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Playing for Keeps

Jed Perl on Art

Cézanne’s Card Players
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914
Museum of Modern Art

Play, beloved by Dadaists and self-described artistic renegades of all stripes, is as old as humankind, perhaps even older than work, to which it is inevitably opposed. For every liberal or radical or romantic who has embraced the spirit of play as a key to freedom, there is a conservative or a classicist who has emphasized the essential place of play in the stabilization of society and the disciplining of desires. For some, play equals anarchy. For others, play equals order. And it is only when we acknowledge the bewildering heterogeneity of play as idea and experience that we can begin to appreciate fully two extraordinary exhibitions that are in New York right now: “Cézanne’s Card Players,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and “Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914,” at the Museum of Modern Art. Museum-going does not get much better.

These are small, elegantly shaped exhibitions. They are opulent and also modest; both jewel-like and restrained. The Cézanne show, which has already been seen at the Courtauld Gallery in London, is contained in three intimate galleries; it was organized by Nancy Ireson and Barnaby Wright in London and by Gary Tinterow in New York. An introductory room, mostly graphic works, traces the theme of card playing and figures gathered around a table back to the Renaissance. The central room contains three of Cézanne’s five oil paintings of card players, along with his preparatory studies in graphite, watercolor, and oil, all probably done between 1890 and 1896. In the final room there are five portraits of Provençal peasants, including some men who posed for the card players. “Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914,” organized by Anne Umland of the Museum of Modern Art, is housed in one large room at the museum, its only venue.

There are some sixty works that Picasso did over the course of a couple of years: drawings, paintings, collages, photographs, and constructions in which the motif of the guitar is taken apart and put back together, sometimes in isolation, sometimes as an element in a larger still life arrangement, occasionally related to a figure. Each exhibition explores a theme and its variations, an idea or motif analyzed, elaborated. Cézanne, already past fifty when he embarked on this cycle of canvases, was rarely in fuller command of his powers, the delicacy of his painterly touch yielding effects of granitic monumentality. Picasso, in his early thirties, was at his most audaciously experimental, a juggler of mixed media, a pictorial comedian.

Little more than twenty years separates the earliest of Cézanne’s studies of card players from Picasso’s meditations on the guitar, and it was only six years after the death of Cézanne, whom Picasso at one time or another compared to both a mother and a father, that the Spaniard embarked on this group of works in two and three dimensions. Both achievements are in certain respects atypical of the artists who created them. For Cézanne, master of the austere confrontation with still life, landscape, and the solitary figure, the card players reflect a desire to explore social dynamics traditionally associated with history painting and genre painting. For Picasso, who almost invariably set the human figure at the center of his artistic universe, the studies of guitars constitute a perhaps unprecedented investigation of an inanimate object. What links the two groups of works is the extent to which, in their different ways, the artists’ chosen themes underscore the place of play in human life and artistic life. For artists, card playing and guitar playing are quotidian activities whose anecdotal and narrative charms provoke philosophical questions about the centrality of play in artistic experience, questions that go back to Kant and were dealt with in different ways by Schiller and Nietzsche.

With Cézanne’s card players and Picasso’s guitars, the subject matter becomes a commentary on the gestation, on the very nature, of the work of art. Meyer Schapiro once observed of Cézanne’s card players that in emphasizing the “intellectual phase of the game—a kind of collective solitaire—he created a model of his own activity as an artist.” The connection goes beyond our immediate sense of the intentness of the card player as a metaphor for the intentness of the painter, because the subject matter functions as a template for the artist’s formal processes. The activity of the card players seated at the table, their game pursued across the rectangular surface of the table, parallels the actions of the painter as he gives shape to his ideas on the rectangle of the canvas. As for Picasso’s interest in the guitar, playing an instrument involves mastering a musical language and then shaping that language for one’s own expressive ends, much as Picasso masters and then transforms drawing, painting, and sculpture. To play with cards or to play a guitar suggests the more general preoccupation of the artist with calculation and risk, order and disorder, all reflected in the touch of Cézanne’s pencil and brush and in Picasso’s manipulation of texture and surface in paintings, collages, and constructions.


Cézanne’s card players are suffused with the strong atmosphere of Aix-en-Provence, the city in the south of France that was his birthplace, his home, a world with a distinctive language and traditions that went back to Roman times and were the subject of heightened interest in the late nineteenth century, as industrialization threatened to extinguish the old agrarian ways. It has been argued, by Nina Maria Athanassoglou-Kallmyer in her book Cézanne and Provence: The Painter in His Culture, that the card players evoke a Provençal industry, the making of playing cards, that was endangered in Cézanne’s day. They certainly suggest the games played in cafés in Provence, and thus a rural society.

