Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 14, 2016
Anne Umland, Blair Hartzell, and Scott Gerson, eds. Picasso: The Making of Cubism, 1912–1914 New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2014. 350 pp. E-book $24.99 (9780870708046)
Picasso: Guitars, 1912–1914
Exhibition schedule: Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 13–June 6, 2011

Begun in the winter of 1912 and known collectively as the papiers collés, Pablo Picasso’s collages of pasted papers, from newsprint and wallpaper to fine drawing paper, have been the battleground for several of the most fraught methodological debates in modernist art history. In the 1980s and 1990s, the interpretive field was divided between, on the one hand, scholars who read the newspapers as incorporating conscious reference by Picasso to the political events or mass cultural phenomena of his day and, on the other, those who objected that such readings succumbed precisely to the naturalistic and referential logic dissected and displaced in the play of Picasso’s papers. Despite their differences, both social history and semiology (or, in the terms of the debate, referentialism and formalism) emphasized the trans-individual structures within which Picasso worked and so were opposed by a third group—the Picasso biography industry with its hero and villain narratives.

Edited by Anne Umland and Blair Hartzell, with Scott Gerson, the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) first digital-only publication, Picasso: The Making of Cubism, 1912–1914, has been produced in an innovative electronic format as an enhanced PDF or iPad app. More remarkable, however, is the way its contributors cut across the aforementioned fault lines in Picasso studies without polemics or fanfare. They do so by advancing a thesis that seems, at least on the surface, rather simple: that the importance of Picasso’s Cubism, and its greatest relevance today, lies primarily in the artist’s use of unorthodox materials and his development of new and still little-understood techniques for manipulating them. This emphasis on “materials and process” is worked through in relation to fifteen works by Picasso from 1912–14, each the subject of extraordinarily detailed conservation analysis, provenance research, exhibition and publication history, and scholarly essays by Elizabeth Cowling, Hartzell, Jeremy Melius, and Jeffrey Weiss.

The volume’s focused attention on the physical procedures Picasso invented or borrowed from art-adjacent modes of production—“cutting, folding, pinning, and pasting”—is bolstered, perhaps ironically to some readers, by the book’s interactive hyperlink architecture and the forms of engagement it solicits from users: clicking, dragging, expanding and minimizing, zooming and rotating images, playing embedded video, and jumping instantly from section to section. The possibilities opened on the immaterial space of the screen for encountering Picasso’s work in recto and verso, in raking, UV, and infrared light, and even—in the case of the 1912 cardboard Guitar construction—in three hundred and sixty degree rotation, rarely seem superfluous, especially when put in the service of conservator Gerson’s analyses.

In his entries on Picasso’s Guitar constructions, Gerson undermines the view that the cardboard Guitar of 1912 served as a maquette (or preliminary scale model) for the later sheet-metal Guitar of 1914, which was assumed, according to common sense notions about linear progression and material permanence in art, to be the definitive version of the work. Among the insights to be gleaned from Gerson’s research is that Picasso likely disassembled the cardboard guitar to trace paper copies of each of its elements, which would serve as templates for the production of the metal guitar. Furthermore, the face of the first guitar is made of paper, not cardboard, and has traces of chalk at its edges, suggesting that it possibly is one such paper template, integrated back into the sculpture to replace a lost cardboard front of which it is a copy. Gerson also compellingly shows that the projecting sound hole in the sheet-metal Guitar construction is in fact a readymade item, a section of industrially produced pipe. The two constructions, then, destabilize the orders of priority between original and copy, study and finished work, and insist upon replication and iteration as constitutive sculptural processes.

These facts introduce one of the book’s more paradoxical lessons: the more one examines the materiality of Picasso’s works, the more difficult it becomes to fetishize them in their profound displacement of the logic of the “original.” Indeed, Picasso famously told André Salmon that he intended the Guitar construction to be a kind of prototype, which could then be (re)produced by anyone. This material instability and contingency is, further, demonstrated by the fact that the Guitar itself sat disassembled and packed in a box until it was gifted to MoMA. Indeed, this watershed in the material definition of sculpture was known primarily through photography, with images disseminated in Guillaume Apollinaire and André Billy’s journal Les Soirées de Paris as early as 1913, while the “original” sat in Picasso’s studio.

The book’s focus on Picasso’s deconstruction of the uniqueness and stability of the object happily crosses the methodological and interpretive boundaries still existing in the study of art between the museum and the academy. Indeed, in a kind of manifesto for the book, Weiss argues that all acts of conservation are in themselves interpretive, taking as his case study the “radical” and invasive treatment of MoMA’s collaged Head of a Man (1912). Seeking to stop the paper’s buckling and to fix surface damage caused by successive anti-foxing treatments, in 1973, conservator Antoinette King disassembled the work in its entirety, lining each paper element separately, and hinged, rather than pasted, the fragments back in place. As such, Weiss notes, “ontologically speaking [the work is] a simulation of its original self,” and no longer a “papier collé” at all (8.4).

Drawing on Alfred Gell’s anthropology of art, Weiss contends that the trajectories followed and the transformations undergone by an art object after it leaves the artist’s studio form a part of the historical accretion of meaning. Demonstrating how material decisions made by an artist can play out in unintended ways over the course of an art object’s social life, Weiss argues that “some degree of transience” should be considered intrinsic to the object’s definition (8.2).

