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Guitar in Art - From Baroque to Modernism

January 21, 2017
Alias of Ksenija Pantelić

Fascinating curves, sensual lines, long neck, and the lavish round body, the adjectives mostly associated with the description of provocative, erotic and the sensual depictions of the human body, for centuries have been used to describe the images of guitar in art as well. Guitar art paintings not only speak about the history of this string instrument and its development through time, but are also examples of musical paintings and of images which showcase the life on the stage, at parties and celebrations, and depicts the moments of leisure. Numerous creatives used the guitar in art as a symbol inside allegorical paintings, or as an example of the avant-garde approach to art making occurring in the 20th-century. The shape of this music instrument inspired numerous investigations into the abstraction and the simplification of forms which marked the birth of modern and abstract art.

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Left: Pietro Rotari – Girl with Lute. Image via pinterest.com / Right: Johannes Vermeer – Guitar Player. Image via wikimedia.org

The Guitar – History and the Origin of the Instrument

A number of scholars argue whether or not guitar, like the lute, was introduced to medieval Europe from the Middle East, or if it was indigenous to Europe. During the Renaissance period, guitar gained its recognition. Before this time, it was difficult to distinguish its precise history. Associated with other plucked-string instruments, such as the long-necked lute, either Roman, Byzantine or from Egypt, what we define and recognize today as the guitar was created in the fifteenth century.[1] At this time, the first guitar was much smaller, and made with four double courses of gut strings.

During the medieval and Renaissance time, an exuberant variety of plucked stringed instruments can be found in both literature and art. During the Baroque period, the Baroque guitar, similar in shape and body to earlier guitars yet typified by five double courses of strings, was used in a rich repertory of solos and also accompanied songs.[2]

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Guitar collection at Museu de la Musica de Barcelona. Image via wikimedia.org

The Presentation of the Guitar in Art – The Art’s History Caught in the Stings

In their attempts to capture the exact likeness of reality surrounding them, painters of the past concentrated on the creation of images which told stories of life as it is, or of the idealized life. The guitar in art, during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, occurred in portraiture paintings, alongside allegorical and mythological images. In these artworks, authors did not manipulate nor distort the shape of the instrument. The guitar art, at an early stage of art history, was defined through highly-realistic artworks, which celebrated the rulers, their lavish court lives, mythological figures, and the developments of the society. Masters such as Vermeer, Edouard Manet, and Auguste Renoir were known to use this instrument as a subject matter in their paintings.[3]

One of the most famous images celebrating this instrument for sure is the painting The Guitar Player by Pablo Picasso. Painted during Picasso’s blue phase, the work depicts the curves of the instrument, its long neck, and the expressive bow of the head of the musician. Of course, just a few years after this painting was painted, Picasso and his contemporary Georges Braque joined numerous authors in their fight against the traditional art canons, such as linear perspective and golden ratio rules, and began their search for a fresh aesthetic language. Creating a movement in art known as Cubism, which focused on the surface of the object, the joining of the various viewpoints into one image and the play with geometric forms, the authors produced a number of paintings, collages, and sculptures. In both the Analytic and Synthetic phases of Cubism, the two painters frequently chose the guitar as their subject matter, alongside still-life images and incorporation of various found objects for their sculpture production. In such works, the guitar was frequently unrecognizable, and its shape was cut to the basic geometric forms which, in fact, define it. The play of surface and the ideas shared between Picasso and Braque made room for abstraction in art.

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Left: Pablo Picasso – Old Guitarist. Image via wikimedia.org / Right: Georges Braque – Woman with a Guitar. Image via wikimedia.org

The Celebration of Emotion and Senses

Visual art, as music, attempts to evoke or represent various emotional states. As such, guitar art paintings of the past often picked up on the romantic aspect of the instrument. This is particularly true for several images produced by Auguste Renoir. His players, usually female subjects, cradle the instrument in a number of his paintings, which are bathed in the serene and quite a sensual atmosphere. On the other hand, the world of contemporary photography, particularly black and white photography, often use the instrument to emphasize some of the art’s elements, such as light, shadows or texture. Its slick and polished surface attracted many photographers to represent details of the instrument’s parts. Particularly interesting is how many of the photographers and visual authors represented the link between the guitar and the female body.

Even though at a first glance many would not attempt to think twice about what guitar in art images can represent, and would only focus on seeing the painting as a representation of the instrument, with this brief text about guitar art we have attempted to open up other possible readings.

 Editors’ Tip: Music in Art (A Guide to Imagery)

This abundantly illustrated, full-color volume provides an overview of the topic of music, musical instruments, and performance throughout the centuries, as depicted in Western works of art ranging from ancient sculpture to Renaissance paintings to modern art. It serves as a handy guide for anyone desiring a comprehensive, yet succinct, answer—a first source for the academic scholar, university student, or educated layperson. It features sections devoted to individual instruments and sections focused on more general concepts, such as sound symbols and allegories and the instruments used in religious contexts. A fascinating musical, historical, and art-historical narrative accompanies the full-color works by painters including Anthony van Dyck, Hieronymus Bosch, Gustav Klimt, Francisco Goya, Marc Chagall, Man Ray, and the Antimedes Painter. The appendix contains lists of subjects and of artists and includes a glossary.

References:

  1. Grunfeld, F., V., The Art and Times of the Guitar: An Illustrated History of Guitars and Guitarists, Bold Strummer Limited, 2006
  2. Huber, J., The Development of the Modern Guitar, Bold Strummer Limited, 1991
  3. Phillips, T., Music in Art through the Ages, Prestel, 1997

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image in slider: Pablo Picasso Guitar. Image via theartblog.org;Pietro Paolini – Guitar Player, detail. Image via earlymusicmuse.com