Going through the central gallery at the Metropolitan, moving between drawings, watercolors, oil studies, and the final paintings, we see how Cézanne monumentalized even the smallest figure. He transformed a billowing sleeve into a sweeping arc and a bent arm into an isosceles triangle. These, of course, are formal matters, but it does not end there, because the geometricization of the figure gives ordinary men some inherent relationship with an objective and even divine order. Particularly moving are several studies in graphite and watercolor of a single figure seen in profile at a table, the man’s arms resting on the table in such a way as to echo the right-angled geometry of the table itself, a carpenter’s primary form that recapitulates the inevitability of the painter’s rectangle.

Scholars believe that Cézanne first completed two canvases with four or five figures (the smaller one, in the collection of the Metropolitan, is included in the exhibition) and then three canvases in which the focus narrows from a part of a room to a tabletop framed by two card players (two of these canvases are in the show). What interests Cézanne is the gravitas of the figure seated at the table, the sociability of card playing as a primal condition. There is a long tradition of paintings of men gathered around a table, and Cézanne responds to a particularly French fascination with reticent sociability, to the work of Georges de la Tour and the Le Nain brothers in the seventeenth century and Chardin in the eighteenth century, rather than to the melodrama and skullduggery of Caravaggio’s Italian thieves or the rambunctious frolic of David Teniers the Younger’s Dutch taverns. If Chardin, in his paintings of a young man building a house of cards, suggests the ephemeral nature of play, Cézanne points to its timeless, ritualistic nature. With Cézanne, anecdote and allegory give way to an anatomy of sociability with an almost sacramental quality, underscored in the compositions with two card players by the bottle of wine set between them.

Has any artist before or since summoned up figures that are simultaneously as personal and as impersonal as Cézanne’s? In the five large portraits of solitary peasants with which the show concludes, his sense of the individual character of these men who were anything but his social equals precipitates a heightening and simplification of personality that we know from the Old Testament stories that Rembrandt revered. Cézanne’s figures are not only individuals; they are emblems of individualism. Cézanne understands how physiognomy shapes identity, so that we register a moral imperative in the thinness or thickness of a man’s torso. Equally revealing is the headgear of Cézanne’s card players. Each hat, with its distinctive shape, suggests some mysterious mental life. Although these hats have none of the extravagant stylishness of the helmets, caps, and turbans in Piero della Francesca’s frescoes, Cézanne’s sartorial sense is every bit as resonant as Piero’s, recapitulating the Renaissance master’s ability to give inanimate objects the inevitability of phantasmagorical images in dreams.

Nowhere perhaps is Cézanne’s identification with his peasant subjects more immediate or urgent than in his observation of their hands. Cézanne was, after all, a man who worked with his hands, acutely aware of the imperatives of manual labor. In the single portraits, where we see working men at rest, their hands hang loose, or they are folded together, or a single hand is pressed against a forehead. As for the paintings of card players, here the hands of Cézanne’s peasants are thrust into the very center of the composition. We see agile fingers clutching the little groups of cards, the player holding his “hand” and considering its composition much as the painter considers his composition and its possibilities.


Cézanne was fascinated by a man’s intense and somehow stoical relationship with the objects he touches and manipulates and possesses. This interest, central to the card players, also explains why pipes play a key role in these paintings, clenched in the mouth of one player, but also displayed on a rack on the wall in the two earlier paintings. The Cézanne show includes two etchings by Manet of a man smoking a pipe, and these and Manet’s famous painting of a guitarist, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, were surely very important for Picasso. The challenge of mastering one’s surroundings is central to “Picasso: Guitars,” where Cézanne’s stoicism turns into exuberance, into a celebration of the artist’s manipulation of objects, the guitar, the pipe, but also the bottle of wine or spirits. Picasso is shuffling the deck of pictorial possibilities, not only by drawing and painting in more or less conventional ways, but also by cutting pieces of colored paper and newspaper and wallpaper in order to compose collages, and by incorporating within one painting different painterly techniques, some passages that are highly varnished and others of paint mixed with grit.

The guitar, the pipe, the bottle are taken apart and put back together, as the rules that govern artistic practice, the rules of the game, are extended, inverted, isolated, nearly obliterated. There are passages here where Picasso is playing so fast and loose with the rules that the game itself looks about to collapse. The collages from December 1912, with a single shape cut from newspaper and set in an openwork structure of charcoal lines, reduce nature to fantasy architecture, the ponderousness of still life now light as air. These collages are invitations to oblivion—nihilistic gestures reversed, at the last moment it seems, by Picasso’s insistence on reasserting the sovereignty of the enfolding rectangle with lines that echo its foundational shape. They are high-wire acts, their youthful athleticism fueled by the athlete’s acknowledgement of the oldest overarching laws, the order that defines and defies his disorderly conduct.

