Picasso’s Last Laugh — The Mystery Behind Mandolin and Guitar


Pablo Picasso died on April 8th, 1973, and he took with him an enormous secret. When I initially saw a copy of Picasso’s painting, Mandolin and Guitar in my art history class, I saw a face, and then saw the mandolin and guitar. I was so intrigued that I sought an explanation for this curiosity, yet most of the sources I consulted made no mention of the face I saw. This paper will examine the critics’ and historians’ descriptions of the painting, look at Picasso’s inner circle, and scrutinize the politics of the changing art scene around the time of the painting. Finally, I will offer a new analysis of this painting and the deeper meaning I believe it contains.


Although Picasso maintained close friendships with a number of artists and poets, his relationship with the poet Guillaume Apollinaire was by far the most profound. Picasso and Apollinaire met sometime in 1905, after Picasso’s work was exhibited at Berthe Weill’s gallery. Apollinaire’s first article on Picasso was published in Apollinaire’s one and only issue of La Revue immoraliste, in April of 1905.  Jean Mollet, introduced the two at a bar called Austin’s.  The artist and poet quickly became friends. Picasso’s studio on rue Ravignan in Montmartre known as Bateau Lavoir was frequented by Apollinaire, Louis Aragon, Cocteau, Breton, Paul Eluard, Max Jacob, Jacques Prevért, and Pierre Reverdy.  Picasso found the company of the poets to be more intellectual and stimulating than that of his painter friends. 


One well-known caper involving Apollinaire and Picasso occurred in 1911. First, an Iberian statue disappeared from the Louvre, followed shortly afterward by the Mona Lisa.  The once-complacent authorities apparently began to inventory and investigate other missing items after noting the absence of Leonardo’s famous painting. The thief of the Mona Lisa, Vincenzo Perrugia, was found and sentenced.   But another man named Gery Pieret was responsible for taking the Iberian statue, as well as two others that had disappeared some time earlier. Apollinaire had met Pieret in the stock-exchange region of Paris where they both worked until Pieret was fired. Apollinaire took him in sometime in 1907, allowing Pieret to sleep on a cot in his kitchen.  Around this same time Pieret stole two Iberian statues, selling the first to Picasso, and abandoning the second when the artist refused to buy it.  Pieret remained friends with the painter and the poet occasionally staying with one or the other.  Then in 1911, Pieret stole a third Iberian sculpture and sold it to the Paris-Journal where Apollinaire was employed.  The journal published an article about the anonymous thief, and mentioned his previous thefts and sale to an unspecified Parisian artist.   Soon afterward police questioned and arrested Apollinaire in connection with the thefts.  After being interrogated by the judge, Apollinaire finally named the thief, and stated that a painter friend of his had unwittingly purchased the stolen goods.  Interestingly, the paper neglected to mention the name of the painter; however Picasso was ousted eventually.   Picasso was terrified when he was summoned by the police, and initially denied any knowledge of the affair.  Apollinaire thought he was left to shoulder the burden alone, until he was permitted to question Picasso, who then confirmed Apollinaire’s version of the story.  Later, a disgruntled Apollinaire confronted Picasso on his self-preserving behavior requesting they meet “finally to have a real discussion about our personalities and the problems between us, in other words about our friendship. My friendship for you runs deep, which doesn’t mean that it isn’t bleeding in places”.  The experience, although painful, provided fodder for future works by both artists and, along with Apollinaire’s forthright conversation furrowed the soil for their relationship to deepen.


In 1914 Apollinaire volunteered in the French army to support the country during World War I.  His first assignment was in an artillery division that did not experience active combat.   He then volunteered to serve with the infantry at the frontlines. He returned to Paris in 1916 after suffering a head wound.  The wound was later trepanned, and subsequent photos show Apollinaire with his head bandaged.  Apollinaire and Picasso exchanged many letters, poems and drawings during this time, growing closer in spite of the geographic distance that separated them.


In 1918, a Spanish flu epidemic swept over Europe.   Apollinaire weakened by his head wound, and suffering from emphysema was stricken with coughing fits.  Apollinaire had contracted the flu; he died at 5 p.m. on November 9th. Picasso was too devastated to even write the notices for the newspaper.  Although his best friend had died, Picasso would always carry the memory of Apollinaire with him—hearing his voice, and seeing his face in the world around him.


