Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Guitar in painting and sculpture

I'm an amateur guitar maker; a hack, really. But I enjoy the challenge, the feel of the materials, and most of all, that amazing sensation when this thing of wood and glue and bone and metal, this oddly shaped box you've been toiling on for months, suddenly starts making sound, then music, and becomes...a guitar.

There's something deep in this process, for humans have been making music since we found a voice, and possibly before that, when we beat two rocks together and started tapping our feet. Yet the guitar is a relatively modern instrument, as these things go. The modern classical guitar goes back to Torres in the mid 1800's, and the modern steel string even later than that. But these forms that feel so natural to us were the product of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years of work by talented craftsmen, the shapes and styles of the time dictating their product, evolving with those times to lead us to where we are now.

I'm not an art historian by any means, but while on this New York trip I keep finding myself photographing the guitar (and it's ancestors) in various forms and paintings. These are a few highlights.

The intarsia from “The Studiolo From the Ducal Palace at Gubbio (1478 – 82)” is a true masterwork. Four full walls have been painstakingly inlaid with contrasting woods to create hundreds of small vignettes that relate to the life and interests of its patron, Frederico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. Surprisingly, several panels depict the Italian ancestors of the guitar. In the example here, we see several instruments, with a lute (perhaps an oud), prominent in the upper panel. (Just a guess, but with its thin neck and raised bridge, I think that the lower panel shows something in the viol family.) The wood work is superb, and though the colors have mellowed over time and are hard to see in the dim lighting of the exhibit, the three dimensionality of the work shines through.

Moving forward to 1649 with Laurent de La Hyre's, “Allegory of Music,” we find a woman tuning a Theorbo, or Arch Lute. (Think of a lute on steroids.) Next to her shoulder sits a songbird, suggesting the interplay between natural music (the bird) and modern, human music. What I find interesting is what is around her. The mess of other instruments, the sheet music strewn haphazardly over her desk, the constant fiddling with the tuners. For all of its classical trappings, it's a very human scene; change the instruments and you might as well be in my office.

We jump ahead over two hundred years to Edouard Manet's, “The Spanish Singer” (1860), where we find a young man playing something very recognizable to us. By this time, the modern guitar had come into being, with six strings, sized perfectly for salon performance. He wears a dashing wide-brimmed hat and billowing shirt with his leg up in the air, as if he's just about to hit a perfect power-chord. But here's a startling thing. Compare this image with the late, great rock guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn, and tell me there's no similarities. The “rock-god” goes back a long, long way, doesn't it? (I can't help but mention all the things that are wrong with the player in this picture. His fingers are all over the place, the pose completely unsuited for actually playing a guitar. He's even holding it the wrong way around! After all, Manet painted a model, not a guitarist. But then again,
rock stars don't need to know what they're doing, do they?)

Picasso's “At the Lapin Agile” (1905) is rightly celebrated as a masterwork of his early period. Picasso himself sits clutching a glass of Pernod while his then girlfriend, Germaine Pichot, looks away, bored and indifferent. Behind them, the club's owner, Frede Gerade, plays a guitar. Striking for it's bold use of color and innovative perspective, I've always been struck by the ennui of the characters. Once again we see the guitar prominently figuring in what we would now describe as, “Too cool for school.” The main figures are listening to the music, particularly Germaine, but they certainly don't want to show any interest in it. That would be so un-cool.

Through my travels I kept wanting to find a piece of sculpture depicting the guitar. But it was when I came across these two instruments at the Met that I had a vision. These are the two most famous classical guitars of all time. The one of the left built by Manuel Ramirez in 1912, the other built by Hermann Houser in 1937. These were the guitars of the great Andres Segovia. And as I stared open mouthed at the pair, I realized that the guitar itself IS sculpture. Of course it is. With flowing curves reminiscent of a women's body, carefully planned and delicately executed intarsia, the colors of the woods blending and playing off of each other to create a beautiful object, this is functional sculpture at the highest level.

My work in building guitars may not equal the masterpieces depicted here, but I feel much more grounded in my quest. People have been creating, playing and enjoying the instrument for centuries, and if I can bring a beautiful sound to others, and perhaps create a worthwhile sculpture in the process, I am only adding to the history and tradition of the great and nobel beast: the guitar.

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