There is also, hidden just beneath the surface of “Picasso: Guitars,” a drama of opposing players joined in a grand game. This is a story that is sidetracked at MoMA, where the exhibition fails to make good on the catalogue’s discussion of the centrality of Braque, Picasso’s close friend and collaborator at the time. By all accounts it was Braque who had the deeper feeling for music. And it is now generally agreed that it was Braque who first made a collage and first made a three-dimensional paper construction. To consider Picasso’s and Braque’s work together is to see them literally handing back and forth certain elements, competing in the artistic arena. Picasso, with the Spaniard’s guitar as his instrument, was inclined to explore the most radical taxonomies, while Braque wielded the violin more appropriate to his French classical spirit. But there are also many representations of violins by Picasso and many representations of guitars by Braque. In the supercharged room that is “Picasso: Guitars”—it is an installation that might have been more effective if slightly sparer—there is almost nothing that Picasso will not try. His color ranges from nearly monochromatic to hyper-chromatic; extremes of elegant austerity are followed by passages of kitschy trompe l’oeil.

“Picasso: Guitars” marks the fortieth anniversary of Picasso’s gift to the Museum of Modern Art, in 1971, of the sheet metal guitar he made in 1914. After the artist’s death in 1973, the museum received another guitar, this one the cardboard model made in 1912. These constructions, which Picasso did not permit to be exhibited in public until the 1960s, are regarded by many observers as among the most important achievements of his career, a paradigm shift in comparison with which nearly everything else he did pales. Cubist painting had already wreaked havoc with the abstraction of reality that is an element in all painting, even the most apparently naturalistic painting—and with the three-dimensional guitars Picasso took the abstracted object in a cubist painting and returned it to its place in the real world, although it could no longer fit very easily into that world. This was certainly a form of play, the make-believe of pictorial experience made believable, in much the way that the child imagines or even believes that a doll is a living thing. John Richardson, in his biography of Picasso, mentions that Picasso was friends during the cubist years in Paris with a celebrated maker of guitars named Julián Gomez Ramírez. He produced guitars that people could actually play. As for Picasso, he turned a guitar into a curious three-dimensional image of intersecting planes, rendered in sheet metal, a haunting form—austerely elegant, but also somehow violent in its obliteration of naturalistic norms.

It is one of the conundrums of Cézanne’s card players, discussed by nearly everybody who has studied them, that these card games yield images that are suffused with solemnity, even melancholy. I think Cézanne wants to remind us that play is no laughing matter, but rather a defining dimension of human conduct—a key not only to sociability but to creativity as well. And the place of play in human affairs has implications not only for Cézanne’s work but also for Picasso’s, and for any consideration of the role of play in modern art. The question is much discussed right now. Useful explorations of these themes can be found in the anthology From Diversion to Subversion: Games, Play, and Twentieth-Century Art, edited by David J. Getsy, and in Toys of the Avant-Garde, the catalogue of an exhibition at the Museo Picasso in Málaga. In Susan Laxton’s essay in Getsy’s anthology, called “From Judgment to Process: The Modern Ludic Field,” the avant-garde’s preoccupation with play is traced back to Kant, who with Schiller is said to “see play as an integral part of culture alone,” while Nietzsche is seen as refusing “to separate art”—and thus play—“from the everyday.” Some of the same themes are touched on in Medea Hoch’s “Toys and Art: Interdependency in the Modern Age” in the Málaga catalogue. Laxton’s essay is an impressive exploration of a dauntingly complex range of material. All in all, Getsy’s anthology is a strong piece of work, with older theories of play marshaled not to justify the fun house that the art world has become in our day, but to remind us of how deeply modernists have engaged with a range of ludic possibilities. Once upon a time a painter was rather like Cézanne’s taciturn card players in a Provençal café. Now we have Jeff Koons, Mike Kelley, and Damien Hirst, whose idea of artistic creation is not much different from playing blackjack for high stakes in a Vegas casino.

