During the early 1920s, Picasso tirelessly explored the pictorial possibilities offered by the juxtaposition of two still-life elements, the guitar and the fruit-bowl, placed on a sideboard, an ornate pedestal, or a simple wooden table. With their fragmented forms and flattened planes, these compositions represent a continuation of Picasso's cubist explorations of the previous decade. The present example, dated 1924, was probably painted during the early months of that year. The molded chair rail in the background of the painting functions as a shorthand emblem for an elegant interior space, suggesting that the canvas was executed in the apartment on the fashionable rue La Boétie that Picasso shared with his wife, Olga Khokhlova, and their infant son, Paulo. The painting exudes a sense of enclosed domesticity, which contrasts with the open, airy quality of the guitar still-lifes that Picasso later painted on holiday at Juan-les-Pins during the summer of 1924 (fig. 1). The partitioning of the background in the present painting into two panels of color is a device that Picasso frequently exploited during this period to add drama and dynamism to his still-lifes (fig. 2). Here, it contrasts with the stable, pyramidal arrangement of the objects on the table, which ensures that the composition does not pull apart. Likewise, the solidity of the tabletop itself, with its opaque green covering, forms a studied contrast to the transparency of the fruit-bowl, suggested through several different weights and patterns of cross-hatching. The round forms of the fruit in the bowl, moreover, echo the sound hole of the guitar, generating a subtle interplay of solid and void. Elizabeth Cowling has written:
"Most of Picasso's still-lifes of 1918-1924 belong to short-lived series involving subtle formal variations on a strictly limited theme. Their imagery seems secondary to their formal devices--a pretext for the variations explored throughout the series as a whole... These paintings are full of teasing ambiguities, which mitigate the effect of rationality and impersonality. Nevertheless, one senses that Picasso was primarily concerned with formal arrangements--with the creation of balanced, although asymmetrical, compositions, ingenious combinations of rhyming shapes, and contrasts of tone and color and plain and patterned surfaces. In their poise, control, and subtlety, they remind one of Chardin's modest kitchen still-lifes, in which a limited repertoire of everyday objects is shuffled and reshuffled to form a series of variations on the same melodic theme" (in Picasso, Style and Meaning, London, 2002, pp. 379, 381-382).
The guitar is indeed a recurrent motif throughout Picasso's work of the 1910s and 1920s. It appears in some of his most rigorously analytical cubist compositions of 1910-1911 (fig. 3) and formed the basis in the autumn of 1912 for both his earliest experiments with papiers collés (fig. 4) and his revolutionary first construction, the sheet-metal and wire Guitare (Zervos, vol. 2, no. 773; Spies, no. 27; The Museum of Modern Art, New York). In the post-war period, the guitar featured in one of Picasso's largest and boldest statements of synthetic cubism, Les trois musiciens of 1921 (Zervos, vol. 4, no. 331; fig. 5), as well as scores of still-life compositions and a second sheet-metal assemblage (1924; Zervos, vol. 5, no. 217; Spies, no. 63; Musée Picasso, Paris). Part of the appeal of the guitar for Picasso (who, unlike Braque, had no particular love of music) was no doubt its well-established association with his Spanish homeland, which also explains its frequent role in the work of Juan Gris. Yet it also possessed palpable sexual connotations, which Picasso never shied away from exploiting. In the present painting, for instance, the elongated shape of the guitar forms a suggestive counterpoint to the open structure of the compote, with its fertile cargo of fruit. Robert Rosenblum has written:
"For Picasso, the guitar was the king of Cubist musical instruments, as well as being a ubiquitous presence in both his pre- and post-Cubist works... Its isolation by Picasso as a virtual emblem was conspicuous in 1912, when the guitar became the fundamental motif for his adventurous new assembled sculptures. The anthropomorphic potential of the guitar... recommended it especially to a quick-change magician who could sometimes recreate it as a female nude (in Spanish popular culture, playing a guitar is often equated with love-making) or as a more stiffly geometric male presence that might even be another of Picasso's alter egos, a point borne out by the fact that in the New York version of the Three Musicians (1921), the red-and-yellow harlequin, identifiable as a symbolic self-portrait, plays a guitar" (in J. Brown, ed., Picasso and the Spanish Tradition, New Haven, 1996, pp. 78-79).
