Reveling in a play of contrasts, Picasso has painted into this composition flamboyant flourishes of decorative acanthus leaf scrolls–a classically antique motif–to create a frame within the frame, bracketing an otherwise planar cubist still-life. The subject is one of Picasso's favorites–a Spanish guitar. Because Picasso absolutely insists on modernist pictorial flatness, the contrasting geometrical and organic forms appear as if cut and joined from colored pasted papers, like a vintage papier collé from his pre-First World War production, set within the shallowest of spaces, in which the various disparate elements inveigle the viewer's attention.
It is precisely by means of such deliberate and ostentatiously insouciant disharmonies that Picasso has fabricated in Guitare a rollicking celebration of the later synthetic manner in Cubism, employing that more elastic and inclusive approach he had brought to his painting on the eve of and during the Great War of 1914-1918, and continued to pursue in the years following. "He was never more inventive," Jean Sutherland Boggs has observed, "more cheerful, more delighted with color and pattern, more curious about small things and happier animating them in his work" (Picasso & Things, exh. cat., The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1992, p. 152).
With peace restored, it was by 1920 high time to freely indulge a rompish spirit in art-making. The Dadaists had already capitalized on this opportunity, wreaking havoc and hilarity with their iconoclastic pronouncements and outrageous events. Picasso is here telling his colleagues in Cubism to lighten up, too, and experience in their art a certain sense, as Boggs would later characterize it, of "cubism enjoyed" (ibid.). As for Picasso, being cleverer and more readily disposed to transgress formal boundaries than any painter then working, such freedom meant he could create, at least occasionally, things completely different from anything he had done before, using outwardly incongruous elements and styles. He has thrown into the mix of this painting even the trompe l'oeil frills of tassels on the edge of a table cloth. Every effect is meant to tickle the eye. In its striking conflation of various pictorial and stylistic traits, this Guitare, for its period, stands out as one-of-a-kind.
Picasso had been traveling during the late 'teens and early twenties two distinct stylistic avenues in his painting, neither of which seemed outwardly related to the other, but between them surveyed and summarized the antipodes of postwar aesthetics in the arts. Both reflected the idea of le rappel à l'ordre–the humanist "return to order"–the banner around which many artists and literati rallied after the war, advocating an ethos of renewal Picasso himself had helped instigate. This period in Picasso's production, on one hand, was named for the figures he painted and drew in a "neo-classical" manner, having studied models from antiquity and channeled the linear precision he admired in the work of that 19th century paragon of classicism, Ingres. On the other hand, Picasso continued to explore, in the cubist mode of which he was a founding father and still its leading exponent and innovator, the possibilities of formal invention, mainly in his practice of still-life painting.
The idea of an overtly bifurcated studio production was then extremely controversial, and partisans of each manner tried to discredit Picasso's efforts in the other. The new classicists decried Cubism as a spent hold-over from the pre-war and wartime era, while outraged veteran cubists felt that in his classical works Picasso had betrayed the progressive mission of the avant-garde. The contrasting notions of classical and cubist were to Picasso's mind, however, the dual sides of the same coin, the totality of Western art in its most modern form, a useful dialectic from which new generative ideas would issue forth.
If the concepts of classicism and cubism each had something to offer, Picasso reckoned, then there was no good reason an artist should not feel free to practice them side-by-side, in parallel strands, or even on the same canvas, where one approach might ostensibly appear to face off against the other, but–as in the present Guitare–together engage in a pictorial dialogue that results in a viable hybrid of forms. It is in such moments that Picasso acts most drolly tongue-in-cheek while creating astonishing, even outlandish effects. Perhaps the greatest benefit which Cubism provided modern art, going beyond the analysis of forms, is that it enables, condones and ultimately celebrates the co-existence of multiple realities, opening a portal to a larger, more inclusive experience of the world. "Our subjects might be different, as we have introduced into painting objects and forms that were formerly ignored," Picasso stated. "We have kept our eyes open to our surroundings, and also our brains... We keep the joy of discovery, the pleasure of the unexpected; our subject itself must be a source of interest" (quoted in ibid., p. 6).
The synthetic modus operandi in Cubism sprang from the invention of collage, especially in the form of the papier collé. More specifically as antecedents for the framing conceit in Guitare are those works in which Picasso used strips cut from decorative wall papers to frame a collaged image on the sheet. There is evidence of under-painting in Guitare that suggests Picasso intended to leave room at the edges of this canvas where he would have painted a frame around the guitar and the table-top still-life. He decided instead on a more radical procedure: he lifted from his prospective frame the acanthus scrolls and painted them as super-sized, eye-catching signs to represent a frame. The experience of having worked in early 1920 on the stage designs for the Diaghilev production of Stravinsky's neo-classical commedia dell'arte ballet Pulcinella may have inspired Picasso to refashion the antique scroll motifs on a grandiosely architectural scale, to emphasize their framing function.
"The interplay of stylistic polarities in a single work... testified to [Picasso's] ability to transform himself like Proteus, and thereby to rise above the banal categories that ensnared less powerful artists," Kenneth E. Silver has written. "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. 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... This is the Renaissance conception of a solitary, protean, overwhelming genius; Picasso in the 1920s becomes a modern Michelangelo" (Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1925, Princeton, 1989, p. 316).
Fig. A Pablo Picasso, Études, Paris, winter 1920-1921. Musée Picasso, Paris. BARCODE: 26015194
Fig. B Pablo Picasso, Guitare, Paris, 1920. Öffenliche Kunstsammlung, Kunstmuseum, Basel. BARCODE: 28864165
Fig. C Pablo Picasso, Pipe et partition, Paris, spring 1914. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. BARCODE: 28864172
Fig. D Pablo Picasso, Musiciens aux masques, Fontainebleau, summer 1921. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE: 26015149