The piece of art that will be focused on is “The Old Guitarist” by Pablo Picasso. It was created in 1904 in Barcelona, Spain. This is an oil painting on canvas, and the size is roughly 122.9 cm by 82.6 cm. It is currently on display in the Art Institute of Chicago as part of the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection. Pablo Picasso dominated the development of the visual arts during the first half of the 20th century. Along with Georges Braque, Picasso is best known as one of the creators of Cubism, though he utilized many styles during his career.
In the paintings of his Blue Period (1901–1904), such as The Old Guitarist, Picasso worked with a monochromatic palette, flattened forms, and tragic, sorrowful themes. Furthermore, El Greco, Picasso’s poor standard of living, and the suicide of a dear friend influenced Picasso’s style at the time which came to be known as his Blue Period.
The Old Guitarist was painted in 1903, just after the suicide death of Picasso’s close friend, Casagemas in Paris. During this time, the artist was sympathetic to the plight of the downtrodden and painted many canvases depicting the miseries of the poor, the ill, and those cast out of society. He too knew what it was like to be impoverished, having been nearly penniless during all of 1902. This work was created in Madrid, and the distorted style (note that the upper torso of the guitarist seems to be declining, while the bottom half appears to be sitting cross-legged) is reminiscent of the works of El Greco.
Elements in The Old Guitarist were carefully chosen to generate a reaction from the spectator. For example, the monochromatic color scheme creates flat, two-dimensional forms that dissociate the guitarist from time and place. In addition, the overall muted blue palette creates a general tone of melancholy and accentuates the tragic and sorrowful theme. The sole use of oil on panel causes a darker and more theatrical mood. Oil tends to blend the colors together without diminishing brightness, creating an even more cohesive dramatic composition. Furthermore, the guitarist, although muscular, shows little sign of life and appears to be close to death, implying little comfort in the world and accentuating the misery of his situation. Details are eliminated and scale is manipulated to create elongated and elegant proportions while intensifying the silent contemplation of the guitarist and a sense of spirituality.
The large, brown guitar is the only significant shift in color found in the painting; its dull brown, prominent against the blue background, becomes the center and focus. The guitar comes to represent the guitarist’s world and only hope for survival. This blind and poor subject depends on his guitar and the small income he can earn from his music for survival. Some art historians believe this painting expresses the solitary life of an artist and the natural struggles that come with the career. Therefore, music, or art, becomes a burden and an alienating force that isolates artists from the world. And yet, despite the isolation, the guitarist (artist) depends on the rest of society for survival. All of these emotions reflect Picasso’s predicament at the time and his criticism of the state of society. The Old Guitarist becomes an allegory of human existence.In the Old Guitarist, Picasso may have drawn upon George Frederic Watts’s painting of Hope (1886), which similarly depicts a hunched, helpless musician with a distorted angular form and predominantly blue tone. This bent and sightless man holds close to him a large, round guitar. Its brown body represents the painting’s only shift in color.
Both physically and symbolically, the instrument fills the space around the solitary figure, who seems oblivious to his blindness and poverty as he plays. At the time the painting was made, literature of the Symbolist movement included blind characters who possessed powers of inner vision. Picasso presented The Old Guitarist as a timeless expression of human suffering. The bent and sightless man holds his large, round guitar close to him; its brown body is the painting’s only shift in color. The elongated, angular figure of the blind musician relates to Picasso’s interest in the history of Spanish art and, in particular, the great sixteenth-century artist El Greco.
Most personally, however, the image reflects the struggling twenty-two-year-old Picasso’s sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden; he knew what it was like to be poor, having been nearly penniless during all of 1902. His works from this time depict the miseries of the destitute, the ill, and the outcasts of society.The technical examinations, combined with art-historical research, several x-rays, infrared images and examinations by curators revealed three different figures hidden behind the old guitarist. This information gives us a better understanding of Picasso’s artistic process.Recent x-rays and examinations by curators found three figures peering behind the old guitarist’s body. The three figures are an old woman with her head bent forward, a young mother with a small child kneeling by her side, and an animal on the right side of the canvas.
Despite unclear imagery in crucial areas of the canvas, experts determined that at least two different paintings are found beneath The Old Guitarist. In 1998, researchers used an infrared camera to penetrate the uppermost layer of paint (the composition of The Old Guitarist) and clearly saw the second-most composition. By using this camera, researchers were able to discover a young mother seated in the center of the composition, reaching out with her left arm to her kneeling child at her right, and a calf or sheep on the mother’s left side. Clearly defined, the young woman has long, flowing dark hair and a thoughtful expression.The Art Institute of Chicago shared its infrared images with the Cleveland Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where curator William Robinson identified a sketch by Picasso sent to his friend Max Jacob in a letter. It revealed the same composition of mother and child, but it had a cow licking the head of a small calf. In a letter to Jacob, Picasso reveals he was painting this composition a few months before he began The Old Guitarist. Despite these discoveries, the reason Picasso did not complete the composition with a mother and child, and how the older woman fitted into the history of the canvas, remain unknown.
A perfect companion piece is Wallace Stevens’s poem, “The Man with the Blue Guitar.” The poet puts words to Picasso’s belief that art is the lie to help us see the truth. Stevens writes: “They said, ‘You have a blue guitar, / You do not play things as they are.’ / The man replied, ‘Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar.’” As a metaphor for the need to immerse oneself fully in one’s grief in order to heal, Denise Levertov’s poem, Talking to Grief is also apropos. The painting is also notable for the ghostly presence of a mysterious image painted underneath. It is very likely that Picasso originally started painting a portrait of a woman, who appears to possibly be seated, and in an upset or worried mood. Not much of this image is visible except for her face and legs.Influenced by the breakthroughs of Post-Impressionists such as Paul Cezanne, Picasso no longer sought to imitate nature in his Cubist art. Instead, he invited the viewer to examine the figures and shapes that he broke down and recombined in totally new ways. In this portrait, the subject, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, a dealer who championed Picasso’s radical new style, has been fractured into various planes and shapes and is presented from several points of view. From flickering, partially transparent planes of brown, gray, black, and white emerges his upper torso, hands clasped in his lap.
The guitar – the only point of warmth in the painting – carries the only sense of hopefulness to be found. Perhaps this guitarist can at least hold onto his form of art in a dark time. It has been said that Picasso saw himself in this guitarist, holding onto his painting during a dark time in his life.
The Art Institute of Chicago. (2013).
The Old Guitarist. Retrieved from: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/Modern/artwork/28067The Art Institute of Chicago. (2013).
Glossary. Retrieved from: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/Modern/glossary#symbolPablo Picasso. The Old Guitarist, 1903 by Pablo Picasso. Retrievedfrom: http://www.pablopicasso.org/old-guitarist.jsp