John Richardson has also commented on the erotic overtones of Picasso's guitar imagery: "The allegorical possibilities of musical instruments had intrigued Picasso ever since Arte Joven, the magazine that he and Soler had edited in Madrid, published Nicolás María López's essay 'La Psicología de la guitarra.' López likens a guitar to a woman: the passive instrument on which a man plays. The anthropomorphic rhymes and pictorial double entendres in his innumerable guitar compositions confirm that Picasso subscribed to these sentiments. Paradoxically, he also uses an ithyphallic guitar as an aggressively masculine symbol--sometimes indeed for himself" (in A Life of Picasso: 1907-1917, New York, 1996, vol. II, p. 149).
By the time that he painted the present still-life, Picasso had been working alternately--and indeed, controversially--in two styles for several years. In addition to his continued explorations of the cubist idiom during the late teens and early 1920s, which usually took still-life as their subject, he also worked in a new, classicizing manner, especially in his figural compositions. This contrast was monumentalized at Fontainebleau during the summer of 1921, when Picasso simultaneously painted the cubist Trois musiciens (Zervos, vol. 4, no. 331; fig. 5) and the classicized Trois femmes à la fontaine (Zervos, vol. 4, no. 322; The Museum of Modern Art, New York), each a veritable manifesto of its respective visual idiom. Picasso's two styles each attracted its own partisans. During the war years, cubism had repeatedly been attacked as a Germanic--and hence an anti-Gallic, treasonous--art form. Following the Armistice, one group of critics, on the lookout for a new post-war style, argued that cubism was by now old hat. The other side, including many major artists working in a cubist mode, interpreted Picasso's classicizing works as a repudiation of modernism and an outright betrayal of the avant-garde. This schism was brought into sharp relief in 1919, when each of the Rosenberg brothers held an exhibition of Picasso's work. Léonce Rosenberg included only cubist works by the artist in the group installation at his Galerie de l'Effort Moderne in June, while Paul held a large, one-man show of Picasso's drawings in October that emphasized his classicizing approach.
Picasso himself, however, rejected the polarizing efforts of both camps, proclaiming in an interview in 1923, "The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered as an evolution, or as steps toward an unknown ideal of painting... I do not believe I have used radically different elements in the different manners I have used in painting. If the subjects I have wanted to express have suggested different ways of expression I have never hesitated to adopt them" (quoted in D. Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art, New York, 1972, p. 5). In the same interview, he argued that there was no fundamental difference between his various creative modes: "They speak of naturalism in opposition to modern painting. I would like to know if anyone has ever seen a natural work of art" (quoted in ibid., p. 18). In a canvas that Picasso painted in 1920, which juxtaposes cubist still-lifes and classical figural studies, he indeed establishes an overt equivalence between his two artistic tendencies (fig. 6). Kenneth Silver has written:
"The interplay of stylistic polarities in a single work--or, as in the case of Three Women at the Spring and Three Musicians, in two obviously related works--testified to the artist's ability to transform himself like Proteus, and thereby to rise above the banal categories that ensnared less powerful artists. At the same time, this joining of the modern and the ancient was a brilliant way of bringing Cubism into the fold of tradition while, conversely, diminishing the conservative sting of neo-classicism. The self-aggrandizement and the stylistic re-definition are in fact intimately linked. In making us concentrate on his artistic prowess, on his unique ability to be both the most traditional artist and the most gifted creator of new forms, Picasso removes himself from the group aspects of both Cubist and neo-classical aesthetics. He says with his two great paintings of 1921 not only that Cubism is more traditional than it had appeared to be before the war (and that traditional styles may be less retrograde than we had imagined) but, also, that his modernism and his atavism are personal choices... This is the Renaissance conception of a solitary, protean, overwhelming genius; Picasso in the 1920s becomes a modern Michelangelo" (in Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1925, Princeton, 1989, p. 316).
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Mandoline et guitare, Juan-les-Pins, summer 1924. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. BARCODE 26015217
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Bouteille, compotier, assiette de biscuits, spring 1924. Cleveland Museum of Art. BARCODE 26015200
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Joueur de guitare, Cadaquès, summer 1910. Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris. BARCODE 26015224
(fig. 4) Pablo Picasso, Guitare, partition, verre, Paris, winter 1912. McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas. BARCODE 26015163
(fig. 5) Pablo Picasso, Trois musiciens, Fontainebleau, summer 1921. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE 26015149
(fig. 6) Pablo Picasso, Etudes, winter 1920. Musée Picasso, Paris. BARCODE 26015194