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Picasso on the Road

Hood Quarterly, autumn/winter 2011-12
T. Barton Thurber, Curator of European Art, and Barbara Will, Professor of English, Dartmouth College

One of the masterpieces in the Hood’s collection is undoubtedly Pablo Picasso’s Guitar on a Table, donated in 1975 to Dartmouth College by Nelson A. Rockefeller, Class of 1930. Executed in late 1912 in charcoal and oil on canvas, the work is a remarkable example of the artist’s experimentation with socalled “synthetic” cubism, which often sought to reduce common still-life subjects to the elements of color, abstract shape, and texture. It was immediately acquired by the American modernist writer and art collector Gertrude Stein, who had been one of Picasso’s most devoted patrons since 1905 and was herself the subject of a famous 1906 portrait by the artist.

Through early 2012, Guitar on a Table will travel in an exhibition of two hundred works by the greatest Parisian artists of the early twentieth century that were all once owned by Gertrude, her two brothers Leo and Michael, and Michael’s wife, Sarah. The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde opened May 21, 2011, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and it will travel to the Réunion des Musées Nationaux—Grand Palais, Paris, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The intellectual richness and emotional energy of Guitar on a Table would have appealed greatly to Gertrude Stein. 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 half-moon that seems to serve as a counterweight to the open full circle above it. Undoubtedly 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 cubist work at the movement’s most demanding and most rewarding.

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