“It’s nothing, it’s the guitar!,” Picasso said in 1913, when outraged readers of the avant-garde journal Soirées de Paris sought an explanation of photographs of his constructions made from wood, cardboard, paper and string. Were they paintings or were they sculptures? Should they hang on a wall or have a base?
“It’s neither one thing nor another,” the artist said emphatically, repeating, “It’s nothing, it’s the guitar!”
Beginning on Feb. 13 this most common of instruments will be explored at the Museum of Modern Art when it presents “Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914,” an exhibition of some 70 collages, constructions, drawings, mixed-media paintings and photographs. (Coincidentally, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will be opening a show with the guitar as a theme too, but in an entirely different way. That exhibition, “Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen From Italy to New York,” opening on Feb. 9, focuses on the instruments themselves.)
The Picasso-guitar theme has a special history at the Museum of Modern Art. In the early 1970s the artist gave MoMA two fragile guitars: a sculpture made in 1912 from cardboard, paper, string and wire, and a sheet-metal one two years later. Both illustrate how Picasso enjoyed expanding what a sculpture could be.
The idea for the new exhibition stems from a discovery in 2005. That’s when an art historian, Christine Poggi, asked whether anything came with the cardboard “Guitar” when it arrived at the museum. The question prompted Karl Buchberg, the museum’s senior paper conservator, to look in storage, and there, much to everyone’s surprise, he unearthed a semicircular piece of cardboard with pinholes matching up with two others found behind the curved face of the cardboard guitar.
It was this find that got Anne Umland, a curator in the department of painting and sculpture, thinking that the time was right for an exhibition built around the idea of the guitar. “Using the guitar gives people a point of entry,” Ms. Umland said. “It’s a fun way to think about Cubism. The show is really a slice of a very brief two years in Picasso’s life.”
Although many of Picasso’s earliest experiments depicting the guitar were ephemeral assemblages that no longer exist, he did photograph them in his Paris studio, and some of these images will be on display, along with some paintings that have never been seen in the United States before.
Among the rarest is “Violin Hanging on the Wall,” from 1913, from the Kunstmuseum in Bern, Switzerland. Inspired by Braque, who during these Cubist years often incorporated elements like sand, dirt, wood, string, enamel and newspaper clippings into his compositions, Picasso used a mixture of sand and commercial spackle to outline the curves of the instrument in this painting. The blend gave depth to the surface of the work, but over the years it also made transporting it particularly perilous.
When MoMA expressed interest in showing the painting, conservators in Bern stabilized it. “It hadn’t been lent for years because nobody understood it structurally,” Ms. Umland said. “But when they studied it, they were able to arrive at a way to make it safe to travel, perhaps only this once.”