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Sight and Sound: Exhibits at The MoMA and The Met Explore the Guitar

Published on
May 31

This summer one instrument is being featured in exhibits at two very different museums.  At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibit “Guitar Heroes” examines the extraordinary craftsmanship of three Italian-American guitar makers.  At the MoMA the exhibit “Picasso Guitars: 1912-1914” focuses on these years of the artist’s work and explores the extremely productive and influential period in Picasso’s career noted for his investigation of what would come to be known as synthetic cubism.  The two exhibits are unrelated, yet both examine the work of talented artisans inspired by the form of the guitar.

David Tecchler's Archlute, ca. 1725 (Austrian, 1666–1747)

At the back of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, tucked away behind the medieval art collection, the assortment of guitars comprising “Guitar Heroes” finds its home.  The circular gallery is well disposed to guiding patrons through the exhibit, first through the old guitars of Italy (1500-1800) and then on to the work of  three modern Italian-American craftsmen of New York (post 1900).  The first display case at the entrance to the rotunda gives museum-goers a sample of the journey to come, displaying a cross section of the different instruments and time periods represented in the exhibit.  A violin from 1711 made by the famous Stradivarius (his violins are to this day considered the pinnacle of violin craftsmanship and sell for up to millions of dollars) signals that the exhibit is not exclusively guitars, but also focuses on several of the instrument’s cousins, predecessors, and inspirations.  A uniquely slender archtop acoustic guitar by C.F. Martin & Co. dating from 1867 sits in next to it, bringing in an antique American guitar tradition (the company still makes acoustic guitars today and is headquartered in Nazareth, PA).  A C. Bruno & Sons mandolin joins the two, introducing yet another guitar relative featured in the exhibit.  And finally a 1915 D’Angelico archtop acoustic rounds out the group representing one of the Italian-American craftsmen the exhibit has set out to feature.

After this overview of what lies in store, viewers are ushered into the first part of the exhibit, which focuses on the old master craftsmen of Italy.  From large six-foot lutes of Northern Italy to tiny Neapolitan mandolins, the ornate detail and precious materials present in these instruments is really astounding – you can feel the painstaking labor that went in to their creation.

Antonio Vinaccia's Mandolin, 1781 (Italian, active 1754–1781)

David Tecchler’s Archlute dating back to about 1725 is the largest of the group and is the only one of its kind that has survived to the present day.  Eight long bass strings span the instruments full length and dwarf the twelve shorter strings (which reach up only about a quarter of its neck length) and give the instrument an impressive presence.  The ornate mandolins from eighteenth-century Naples are laid with intricate patterns of mother of pearl and gold; and their curved backs feature carefully bent ribs of tortoiseshell, ebony, and ivory.   The characteristic bend on the lower half of their front give them a unique signature and is said to provide them a structural integrity innovative for their time.

There are many interesting specimens in this “early” part of the exhibit, from the interestingly strung “harp guitars” to the uniquely shaped “lyre guitars.”  Highlights would have to be the incredibly intricate baroque guitar made by Matteo Sellas in Venice in about 1630 and the incredibly simplistic guitar made by Stradivarius in 1700.  The Sellas guitar has layers of tiny wood carvings decorating the inner part of the sound hole and a checkerboard of inlaid bone and snakewood covering the neck.  The guitar by Stradivarius, The Rawlins, is one of only four guitars made by him.  It has a simpler sound hole ornament and is made from spruce and maple giving it a clean look.

At about the halfway point of the gallery, Italy and New York collide when Italian guitars of the nineteenth century meet the guitars made by Italian-Americans in the early 20thcentury.  A film of a craftsmen working in his northeast American workshop is projected onto a wall shedding light on the process behind the instruments.

John Monteleone's "Sun King" Archtop Guitar, 2000 (American, b. 1947)

This second half of the exhibit features the work by John D’Angelico, James D’Aquisto, and John Monteleone.  Quite striking is Monteleone’s “Sun King” guitar (one of the more famous guitars in the exhibit) made of spruce, maple, and ebony.  The alternating fan pattern of blonde maple and macassar ebony along with the body’s “sunburst” finish give it the fiery presence which earns it its name.  The maple and mahogany, solid-bodied, electric guitars made by D’Aquisto were commissioned by musician Steve Miller.  They were designed specifically for Miller and stand out as some of only a few electric guitars present in the exhibit.  Finally, Monteleone’s “Teardrop” guitars are perhaps the most striking of the modern guitars with their swirl-like body and oblique sound holes.

As one progresses through the gallery it is interesting to note the way in which visual aesthetic and musical function have informed the evolution of the guitar.  While many of the instruments may qualify as works of art in their own right, they also all have been crafted to advance their function qua musical instruments to a new height.  The exhibit draws attention to the way the guitar has evolved over the last ~500 years and seems to leave patrons with the question: What has driven the evolution of this instrument more, a desire for a particular look or a desire for a particular tone?

I think it can be said that both have factored in to the permutations the guitar and its cousins have gone through over these years, some more heavily influenced by one, some the other, and many by both equally.  For instance, while Monteleone’s swirled “Teardrop” guitar was innovative in its aesthetic, its tone also was afforded a unique quality because of its form.  The oblique sound holes look interesting, but also enable an optimal placement of the guitar’s internal tone bar.

