The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso – The Hidden Meaning

With time it is clear that sentiments have become more attractive than aesthetics in the art world. Expressionism is one such art movement that emphasizes emotional expression over idealized beauty. A pioneer of this movement is the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso who used his art as a form of catharsis. During his career, he explored various art movements and in the process also gave rise to an exclusive art genre – The Blue Period. 

“Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth”

Pablo PICASSO

The Blue Period

The blue period refers to a specific period in Picasso’s career spanning from 1901 to 1904. These paintings share certain common features that are distinctive enough to be assigned a separate category.

The most obvious characteristic is the heavy usage of a blue palette. The emotional tone of these paintings is grim and depressing with themes of old age, poverty, malnutrition, ill-health, and even motherhood. The Blue Period was a crucial part of Picasso’s artistic development. 

The Death of Casagemas by Pablo Picasso,
The Death of Casagemas by Pablo Picasso,
Courtesy of www.PabloPicasso.org, Fair Use

Certain circumstances of Picasso’s life have been linked to his blue tendencies in art. Picasso himself was going through a difficult time during his blue period, struggling financially and also emotionally.  The blue period was almost an immediate reaction to the death of Carlos Casagemas. In 1901 the artist’s close friend and colleague Casagemas committed suicide. Not much earlier, in 1895, Picasso’s younger sister met an untimely death.

The very first painting of the blue period is titled “The death of Casagemas” (1901). In this painting, we see Casagemas’ dead body near a flame. There is very little usage of blue almost exclusively on the dead man’s cold face. However over the years the blue spread throughout the canvas. The old Guitarist was painted toward the end of the blue period when Picasso had almost completely abandoned warm colors. 

Where is the original The Old Guitarist?

Pablo Picasso’s 1904 painting titled ‘The Old Guitarist’ is housed in the third-floor galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago. This oil on panel work became the first Picasso painting to be acquired by an American museum.

Picasso created this work in his early 20s in Madrid. The dimensions of the painting are 122.9 x 82.6 cm.

About the Subject

Subject: The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso. PD-US

The subject of the painting is an old guitarist, dressed in rags, sitting awkwardly as he plays the guitar. The man’s body makes a roughly rectangular shape. His neck is tilted at an odd straight angle which was quite common in the paintings of the blue period. His limbs seem like a separate entities that have been lazily placed near his torso.

The man’s eyes are glued shut referring to his blindness while his mouth is slightly open. His emaciated body sinks toward the guitar as if he is trying hard to listen. The fingers are slender and feminine reflecting a soft grip on the guitar.

The Composition of the Painting

The painting lacks depth in its background since all the colors are flat and single-toned with only minor shading. For this reason, the audience can share their space with The Old Guitarist and empathize with him more closely.

The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso. Public Domain
The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso. Public Domain

One of the most striking themes in this work is poverty and impoverishment. Investigations using x-rays revealed that Picasso has painted this work over at least three other paintings. This shows just how financially unstable the artist was and hence he chose to depict the same theme on canvas. 

Picasso shows a sharp change from the normal standards of idealized beauty by choosing to deliberately distort the subject’s body. His choice of distorting the human figure to enhance dramatism and emotions is reminiscent of the great 16th-century Spanish artist El Greco’s work.

The Colors

The paintings use dull shades of blue, green, black, and brown. The overpowering blue brings a sense of grim sadness, bitter cold, and loneliness. Picasso uses white highlights to emphasize the man’s boney physique, especially his slender tapering fingers. The white and blue give the appearance of a surreal moonlit night.

The only warm color we see on the canvas is the brown guitar. The subject curls up around the instrument as if trying to feel some of the warmth that it exudes. With him, the audience also tends to focus on the guitar and the slight relief it brings to the old guitarist. The guitar is a metaphor for hope, which we all need to cling to in difficult times. 

The blue tones evoke raw subjective feelings of shared human misery. His suffocating blindness heightens the tones of poverty, disengagement from the outer world, and lamentation over life.

What is the meaning behind The Old Guitarist?

Picasso paints an allegory of his own life through the old guitarist. While the beggar sells his music to earn his livelihood, the artist sells his art and both of them are nearly in the same condition. 

The guitarist’s physical deformities are extremely expressive. The man is deeply engrossed in his music and his inner world and he pulls us toward his internal melancholia. We not only share a physical space with the guitarist but also an emotional one. Once we enter his emotional space we tend to connect our own difficult experiences with him. By way of a shared human experience, we empathize very closely with the old man.

Conclusion

While the composition seems unnatural at first. On close observation, we realize that the artist very logically evokes intense emotions through its unique construction. This distinctiveness is a subtle reflection of Picasso’s erudition. Picasso’s Blue Period gives us a glimpse of the most difficult time in his life. He provides an emotional account of an integral human experience which makes his art relevant to this day.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Was the Purpose of The Old Guitarist?

Through the Old Guitarist, Picasso depicts his misery on canvas. At the time when he painted this piece, he was much like the subject of the painting -penniless, lonely, and blue. He shares his difficulties with the audience and makes us feel “seen”. 

He uses beautiful metaphors of pain, hope, and suffering throughout the canvas. This work is extremely relatable and relevant to today’s audience as well.

Is The Old Guitarist Picasso Cubism?

The old guitarist has features of the expressionist movement. Cubism involves more geometric and abstract elements. The old Guitarist was created in a much earlier phase of Picasso’s career during 1901. This period is referred to as the Blue Period.

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