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Synthetic Cubism, Part II

Left: Georges Braque, Fruit Dish and Glass, 1912, charcoal and cut-and-pasted printed wallpaper with gouache on white laid paper mounted on paperboard, 62.9 × 45.7 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art); Right: Pablo Picasso, Guitar, Sheet Music and Glass, 1912, collage and charcoal on board, 18 7/8 x 14 3/4 inches (McNay Museum, San Antonio)
Pablo Picasso’s Guitar, Sheet Music and Glass is generally thought to have been made as a response to Georges Braque’s Fruit Dish and Glass. Both works bring a new tool into the already-complex collection of Cubist techniques of representation — the use of collage.

A wealth of associations

The subject of Picasso’s Guitar, Sheet Music and Glass is familiar from earlier Analytic Cubist paintings, which frequently depict café tables with drinks, newspapers, and musical instruments. Here, however, the abstracted geometric forms of Analytic Cubism are limited to the charcoal drawing of the glass on paper pasted on the right. It is one element in the collage, which includes seven different types of paper arranged on a wallpaper ground.
The pattern of the wallpaper is a diagonal lattice that frames flowers and recalls the overall patterns of lattices and grids that structure earlier Analytic Cubist paintings such as Braque’s Piano and Mandola.
Georges Braque, Piano and Mandola, 1909-10, oil on canvas, 36 1/8 x 16 7/8 inches (Guggenheim Museum, New York)
While Braque’s Fruit Dish and Glass used only one type of pasted paper (the printed wood grain), Picasso uses many, and demonstrates that a wealth of associations can be generated from their juxtaposition.

Patterns of formal relations

An intricate pattern of formal relations is created between the varied shapes and colors of the pasted paper, which also generate a complex set of possible readings. The guitar is signified by multiple cut-paper elements.
On the left, the hand-painted wood grain paper cut into a double curve suggests the material and shape of the guitar’s body. A vertical trapezoid of blue paper is the neck in perspective, while the shallow black curve below stands for both the bottom of the guitar and the leading edge of the circular table on which the still-life sits.
In the center of the image, the white paper circle representing the sound hole in the guitar body looks like a hole cut out of the picture, while the fragment of sheet music simultaneously refers to itself, and to the sounds emanating from the instrument.
The glass drawn in charcoal is somewhat overwhelmed by the strong shapes of the pasted papers, but its ghostly appearance, as well as the semi-transparency of the paper on which it is drawn, suggests the transparency of glass. It is brought into the composition by the use of a visual rhyme — the circular lip of the glass directly echoes the white circle of pasted paper to the left.
Pablo Picasso, Guitar, Sheet Music and Glass, 1912, Kolaż i węgiel drzewny na płycie 18 7/8 x 14 3/4 cali (McNay Museum, San Antonio)

The importance of text

One topic of debate among art historians has been the importance of the legible texts in Cubist collages. In this instance, it is generally agreed that the newspaper text in the lower left is relevant. The headline “La Bataille s’est engagé” (the battle has begun) is from an article about the Balkan War, but it is often interpreted as a competitive challenge to Braque, referring to the use of papier collé. In that reading, this work is a direct response to, and attempt to one-up, Braque’s Fruit Dish and Glass.
The truncated masthead of the newspaper “LE JOU” (short for le journal, French for “the newspaper”) is also meaningful. It appears in many Cubist works and not only signifies the newspaper’s presence in the still life, but also a pun on the French words for “to play” (jouer) and “toy” (le jouet). This is a verbal echo of the many formal rhymes and visual puns that appear in Synthetic Cubist works. These allow for multiple readings of individual elements and the relationships between them.
Pablo Picasso, Guitar, Sheet Music and Glass, 1912, detail (McNay Museum, San Antonio)
In Guitar, Sheet Music and Glass, for example, “LE JOU” also recalls the French word for day (le jour), and suggests another reading for the forms in the work. The circle of white paper overlapping the trapezoid of blue paper above it can be interpreted as representing not only a guitar’s sound hole and neck, but as the sun rising into the sky at the beginning of a new day. Battles often begin at dawn, and the paired juxtaposition of the papier collé guitar and the Analytic Cubist drawing of a glass suggests a competition between older and newer Cubist techniques.

Political references

Most early discussions of Cubist collages stressed their formal innovations and the novel representational strategies they employed. More recently, however, some art historians have looked more closely at the texts of the newspaper clippings in Picasso’s works and discovered references to his political interests.
Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Bottle of Suze, 1912, pasted paper, gouache, and charcoal, 25 3/4 x 19 3/4 inches (Washington University Gallery of Art, St. Louis)
Still Life with Bottle of Suze is another work that uses legible clippings of articles about the contemporary Balkan war. This one also includes a clipping about a socialist demonstration against that war held in a Paris suburb. When asked about it years later Picasso said he used that particular clipping because it was a huge event and to show that he was against the war.
Detail, Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Bottle of Suze, 1912 (Washington University Gallery of Art, St. Louis)
While it is unlikely that Picasso expected viewers to carefully read the fine print text in the newspaper clippings he used, headlines and sub-headers often stand out and appear to make relevant comments. In Still Life with Bottle of Suze a bold face sub-header on the left, “La Dislocation”, is easily legible and placed next to the still-life objects that have been separated and dislocated by Cubist representational techniques.

An art of ordinary activities and cheap materials

Most early Cubist collages depict still-life subjects, usually the types of objects found on café tables. They represent the ordinary places where the artists would have a drink, listen to a musical act, read a newspaper, and meet their friends. Newspaper clippings represent the sort of topical events discussed in cafés. Preserved in the artworks, the newspapers and other ordinary non-art materials such as wallpaper, labels, tickets, etc. now seem like mementos of a specific time and place.
Pablo Picasso, Au Bon Marché, 1913, oil and pasted paper on cardboard, 9 1/4 x 12 1/4 inches (Ludwig Collection, Aachen)
In their collages Picasso and Braque avoided conventional, often expensive, art materials and overt displays of technical skill that would indicate artistic training. Prior to its use by Braque and Picasso, collage was primarily a craft technique used by women and hobbyists in the 19th century to make scrapbooks. Collages are “poor” art works that do not employ the professional artist’s traditional manual skills.
Picasso’s Au Bon Marché proclaims its cheapness not only in its materials, but by its title as well. Bon marché is a French term meaning “good deal” or “cheap” as well as being the name of a prominent Paris department store. At the top of the collage, an advertisement for a rival Paris department store, Samaritaine, suggests another persistent theme of the collages: references to brand name products, mass media, advertisements, and commerce. Many artists, starting with the Dadaists during World War I and continuing to the present day, adopted the Cubists’ use of cheap found materials, employing them as a critical strategy to question the commercial values of the art world and modern society.

An enormous influence

For many people the appeal of early Cubist collage and papier collé is more intellectual than conventionally aesthetic. These works prompt the viewer to enjoy the multiple references and significations to be found in the combinations of forms and punning texts, rather than displaying the sensuous qualities of the painted surface or the artist’s skilled touch.
Despite its somewhat arcane intellectual appeal, however, Cubist collage had an enormous influence on modern art in the 20th century. Its employment of simplified planar forms was instrumental in the establishment of non-representational art, especially the geometric abstraction of movements such as Suprematism, Constructivism, De Stijl, Color Field painting, and Minimalism. And, the way the collages combine disparate found materials, refer to mass consumer culture, and collapse distinctions between ‘low’ and ‘high’ culture contributed to the development of Dada, Surrealism, assemblage, Pop art, and the various trends associated with post-modernism.
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