Pablo Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist”

blue guitar resized

            Pablo Picasso created The Old Guitarist during his Blue Period between 1901 and 1904. Picasso had recently moved to Paris with a friend to establish his career as an artist. His friend, Carlos Casagemas was an artist too, but he fell into an unrequited love and so shot himself. Picasso entered a deep depression and he was harangued constantly by his abject poverty – hence, the Blue Period.

Picasso’s Blue Period is marked by a tonal shift in shades of blue in all of his paintings. In The Old Guitarist, this blue-shift creates a remarkable flatness to the entire piece. Notice that the old man almost seems like he’s standing up but, in fact, he is in a sitting position. Notice also that this flatness gives several parts of his body the seeming quality of pointing down: his toes, the fingers on his right hand, and even his head. He is not looking forward or gazing into the sun but embodying, visually, his final and only destination: the grave. Picasso, however, is not satisfied with just showing us the old man’s attitude toward life. On the contrary, there is something far more debilitating happening to the old man than mere poverty.

His very life essence is being vampirically drained from his body by his guitar – by his art. Look at how the earthy brown tones of the guitar contrast to the rest of the canvas. In contrast to the old man, his clothes, and the background, the guitar is seemingly bursting with life. In a way, this represents the life that is within art. That life, however, comes at a heavy price. Notice that the only part of his body that seems to exhibit any semblance of life is his right arm. Look at its vibrant musculature compared to the corpse-like left arm and his ghoulish legs. And, notice how his mouth, pointing down, is open at the top of the arm making the arm a kind of visual conduit for his very breath. That conduit leads directly into the guitar.

Picasso must have been feeling very mixed about his art and its interplay with society as a whole. On the one hand, the old man needs people to listen to his music so that they may be moved to leave him some coin for his troubles. On the other hand, why must an artist use his art to beg for his food if he is a good artist? Does he not contribute something significant to society through his music, thereby earning his place in that society? Instead, his very life’s essence is being poured into his art until, one day, it will be the only thing left of him. Who will then be able to hear a guitar that has no player?

The Old Guitarist still stands today as one of Expressionism’s greatest and enduring works. It is Picasso’s meditation on the disparity between what society could be and what society had become. Working through the wounds left by his friend’s suicide, they leave an indelible mark on his work from this period. Picasso is best known, perhaps, for his foundational work in Cubism but his development toward that revolution in the form did not occur overnight. Indeed, Picasso is considered a genius but he too put in his “ten thousand hours,” and his Blue Period is an extraordinary example of the suffering and hardship that make up the DNA of a singular voice in art.

Posted by Paul Yim


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