In practice, however, Weiss carefully limits his thesis to Cubism, because if extended into a claim about the nature of aesthetic meaning as such, it threatens to become as universalizing and transhistorical as the argument that the punctual moment of conception and creation is the exclusive source of art’s significance. To take an example cited by Weiss, drawn in turn from Robert Morris, no one would deny the important scientific and even interpretive insights that can be gleaned by studying the material transformations undergone by a Rembrandt over the centuries, from the visible to the microscopic. Yet to propose that these shifts are intrinsic to the meaning of Rembrandt’s painting would risk imposing an interpretive model onto the work of art alien to the historically and culturally specific conception of truth in painting with which its creator operated. Weiss’s argument, then, is compelling insofar as material instability and contingency can be demonstrated to form a part of Picasso’s notion of art, or that of the culture to which he belonged. For Weiss, King’s conservation treatment and later claims about the “inevitability of change” in art were authorized by the variability and impermanence that Picasso built into his newspaper collages.

Several catalogue entries emphasize how Picasso’s conception of art’s ephemerality allowed for radical shifts in the material status of the object, which seemed at least theoretically convertible from drawing to sculpture, from collage to photograph, etc. The opening essay by Cowling analyzes two drawings from 1912 in MoMA’s collection, which were acquired in separate circumstances and, by happy accident, were later discovered to form two halves of the same sheet. Cowling illuminates their relation to unrealized (or unrealizable) openwork sculptures. With a precision typical of her prose, Cowling points to Picasso’s graphic elaboration of “stringing” as a “means of connecting disparate parts of a body without recourse to solid forms that would compromise the light, airy, delicate structures that haunted his sculptural imagination in the summer of 1912” (1.4). These drawings, thus, are not “preparatory” works for sculpture in the typical sense, but evince a virtual cross-pollination of mediums, almost as though ink on paper could construct tensile force, weight and counter-weight, cantilever and interlocking elements.

Emphasizing representational rather than material flux, Melius tackles the problem of referentiality in Cubism at its most fraught moment, discussing the achromatic stained-glass quality of MoMA’s Guitar drawing from 1912 in relation to “the human penchant for finding faces in the world around us” (6.3). The tendency of inanimate objects in Picasso’s work of this moment to take on a certain “faciality” (and vice versa) is typically read, on the one hand, as coding (the guitar is really a face), or, on the other hand, as punning (the guitar is like a face). Melius, however, demonstrates how Picasso constructed “more promiscuous modes of suggesting likeness” (6.3) by reducing the plenum of representation to a toolkit of “abstracted signs”—a linear armature, a sickle shape, a double curve, etc.—that, when set into combination, seem capable of compassing the entirety of visual experience. While the “elasticity of iconicity” in Cubism (a felicitous phrase by Yve-Alain Bois [Yve-Alain Bois, “The Semiology of Cubism,” in Picasso and Braque: A Symposium, ed., William Rubin, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992, 177]) leads logically and historically to abstraction, Melius emphasizes how Picasso remained rooted in the construction of likeness and reference—in order to better expand its possibilities. Further, Melius poignantly shows how Picasso’s “traffic in ever more elaborate forms of counterfeit” generated a “loss of bodily presence” in his work, an “evacuation of feeling” (2.4). The “affective void” of Picasso’s faces, in Melius’s account, signals Cubism’s place within the wider crisis of representation in modernism, a culturally pervasive sense that the materiality of the artist’s mark could no longer access the plenitude of bodily or affective presence (10.4).

The historical development of this dynamic is unfortunately obscured by the editors’ decision to focus exclusively on works made during and shortly after the invention of collage in 1912, with limited comparative discussion of Picasso’s “analytical” paintings of 1909–11, which were once considered the heart of Cubism. On a related note, this reader wished also for more substantial lateral discussions of Picasso’s contemporaries and predecessors, in order to give a glimpse out of the windows of his studio to the wider artistic culture that birthed the papiers collés. Discussions by Weiss on Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and by Cowling on Georges Braque’s search for “graphic and tonal harmony” in contrast to Picasso’s heterogeneity are refreshing in part because they are exceptions. Given its focus on materiality, Braque’s near total absence from the book is most surprising, as he is the acknowledged inventor of both papier collé and Cubist intermedia sculpture. Every interpretation is based on exclusion—even in the expanses of digital space—but confronted by the sheer mass of information gathered in the book one cannot help but imagine the ways that Picasso’s materials and process from 1912 to 1914 could have been illuminated in light of the artist’s prior work and the contributions of his peers. As it stands, certain readers may assume that the “making of Cubism” was Picasso’s project alone, and that the category pertains exclusively to his papiers collés and constructions.

Ultimately, it is hard to begrudge the editors’ focus on this body of work, as it is an exceptionally fertile terrain on which to construct a new dialogue between conservation science and historical inquiry. If, as Hartzell points out, Picasso could use the very grain of wove paper as a “readymade” grid to orient the disposition of newspaper fragments in Composition with Violin (1912), it was because he worked from within the constraints of his materials, conceiving them not as neutral support but as a creative agent almost on equal footing with himself. Indeed, the sheer depth of expertise and range of approaches to art that are marshaled in Picasso: The Making of Cubism will likely make it an important resource for scholars and general readers. Most importantly, the book does ample justice to Picasso’s dynamic cooperation with materials, and highlights the way these fragile objects, made of the most ephemeral stuff, seem capable of generating perpetually shifting responses, and ever-renewing themselves in the process.

Trevor Stark
Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University