What was it really like back then, when the European world was so perfectly made that it had to be unmade? The unmaking came through three linked movements in the early twentieth century: art, revolution, and war. In comfortable times, when paintings hang on the wall without reaching out to hurt anybody, we claim that art led the way, but a good deal of modernism gained its violent impulses second-hand, by reacting to war and revolution. Even an egotist like Picasso, who was his own planet orbiting around his own sun, reflects the earthquake in society, although it took a later conflict, the Spanish Civil War, to provoke him to overt political statements.
I kept thinking about violence while strolling through Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914, which on the surface couldn’t be more pacific and curatorial. It gathers together seventy works, most impressively collages, drawings, and two sculptures of guitars, a shape that the artist obsessed over with his usual sex-rooted intensity, minus the sex. Guitars, like women, have curves, but we don’t turn our heads and ooh-la-la. Picasso did, for months on end. The tricks he turned with a consenting musical instrument aren’t overtly erotic, but they are analytically dazzling. The guitar is reduced to a B-shaped curve, long neck, parallel strings, and hyphenated frets, after which he turned his imagination loose. The crowded gallery was filled with people falling in love with genius again. The cramped subject matter focused their eyes, and many viewers lingered over ink drawings that were almost identical to half a dozen on the same wall, simply to experience the awakening of Picasso in their fuzzy, sleepy memory of him.
But back to violence. On another floor of MoMA there’s a show of contemporary drawings entitled “I Am Still Alive” The title quotes a telegram from a Japanese artist to his Dutch dealer, but it wasn’t sent during the harrowing days of World War II. Rather, it was sent in the becalmed waters of 1970 when the threat was quietist banality and the all-consuming comfort of middle-class prosperity. For the Picasso show, the title could be altered: I am still erupting. Picasso is quintessentially the artist as volcano, and he loved the destruction he created, wrecking the world with molten glee. It was a time, 1912 to 1914, when violence was gleeful in general. Artists played with it; young men played at it; generals existed not to seriously wage war but for dress-up in gold-braided uniforms, like Prince William in his stoplight red Irish colonel’s coat at the royal wedding. (Today royalty means that you have more party costumes in your closet than anyone else. Oh, and people have to salute you in them.)
Playtime would come to an end with a short sharp shock in 1914. Braque ran off to the front, breaking forever with Picasso, whom he regarded as shamefully unpatriotic (Braque’s enlistment earned him a serious head wound in battle). Picasso, who no doubt thought he was more important than a war, became worried that he, a foreigner with no dog in the hunt, was persona non grata in France. And so he hid behind faux conservatism, doling out politically harmless portraits in a realistic vein après Ingres. Unmaking the world was no longer artistic—corpses by the millions cried out in blood.
Which lends Picasso: Guitars an overlay of sunny nostalgia, like privileged sojourners remembering St. Tropez the way it used to be. The centerpiece of the show is a cardboard-and-string replica of a guitar that the artist fashioned in 1912. I trust the show’s footnote when it tells us that such a sculpture had never been seen before. The instrument has been torn apart and reassembled in planes and angles that are completely novel. The end result is remarkable. Picasso’s guitar is beautiful because, as with Beethoven, the elementary substance of art has been destroyed—why? Because in place of a comely guitar sitting in the corner of a Barcelona café, far more lovely is to make that object unrecognizable (as Beethoven made the piano sonatas of Haydn and Mozart unrecognizable), turning it into a vehicle for originality, passion, innovation, the unexpected, and at the bottom of all this, an eruption of the human mind breaking free of manacles it had forged. Picasso smashed the strongest manacle of all, the appearance of the world as it is.
Funnily, Picasso in his guitar mania was fiddling with scraps of the very bourgeois setting that he was tearing down: oddments of flowered wallpaper, newspaper print, pasteboard, and household glue. (He knew the value of his improvisations, however, and quickly turned his cardboard guitar into a version constructed from sheet metal. It hangs within sight of the original.) Picasso’s mind whirled so rapidly that he riffed on his subject a dozen ways in the course of a week or month. As a record of his prodigality, there’s a blown-up photo of one studio wall from 1912 decorated with the cardboard guitar and six drawings. They seem like the work of a minute. Who could disagree with the man next to me who murmured, “Boy, imagine what that photograph alone is worth?” (I thought back to a linen napkin that Warhol had doodled on while waiting for his dinner in a Manhattan café, currently appraised at $30,000 complete with the greasy stains left when he wiped his mouth on it.)
So the pleasure of seeing this array of inventiveness is subtly amplified, and undercut, by the frisson of violence. Picasso and his scissors would be exchanged for Hitler and his Messerschmidts. Doing bodily harm to the beaux arts turned trivial, and yet it has endured. There’s another layer that whispers to us, of the aged Picasso, no longer volcanic but reduced to spasms of genius. They wouldn’t quit, and for decades he made a painting a day, no longer the riffs of a playful muse but more like epileptic tremors, unwanted and incurable. A guitar gently weeps.