John Monteleone's “Teardrop” Archtop Guitar, 2008 (American, b. 1947)Because of this inextricable link between form and function, as I made my way around admiring the plastic elements of the guitars, I found myself yearning to know what they sounded like, how different were their voices?  The Met has cleverly designed an iphone application (downloadable from itunes) that works as an audio guide for the exhibit and also provides multi-media featuring more information about and recordings of the guitars.  If you don’t have an iphone, not to worry, touch-screen devices can be rented at the exhibit for a small fee ($5-$10).  You can also listen to performancesof the instruments on the Museum’s website.

“Guitar Heroes – Legendary Craftsman from Italy to New York” is on display until July 4th this summer.  Museum admission is free for current Columbia students and children under 12, $20 for adults, $15 for seniors, and $10 for Students.







While the Met features the works of master craftsmen who have experimented with and pushed the form of the guitar in one sense, at the MoMA the guitar’s form is being taken in a completely different direction.  In the exhibit “Picasso Guitars: 1912-1914” the guitar is completely deconstructed in its familiar sense, and reconstructed on its own terms and in a space all its own.

The exhibit is bookended by two guitar sculptures, one made in 1912 the other in 1914, both essentially the same with slight differences.  The major difference is that the 1912 piece is constructed from cardboard while the 1914 sculpture is created from sheet metal.  The exhibit aims to elucidate how these two sculptures define an extremely fruitful period in the work of Picasso and an extremely influential period in the history of 20th century art as a whole.  This period, immediately preceding World War I, marks the beginning of the synthetic cubism art movement which Picasso helped to develop along with Jacques Braque, Juan Gris and others.  For the first time the exhibit brings together an array of collages, drawings, photographs, and paintings done by Picasso during these years and elucidates their interconnectivity as Picasso explored new ideas in his work.

Upon entering the gallery on the third floor of the museum, one is immediately confronted with the 1912 guitar sculpture, lit in a spotlight and featured solo on a predominant wall.  A quick glimpse to the right reveals the 1914 metal sculpture on the far end of the gallery. This led me to turn in the opposite direction, exploring the exhibit in an order that would lead me to the 1914 sculpture last.

On the left is a series of charcoal drawings – of violins, of guitars, wineglasses and bottles, and even heads.  Occasionally these forms are joined by a piece of cut-out newspaper or faux painted wood grain, both characteristic of the synthetic cubism movement; it is this very synthesis of mixed materials and mediums that gives the movement its name.  Picasso employs a variety of different papers, textures, and surfaces in these works; mixing grit and particle matter into his paints, building up surfaces, and even (in the case of one collage) assembling the different papers by pins, and all the while blurring the line between painting and sculpture.  Many of the works on this wall, while simple and sparse at first glance begin to reveal their complexity with longer attention, their planes and shapes seeming to come forward and then recede backwards again.  Not only are the edges of these figures alluring but so too are the shadows, and where Picasso has chosen to let them fall.  In one drawing,Violin, the nail that the instrument seems to hang from along with the nail’s shadow can also double as the tuning knobs on the scroll of the Violin.

Moving to the back wall of the gallery, one of the most interesting pieces here is one that can only be viewed in front of a direct backlight.  Cutting shapes out of a piece of paper, Picasso sealed it inside another paper which he then folded and glued shut.  The light shines through the piece and the inner form becomes visible.  Charcoal lines and shading added to the front again highlighting Picasso’s experimentation with combining different materials.

The center of the exhibit features a display case housing photographs of Picasso’s guitar sculpture along with some of the drawings on display in the exhibit.  Picasso noted that he saw his artwork differently in the photographs he took of it – in a different way from what it really is.  And so too is the museumgoer afforded a different perspective on these works by looking at them through the lens of Picasso’s camera.  There is an interplay between the way in which we trust a camera to capture reality and the way in which Picasso creates, defines, and captures his own reality within the diegetic space of his collages.  The dimensionally ambiguous drawings next to a tangibly three-dimensional sculpture, which are then baked back into a two-dimensional photograph seems to challenge the way that we think of space, space as an aspect of reality, and reality itself.

Guitar, Sheet Music, and Glass. Paris, November 18, 1912, or later.The two guitars really do act as touchstones for the rest of the works in the exhibit.  While the subjects of these pieces encompass more than just guitars there is a certain common formal element tying them all together and I found occasionally checking back in with the cardboard construction as I looked at the other drawings and collages was extremely helpful.

Finally, arriving at the 1914 metal guitar sculpture, it did feel fitting to use it along with its cardboard companion as bookends for the exhibit.  The initial cardboard construction, in this context, seems like a sort of ephemeral first-approaching to the ideas Picasso explores and elaborates on in the exhibit.  At the end, arriving at its metal incarnation, the sculpture exudes a certain substantiality, as if the trials and tribulations investigated by all the other works have found an element of durability and sturdiness to rest upon.

The exhibit “Picasso Guitars: 1912-1914” is on display until June 6 at The Museum of Modern Art.  Museum admission is free for current Columbia students and children under 16, $20 for adults, $16 for seniors, and $12 for Students.