp angles and supple curves are juxtaposed and layered, producing unusual visual combinations that both suggest and resist formal meaning. Blue, green, pink, and turquoise coloration provide contradictory cues about depth and perspective. Two surface textures—imitation wood grain and sand—are used in surprisingly rich, startling ways. Inspired by Braque’s use of artificially wood-grained wallpaper in an earlier composition, Picasso employs wood grain to signify a variety of meanings: the realism of the guitar/table, the painterly illusion of this composition, and his own intertextual relationship to Braque. And in an early foreshadowing of his great synthetic collages of 1912-13, Picasso glues sand to his painting, drawing attention both to the surface of the work and to the marine subtheme at play in this composition.
The intellectual richness and emotional energy of Guitar on a Table would have appealed greatly to the woman who bought Picasso's painting in 1913, the American modernist writer and art collector Gertrude Stein (1874-1946). Stein had been one of Picasso's most devoted patrons since 1905 and was herself the subject of a famous 1906 portrait by the artist. She would later claim that her own radical experiments in literature, including the famous short story "Melanctha" (1906), were inspired by conversations with Picasso as she sat for his portrait. Although Picasso himself never acknowledged any collaboration with Stein-as he would do with Braque-Stein's creative connection to the artist adds yet another layer of meaning to Guitar on a Table. During the same period in which she purchased the still life, Stein was creating a form of literature characterized by a fragmentation of grammar, syntax, and meaning. Her most accomplished example of this effort, a work called Tender Buttons (1914), could almost be seen as a literary blueprint for the cubist movement in art.
In the final section of Tender Buttons, Stein writes, "Act so that there is no use in a center." This phrase seems to carry particular resonance for how we see Picasso's painting and how we comprehend the artistic imperatives of cubism. In Guitar on a Table, the center of the canvas is occupied by a small black semicircle, a sort of halfmoon that seems to serve as a counterweight to the open full circle above it. Undoubtedly here Picasso is experimenting with varying perspectives on the guitar's central sound hole. Yet he also seems to be commenting on cubism's own lack of use for a "center," its rejection of unitary meaning and perspective in favor of multiplicity, indeterminacy, and fragmentation. Drawing us in while eluding any final understanding, Guitar on a Table is a stunning example of cubism at its most demanding and most rewarding.
Last Updated: 11/4/11