Cézanne and Picasso, from this contemporary vantage point, can be seen as guilty of not having gone far enough. Card playing, in Cézanne’s exploration of the game, has a ritual sobriety that some will see Duchamp as re-affirming through his lifelong engagement with the game of chess. Maybe so. But games, as played by the Dadaists and the Surrealists, tend to make a mockery of the rules. As for Picasso’s abstractions of guitar playing and his make-believe guitars, they take the artistic desire to challenge the rules to an extreme. Among those who saw Picasso’s guitars in his studio was the young Vladimir Tatlin, and in part through the impact they had on him in April 1914, those guitars, which were reproduced in Les Soirées de Paris at the time but not exhibited in public, became a precipitating development in constructivist sculpture—a pure abstract art that Picasso would never entirely accept. Some who believe in art as a linear progress have argued that even more than Tatlin’s constructions, Duchamp’s Readymades, emerging a year or so after Picasso made his sheet metal guitar, were the next inevitable step in the history of art, the product of a playfulness that trumped Picasso’s. By such a reckoning, Picasso’s abstraction of a guitar, once he realized it in three dimensions and set it out in the world, spelled the beginning of the end of painting itself.

But that is not right. Even after developing his three-dimensional cubist guitars, Picasso felt no need to abandon painting. One of the lessons of Picasso’s career, considered as a whole, is that there are rules to painting and rules to sculpture, and that ultimately one must play by those rules. This faith in regulation might look like a denial of the true spirit of play, until one considers Johan Huizinga’s great book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, which was published in 1938, as the European situation was darkening. Huizinga’s study is not so much a celebration of play as it is an essay in the necessity of play: he believes that man’s base material instincts and natural aggressive impulses can only be transcended through the spirit of play, a spirit not so much of freedom but of order and restraint. Cézanne’s card players, with their deliberate poses and their muted intensity, certainly support such a view of play.

I think that even Picasso, for all his nihilistic and anarchic impulses, understood the sobriety of the play element. In later life he devoted enormous energy to sculpture, some of which continued lines of thought precipitated by his cardboard, wood, and sheet-metal guitars. The tension between imaginary worlds and real worlds would be an interest of Picasso’s well into the 1950s, when it was wonderfully illustrated in David Douglas Duncan’s The Private World of Pablo Picasso. Here we see Picasso concocting a tabletop tableau of tiny paper people on a beach beneath a sculpture of a head that becomes a mocking monument. The man who dreamed up this mixed-media joke is the same artist who, in a studio tableau that he photographed himself in 1913, inscribed a cubist figure on a canvas and then attached its arm to an actual guitar, suspended above a real table containing a real pipe and a real bottle. My feeling is that in concocting such mixed-media amusements, Picasso was not so much suggesting a new direction for art as he was letting off steam, exploring the limits beyond which art became anti-art. Afterward Picasso returned to the classical pictorial play that engaged him as it had engaged Rembrandt and Cézanne.

Plato, Huizinga reminds his readers, declared that “man is made God’s plaything, and that is the best part of him. Therefore every man and woman should live life accordingly, and play the noblest games.” Play, according to Huizinga, “creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection.” When people are at play, “special rules obtain.” Play occurs in realms that are set apart, often physically, so that “the arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed.” With that statement, Huizinga offered what amounts to the last word on Cézanne’s card players.

Huizinga’s book is so intellectually imaginative that it may take some time before it dawns on the reader that it presents what is in many respects a deeply conservative view. In the arts, Huizinga finds that realism, naturalism, and impressionism are empty of the “play-spirit,” and he dismisses art since impressionism as a “constant striving after new and unheard-of forms” that leads “into the turgidities and excrescences of the twentieth century.” What Huizinga did not understand was that many modern artists, and certainly Cézanne and Picasso, were as much enemies of standardization and homogenization as he was. The artists sought, through the intimacies of card playing and guitar playing, to affirm Plato’s stern warning that man is nothing if he does not play—and play well.

Cézanne’s card players—so grave, so intense—accept the mandate to play much as Cézanne himself accepts the mandate to paint, to obey the imperatives of the rectangle of canvas, to observe the contradictory demands of color and line. As for Picasso, while there is surely enormous wit in the work he was doing in the years leading up to World War I, his art is also disquieting, even troubling, in its astringent refinement, its playful deracination. The sheet-metal guitar is an exceedingly strange object, with a sound hole like a gaping mouth in one of the African masks that probably inspired its ambiguous form. This is the realization of an abstraction, an elegant nightmare. If the guitar is a joke, it is a sobering one, a playful invention that cannot be played. With the three-dimensional cubist guitars, Picasso must have known that he was confronting some limit—some point beyond which the game could not go. He remained committed to play in the sense we know it from Cézanne’s compositions, playing by what are always the rules, his elements arranged on the rectangle of the canvas much as Cézanne’s card players, playing for keeps, lay their cards on the table.

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the April 28, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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