The birth of the term “Surrealism” has a somewhat cloudy beginning. Apollinaire used the term in a theatre program describing Jean Cocteau’s ballet Parade, as manifesting ‘sur-realisme’.  However, he may have gleaned the term from Picasso.  One month earlier May 18th, 1917, Jean Cocteau’s ballet Parade premiered at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. It was a fusion of dance, acting, music, and sculpture that consisted of one act, and took an entire fifteen minutes.  Picasso designed the set and costumes. Composer Eric Satie wrote the music, and the choreography was by Leonid Massine. For his first involvement with theatre, Picasso created costumes reminiscent of Cubism, geometric forms that represented buildings and skyscrapers.  Sound effects included rattling bottles, a typewriter, sirens and gunshots – new sounds that formed an unsettling backdrop for this modernist statement.   Dancers awkwardly clomped around the stage, reflecting a modernized and de-human era.  Later, in 1917 Apollinaire again used the term surrealism, in the subtitle of his two-act play Les Mamelles de Tirésias, a  ‘drame sur-réalisme’.


Picasso painted Mandolin and Guitar in the year 1924 while he was staying at La Vigie at Juan-les-Pins along the French Riviera.  At 180.9 x 220.8 cm, it is one of the largest canvases he ever did.  To say that the painting is multi-faceted would be an understatement as it is layered with complexity. Nancy Spector, curator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum in New York where the painting resides refers to the painting’s style as synthetic cubism.  Author John Richardson says “This grand coup de théâtre exemplifies a new, more supple and expressive form of late cubism.”   By “coup de theater”, Richardson is referring to Eric Satie’s ballet Mercure with scenery and costumes by Picasso, and choreography by Léonid Massine.  Carter B. Horsley of The City Review, an online “zine” for Manhattan describes the painting thus: “The raked floor suggests a stage; the space between the table-legs recalls a prompter’s box; the wedges of papered wall to left and right double as curtains; the balcony looks as insubstantial as a painted set. And in fact Picasso developed the composition from his set for ‘Night,’ the introductory scene of Mercure, an avant-garde ballet produced and choreographed by Massine for Count Etienne de Beaumont’s Soirees de Paris: the reclining figure of the set has been replaced by a group of still life objects and the stars of the backdrop have migrated to form the pattern on the tablecloth.”  John Richardson agrees with critic Elizabeth Cowling’s observation that the painting is a response to Matisse’s remake of De Heem’s Still Live, “La Desserte”.  Picasso did not care for his rival’s attempt at cubism. 


Andre Breton first met Picasso the night Apollinaire died.  The impending death of the poet was about to leave an enormous void in Picasso’s life—one that perhaps Breton hoped to fill.  Following Apollinaire’s death, Breton took on the word surrealism. Whether he intended to capitalize on the Apollinaire’s name, or to wrench the term from purely literary clutches was a matter of debate.   Breton stated:


“It would be dishonest to dispute our right to employ the word SURREALISM in the very particular sense in which we intend it, for it is clear that before we came along this word amounted to nothing. Thus I shall define it once and for all:


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.”


            Breton very much wanted Picasso to be involved with the Surrealist movement. However, Picasso never publicly aligned with the Surrealists. Instead he allowed his works to be included in surrealist publications, thus giving the movement credence, while maintaining a political distance.  Roland Penrose a writer, painter and friend to Picasso said Picasso found the Surrealist group the most interesting of the era, due to the collaborative activities of the painters and poets – a spawning ground similar to the one he had known with Apollinaire years before.   Author Michael Fitzgerald says the time period “between the premiere of Mercure and the presentation of The Dance in La revolution Surrealiste”, was the time Picasso formulated his concept for Apollinaire’s monument.  This time frame fits perfectly with Picasso’s creation of Mandolin and Guitar.  When Picasso first discussed creating a monument for Apollinaire in1927, Breton reviewed his metallic sculptures and decided they had “Surrealist affinities”.  Characteristics such as metamorphosis, contrasting juxtapositions, and tribal references are terms that Breton used in describing Picasso’s works from that period.  For his part, Picasso commented “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…” Apollinaire had 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.  And, Picasso relied heavily on preparatory sketches and such, and less on the psychic automatism touted by Breton.  This preference for Apollinaire’s original intention for the term “Surrealism” may explain Picasso’s conflict— why he allowed himself to be included in the Surrealist’s publications, but still kept a degree of separation.


The Parisian art scene was a hotbed of activity for the arts, theatre, music, poetry, and painting…and for the movements that fostered new ideas. Cubism, Dadaism, and Surrealism surged onto this scene. Most events seemed to include a ruckus as part of the mise en scene, and most descriptions of these events end with the words “…and the police were called.”


