Picasso’s Still-Life with Door, Guitar and Bottles (1916)

Cubist still-lifes usually include objects from Parisian café culture: bottles of alcohol, cups, glasses, table-tops, musical instruments etc. This example from 1916 is no exception. Yet few realize that the same items evoke an artist's studio with its work-tables, rounded palettes and various glass and ceramic containers for holding liquids. Music is a traditional metaphor for art's poetry as alcohol, pipes and smoke are for the imagination.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Picasso, Still-life with Door, Guitar and Bottles (1916) Oil on canvas. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

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Meanwhile scholars have suggested that Picasso's still-lifes sometimes evoke anthropomorphism.1 This one, unseen until now, is a good example. Esoterically the black-and-white sound-hole of the guitar is Picasso's "eye" with the sharp contour to its left as his profile (see diagram, lower left). Picasso regularly depicted his nose as bulbous and his chin prominently round. While the self-portraits in profile (right) depict a straighter nose, they still convey the feel of his hidden profile with its dark and penetrating "eye". And, like them, the "head" is cropped at the neck (dotted line).2

Picasso clearly intended to convey to other visual poets that his "eye" was the instrument's sound-hole, the orifice from which music flows like art from his eye.

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail and diagram of Picasso's Still-life with Door, Guitar and Bottles (1916)
R: Details from Picasso's Self-portrait in profile (1921), also Self-portrait in profile (1921)

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Picasso often made sound-holes do double-duty as both an "eye" and a palette's "thumb-hole". The strings too intentionally resemble paintbrushes (right) while they also, like optical nerves, link his "eye" to its "brain" above, one meaning piled on another.3 Just as subtly, the white highlight around the hole is a lunar crescent connecting that inner "eye" to dreams, imagination and insight. It must be inner because it is surrounded by a large green circle. This makes it far too big for his profile and further away than an eye, realistically, would be. This is a mental image (see Cubism Explained) and his profile, facing the door, is like a shadow on a wall. Susan Grace Galassi has remarked that Picasso had a long fascination with doors frequently presided over by a shadow figure, often a symbolic representation of Picasso himself.4

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Picasso's Still-life with Door, Guitar and Bottles (1916)

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Academies of art have always placed great emphasis on the genres and styles of art as their successors in the academy do today. Yet time and again great artists, like contemporary film-makers, have merged one genre with another to make nonsense of such superficial classifications. What matters to major artists is not just what an artwork looks like on the surface but the poetry of its underlying scene which is, as always, the image in the artist's mind.

Captions for image(s) above:

Picasso, Still-life with Door, Guitar and Bottles (1916)

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Notes:

1. William Rubin in Picasso and Portraiture (New York: Museum of Modern Art) 1996; Berenice Rose (ed.). Picasso, Braque and Early Film in Cubism (New York: PaceWildenstein) 2007, p. 66

2. An art theorist has rightly warned other art scholars that because Picasso’s portraits defy analytic matching, they can only judge the likeness of his portraits by becoming attuned to his kind of representation. Unfortunately, without such experience, others have to rely on the expert. Nevertheless, in my opinion, anyone with perserverance and an open mind can obtain that experience. Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art (London: Phoenix Press) 2000, p. 7. Originally published, 1967.

3. Bass guitars, like the one here, have only four strings but most acoustic guitars have more, six or as many as twelve. Picasso may have deliberately chosen to depict only four, not to mimic reality obviously but for its meaning. He sometimes signed the P of his name as a line with a circle on top, somewhat resembling upside down how the four strings are depicted here, straight with a circle at the bottom. The four lines and circle might then refer to PP (for Pablo Picasso) twice over. It is as though his initials are reflected (ie. doubled) into the world we perceive while still emanating from the unity of the cosmos symbolized by the circle. The pathway between duality and unity is a constant theme in art.

4. Susan Grace Galassi, “Picasso in the Studio of Velazquez” in Picasso and the Spanish Tradition of Painting, ed. J. Brown (New Haven: Yale University Press) 1996, p. 128

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