Simple enough, right? The first step to understanding something is to depict it properly. You’re an artist of staggering genius and people around you are playing instruments. Just paint them in the act, while the tunes reverberate in your ears — oh, but how will you convey, how will you remember, how will you explore their actually making music?
Picasso’s “Man with a Violin” (1912) and “Man with a Guitar” (1912) are not only exercises in Cubism. They are portraits with a particular purpose, devoted to rendering the fusion between artist, artist’s tools, and the resulting product. I am not speaking any less than literally here: distinguishing the violinist from violin and the guitarist from guitar in both paintings is impossible. In “Man with a Violin,” one can see a small foot at the bottom of a triangular-shaped compound. Through a mess of thin, vertical rectangles, the triangle shape lends itself to a strong sensation of ascent. Slightly above the foot are the sound-holes of the violin, then at the tip of the triangle, towards the top of the canvas, there’s part of a face and, cast off to the right, an ear. The nods to human form, the rectangles reaching, the compound pointing, blues, darks, and browns dominating the palette: it isn’t hard to conjecture a violinist trying to create a transcendent tune despite himself. He’s reaching, and maybe the colors — I’m thinking the blues and the darks — create a melancholic mood. I should add the rectangles, narrow and numerous, also give an impression of horizontal movement, as if a head is bobbing or an arm going back and forth. Still, the tight triangular structure makes this “motion” a refinement.
Perhaps “Man with a Violin” is about the struggle refinement and structure barely conceal. The man with a violin is broken, reconstructed with his instrument and tune. In “Man with a Guitar,” the guitarist has completely disappeared into a brighter brownish, silvery structure. The shapes composing the painting are wider, more horizontal: they’re the bricks of an ancient temple. In the center, something resembling stairs leads to something resembling an opening. The body of the guitar and the man himself have reconfigured into this quirky yet seemingly sacred building. For me, this evokes the layering of intricate melodies and variations. At some performances, the music surrounds you, and it’s like you’re entering another space entirely.
But does that mean the artist has truly disappeared into his art? Someone might blurt that the “Man with a Guitar” represents an ideal that the “Man with a Violin” fails to reach. I think the paintings call for more conjecture, but not quite that one. At some level, they push us to guess what music the musicians played. The violinist, maybe a longing, sad tune that displayed his virtuosity. The guitarist, maybe an elaborate one, traditional or classical. None of this can be proven in the least, of course, but this sort of consideration underwrites my thoughts above. The portraits, then, are about how we conceive people. We do so through their production, and that is just as faithless to them as it is faithful. In that sense, the fusion of painter, his tools, and his painting can be better approached. Picasso doesn’t really depend on brushes, paints, or canvas, but he does depend on his style. He communicates through his fragmented, complicated constructions, and in that sense, resembles the musicians. He is present in the work, regardless of how visible or invisible he is there, regardless of how different each of his paintings are.