On July 6, 1923 Picasso was sitting in his box at Théâtre Michel for the Soiree du Coeur à barbe, or The Bearded Heart.   The night’s entertainment was to be a combination of poetry, dance, film and music with The Gas Powered Heart by Tristan Tzara as the grand finale. The event was a Dada production, feral and absurd. A Dadaist sycophant named Pierre de Massot appeared on stage and recited:


“Andre Gide dead on the field of battle.

Pablo Picasso, dead on the field of battle.

Francis Picabia dead on the field of battle”

Marcel Du champ…”. 


His tirade took aim at other artists as well, but when he berated Picasso, Andre Breton jumped onto the stage.  Supposedly this was in support of Picasso, but more likely the action was to incite further uproar.  With the assistance of two friends, Robert Desnos and Benjamin Peret, Breton proceeded to beat Massot with his cane. After cracking the bone in Massot’s right arm, the threesome returned to their seats. Massot left the stage and Tristan Tzara called the police on the fomenting crowd.  Picasso shouted “No police here!” to no avail. It is likely that Picasso would develop a retort to this attack on his credibility via the medium that best expressed his virtuoso. Even if Picasso had explored Cubism extensively, his ability to innovate was far from dead.


Mercure was performed at La Cigale theatre in Montmartre June 15, 1924. As with any important event, this evening’s amusement also included a skirmish. Auric, a former student of Satie goaded goaded Breton into an attack. Andre Breton led the Surrealists in a disturbance by crying out “Bravo Picasso, down with Satie”.  In spite of the outburst this production was a major accomplishment in terms of avante-garde theatre. In Le Journal Littéraire (June 1924), Aragon wrote “…It is also the revelation of an entirely new style for Picasso, one that owes nothing to either cubism or realism, and which transcends cubism just as cubism transcended realism. Picasso’s backdrop for Mercure is one of the concepts Mandolin and Guitar makes reference to.


Quote from article: “…as many friends of Apollinaire and Picasso himself felt, that the head was not the most fitting memorial since it bore no relation to Apollinaire


Picasso once said, “Art is a lie that tells the truth.” In Mandolin and Guitar, Picasso held true to Apollinaire’s original intention for Surrealism, and proved to his detractors that he was still very much alive. 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.


The top center of the image forms the crest of Apollinaire’s hat; it is comprised of blue sky, and purple. Arcing through the sky, and across multiple color fields is the brim. These lines are carefully, and deliberately placed. The balcony railing that cuts thru the sky (top left), shutters (top left), references balustrades or table legs (bottom center) represent the set of Mercure.  It is important to note that the sky changes, representing different times of day and night, which may also serve as a metaphor for cycles of life. The black and white grid appearing at the bottom and top of the canvas, and on a diagonal at left, seem a jab at Matisse’s faux-Cubist remake of De Heem’s work. The mandolin (red and yellow at center left) also forms the left eye of Apollinaire. The black figure at center sometimes described as a bottle, appears to me as a female figure. At its base the blue circle appears vaginal and looks similar to an “evil eye” motif. It is known that Picasso was influenced by tribal works and was of a superstitious nature.  In fact, Memory Holloway writes of exactly this from the era of 1960; “Picasso once asked, Why not put sexual organs in the place of eyes, and eyes between the legs?”  Perhaps the instance in Mandolin and Guitar foreshadowed Picasso’s later intent. This figure follows the lines created by Apollinaire’s nose. At its base are three interlinked red/green orbs. These are often referred to as apples or oranges. In my opinion that reading seems odd: in other paintings he creates fruit that reads more clearly. I suspect it more likely these hold some other symbolism. The red/blue balloons that Apollinaire used in the play, The Breasts of Tireasis (or the balls thrown at the audience) comes to mind. At the right we see the guitar. Here is Apollinaire’s left eye, along with his left cheekbone. In many images of the poet we see his face, tilted slightly so that the light and shadow create these planes. To the right of this we see Picasso’s profile, it is visible beneath the hat brim, extends to the right, the metamorphosis downward into the edge of the table the still life rests upon. The forward edge of the tablecloth, represented by a pale blue strip with sparkling diamonds is the mustache Apollinaire occasionally sported. Beneath that, another railing represents the poet’s teeth.

Mandolin and Guitar create a far more fitting homage to Apollinaire and his concept of Surrealism, than does the head of Dora Maar gracing the poet’s tomb. Picasso demonstrates cunning ability to think in multiple dimensions, while creating multiplicity of subject, and traversing the span of time. As your eye travels the multiplicity of meaning, Mandolin and Guitar breathes with the ebb and flow of life. 

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