Nancy and I are just returned from seeing the new Picasso: Guitars 1912–1914 exhibition at MoMA—and it is a fabulous show!  It includes 70 incredible works Picasso did in various media—collage, construction, drawing, mixed-media painting, and photography—during the crucial period of 1912-1914.  In 1912, Picasso and Georges Braque had together begun experimenting with gluing pieces of paper onto their drawings, developing a technique they termed “papier collé”; and Braque had also been experimenting with incorporating elements like sand, wood, and string into his Cubist paintings.  Picasso: Guitars 1912–1914 follows the incredible journey of discovery and creativity these developments engendered in Picasso. The works included in the show, all of which involve guitars (or, sometimes, violins), are bookended by two amazing sculptures Picasso did of a guitar, both given to MoMA by Picasso some four decades ago. 


The first fragile construction (paperboard, paper, string, and painted wire installed with cut cardboard box, 30 x 20 1/2 x 7 ¾; at right), done between October and December 1912,  created quite an uproar in the art world.  As MoMA’s exhibition write-up asserts, “Picasso’s silent instrument resembled no sculpture ever seen before.”  (It may be apocryphal, but the story goes that when an image of it appeared in a French art journal, a large number of the readers cancelled their subscriptions in outraged protest.)  Although rich, powerful, and intensely evocative, it is quintessentially temporal and almost ephemeral in the transience of its materials.  (We were told that it spent the better part of its existence after 1916 in a department store carton in the artist’s studio; when it arrived at MoMA, it consisted of six separate pieces; and it was only recently, when, in response to a 2005 query from art historian Christine Poggi—who had looked at a photograph of the piece as it had been assembled in Picasso’s studio—that Karl Buchberg, the museum’s senior paper conservator realized that there was a portion of a cardboard box that was supposed to  be positioned under it as a table [and in an unbelievable story of museum conservatorship, found that MoMA actually had preserved that piece of cardboard all these years, without ever having realized that it belonged to the sculpture!], and reunited it with the rest of the piece.)  Because of its apparently insubstantial, paper construction, it had been viewed as merely a maquette for the later version, and was not originally shown as a work of art in its own right.


The second (metal and wire, 30 1/2 x 13 3/4 x 7 5/8; at the left), done in 1914, was far more durably done in sheet metal.  It was cut directly on the pattern of the 1912 paper one.  (Scott Gerson, the MoMA conservator most immediately involved in the creation of this exhibition, did exacting measurements of both pieces, and he concluded that the second was definitely directly copied from the first—although he research suggested that Picasso had not used the pieces of the first directly as a template, but probably had made an intermediate tracing of the first that was used as the template for cutting the second.)  It is a darker, more solid, somewhat more ominous piece (perhaps reflecting the approaching shadow of World War I?).  But it was equally astounding and disturbing to viewers.  According to MoMA: 


Early visitors to Picasso's studio were bewildered by this work: "What is that?" they asked, according to the poet André Salmon: "Does that rest on a pedestal? Does that hang on the wall? Is it a painting or sculpture?" Apparently, Picasso responded, "It's nothing, it's 'la guitare!'"


Pablo Picasso. Guitar. (autumn 1912)Picasso: Guitars 1912–1914, organized by Anne Umland, Curator, and Blair Hartzell, Curatorial Assistant, in MoMA’s Department of Painting Pablo Picasso. Guitar. (after March 31, 1913)and Sculpture, is a marvelously rich reflection of the wonderful diversity, soulful beauty, and profound creativity of Picasso’s work during this pivotal moment in his development.  There are many fabulous works from MoMA’s magnificent permanent collection, like his charcoal on paper drawing, “Guitar,” of 1912 (18 1/2 x 24 3/8; at left), or his “Guitar” of 1913 (cut-and-pasted paper and printed paper, charcoal, ink, and chalk on colored paper on board, 26 1/8 x 19 ½; at right).  There are also some most unusual photographs taken by Picasso, often of assemblages he created in his studio—often using as components some of the sculptures he did in this period, often in combination with other found objects.



There are many works on loan from other museums, including great works from the Pompidou Centre and the Musée Guitare, bec à gaz, flacon [Guitar, Gas-jet and Bottle]Picasso in Paris.  But there are also some very special works that are appearing in the United States for the very first time.  Of these, “Guitare, bec à gaz, flacon” (“Guitar, Gas-jet and Bottle”), the 1913 painting (oil, charcoal, tinted varnish and grit on canvas, 70.40 x 55.30 cm; at left) from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, is a spectacular example.  It shows an incredibly creative use of media—including a kind of varnished, faux bois vertical element, and a thick blue element parallel to it that seems to be a painted piece that Picasso then glued to the canvas, but may actually be a heavily applied area of paint done against a sharp-edged stencil of some kind—as well as a rich combination of perspectival manipulation, different levels of abstraction, and varied forms of pictorial representation.  The show also includes a great work from the Kunstmuseum in Bern, the 1913 “Violin Hanging on the Wall” (at right).


Nancy and I were incredibly fortunate to have been invited this evening to a Conservation Committee tour of this fabulous exhibition.  It was lead by Anne Umland and Blair Hartzell, who together curated Picasso: Guitars 1912–1914, and by Jim Coddington, Chief Conservator of MoMA, and Scott Gerson, the person in MoMA’s Conservation Department who was most centrally involved in putting the exhibition together.  We were treated to an hour and a half of and absolutely riveting talk and cross-discussion by these four incredible experts as they showed us around the exhibition—discussing the works from technical and conservatorial directions, as well as from the art historic.  It was a rare and treasured experience.


Picasso: Guitars 1912–1914 opens to the public this weekend on 13 February Sunday, and it runs through 6 June.


I cannot recommend strongly enough that you rush to see it.


Picasso: Guitars 1912–1914

February 13–June 6, 2011


The Museum of Modern Art

11 West 53 Street  New York, NY 10019
Third Floor


Meanwhile, on 20 January, Carol Vogel had an article in the New York Times describing this exhibition:  “Riffing on the Guitar as Only Picasso Could,” which can be found online at

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