Picasso Mandolin And Guitar: The Mystery Of A Hidden Portrait

Picasso once said, “Art is a lie that tells the truth”, this statement offers great insight into his painting “Mandolin and Guitar”. Painted in 1924 at Juan-les-Pines, it currently resides at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The painting has been critically analysed in many ways, so let’s begin with current interpretations.

Some critics describe Picasso’s masterpiece as synthetic cubism, or late cubism. It has been said Mandolin and Guitar was a response to Matisse’s Still Life after Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s “La Desserte”. I believe it was intended as a jab at Matisse, alludes to a tapestry Picasso designed for the set of the play Mercure, is a still life, a self-portrait, and most importantly a portrait of his dear, late friend the poet, Guillaume Apollinaire.

What do you think of when you hear the term surrealism? Clocks oozing like warm,ripe cheese? Locomotives bursting through a canvas toward the viewer? Distorted figures pierced and tethered? Disquieting scenes that evoke a Freudian awareness? If this is what you picture you are not alone. Dali, Magritte, and Max Ernst are among the artists associated with Surrealism. This is the surrealism that the poet André Breton promoted, but that’s not necessarily its architect’s cornerstone.

Guillaume Apollinaire is credited with creating the term surrealism; he first used it when describing Jean Cocteau’s ballet Parade, as manifesting ‘sur-realisme’. Parade premiered at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on May 18th, 1917. It was a fusion of dance, acting, music, and sculpture consisting of one act that took an entire fifteen minutes.  Picasso designed the set and costumes. Apollinaire used the term again in the subtitle of his two-act play Les Mamelles de Tirésias, a  ‘drame sur-réalisme’. Translated from its original French, “sur realisme” means literally “on realism”, I believe the intention was to describe layers of multiplicity. The world was changing at a rapid pace not easily captured by theatre, and even less so in a two-dimensional space.

Apollinaire volunteered in the French army in 1914 during World War I. He returned to Paris in 1916 after suffering a head wound. Then, in 1918, a Spanish flu epidemic swept over Europe. Apollinaire weakened by his head wound, and suffering from emphysema was stricken with coughing fits. After contracting the flu he died at 5 p.m. on November 9th. Picasso was too devastated to even write the notices for the newspaper.

André Breton first met Picasso the night Apollinaire died. Breton developed the contemporary concept of surrealist art in the early 1920s. Briefly he defined it as:

“SURREALISM, noun, masc., Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.”

Culturally speaking, it was a rather brilliant move on Breton’s part. Artist’s manifestos were popular, and Breton capitalized on new Freudian developments in psychological thought. Artists had to find new ways to relate to other disciplines such as science, physics, and medicine. To reflect…almost as a premonition, the truths of our culture. Breton linked artists and poets alike to Freudian thinking and modernism describing surrealism as “pure psychic automatism”.

Picasso thought differently, “I seek always to observe nature. I cling to resemblance, to a deeper resemblance, more real than the real, attaining the Surreal. That’s how I understood Surrealism, but the word was used in a completely different way.” In the preface to The Breasts of Tiresias, Apollinaire wrote: “I thought it necessary to come back to nature itself, but without copying it as photographers do…” He also discussed aspects of simultaneousness when he considered Cubo-Futurists, “holding the artist responsible for more facets of an object, presented in a single aesthetic perception, than could be grasped in an instant of chronological time.”

In “Mandolin and Guitar”, Picasso held true to Apollinaire’s original intention for surrealism. He honored Apollinaire, by holding fast to the original concept, for this painting contains not just imagery of a mandolin and guitar, as Picasso states with his title. It also references the set of Mercure, mocks Matisse’s rudimentary attempt at Cubism, includes a portrait of Apollinaire, and contains the profile of the artist. This painting clearly presents multiple facets of an object in one aesthetic perception, concepts that obviously could not be contained within one instant of chronological time—a full, and true response to Apollinaire’s original intent in regard to Surrealism.

Imagine…Apollinaire takes the stage to read one of his poems. The lamp flickers over his face as he speaks. Light and shadow dance over his features, as he turns, first left, then right, addressing the audience. Picasso listens offstage in the shadows, as the mandolin and guitar play over Guillaume’s face. Imagine.

Words: Marcie Wolf © Artlyst 2014 Image 1: courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York Image 2: Overlay courtesy the author images various copyrights

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