Picasso’s Old Guitarist – Everything you need to know

Pablo Picasso - The Old Guitarist, 1903–1904, oil on panel, 122.9 x 82.6 cm (48 3/8 x 32 1/2 in.)
Pablo Picasso – The Old Guitarist, 1903–1904, oil on panel, 122.9 x 82.6 cm (48 3/8 x 32 1/2 in.)

Why was Pablo Picasso important?

Pablo Picasso was one of the foremost and persuasive artists of the 1st half of the 20th century. Primarily associated with pioneering a movement known as Cubism, he also made major contributions to surrealism, symbolism and a range of other classical styles that persisted during the 1920s.

Unlike many other painters of his time, Picasso possessed an eclectic attitude to style, although his works were often typified by a single and dominant approach, that allowed him to easily interchange on style for another, sometimes even in the same piece. It is perhaps this ability to switch style that allowed him to maintain his longevity in the industry. Even though artists came and went throughout Picasso’s existence, he managed to remain relevant and active in art circles until the end of his life that occurred in 1973.

According to some records, it is estimated that Picasso created an unbelievable total of over 50,000 pieces of art. During his existence, his works influenced many styles and movements namely German Expressionism, Constructivism, Vorticism, Futurism and many more.

Pablo Picasso in his studio ‘La Californie’
Pablo Picasso in his studio ‘La Californie’

What led to Picasso’s Blue Period

Although Picasso is considered as one of the greatest artists to ever walk the earth, he was not always as successful or as confident as his works may portray him to be. In fact, when he was just starting out as an artist, he faced a lot of tragedy, emotional fragility, and poverty that obviously impacted his work. Like many artists, Picasso channeled a lot of his emotions into what is considered as his first pioneering body of work, which is referred to as the Blue Period.

How Casagemas’ death impacted Picasso

Picasso’s Blue Period commenced in 1901 when Picasso was just 19 years old. At the time, Picasso had associated himself closely with a group of radical writers, anarchists and artists. Among them was a close friend and Spanish poet known as Carles Casagemas. Although brilliant in his own right, Carles Casagemas committed suicide by shooting himself in the middle of a dinner party that year due to an incident with his lover.

It was Carles Casagemas’ sudden death that prompted Picasso to start painting in blue. The death of his close compatriot affected him deeply and it is what served as a catalyst for the paintings that were created soon after his death. All of the paintings created by Picasso during the Blue Period were characterized by the use of cold colors such as nauseating greens, dark greys and of course, melancholic blue hues.

One of the very first paintings produced by Picasso during the Blue Period was created soon after his friend’s death and was titled The Death of Casagemas (1901). In the painting, Casagemas appeared to be swaddled in white sheets, as though asleep. However, Picasso also added a bullet hole on the subject’s temple to represent the tragedy that took his life.

Pablo Picasso - The Death of Casagemas, 1901 10.63 x 13.78 in
Pablo Picasso – The Death of Casagemas, 1901, 10.63 x 13.78 in, Musée Picasso

Pablo Picasso - Casagemas in his Coffin, 1901, Oil on board, 72.5 x 58 cm
Pablo Picasso – Casagemas in his Coffin, 1901, Oil on board, 72.5 x 58 cm

The Blue Period self-portrait

By the time he was creating his first painting in the Blue Period, Picasso had not yet managed to find his voice as an artist nor had he sold enough paintings to support himself, which further worsened his psychological state. Picasso’s use of the color blue persisted when he created a self-portrait of himself. In this portrait, he represented himself as a 50-year-old frail man instead of painting himself as he really was at the time, which was a 20-year-old painter whose career was full of endless possibilities.

Pablo Picasso - Autoportrait (Self-portrait), 1901, oil on canvas, 81 × 60 cm
Pablo Picasso – Autoportrait (Self-portrait), 1901, oil on canvas, 81 × 60 cm, Musée Picasso

Why did he choose blue?

Picasso chose to use blue to communicate the pain and desolation that he was feeling at the time. During the Blue Period, Picasso continued to feature outcasts as the subject matter of his paintings. In addition to failed or failing artists such as himself, he also included subjects that were considered exiles and recluses such as drunkards, the homeless, prostitutes and of course, individuals that were struggling to keep up with the pressures of day to day life.

By using blue in his background, Picasso was able to convey elements of vulnerability in his work. Blue also helped to highlight various facets of trouble such as creative anguish, loss, poverty, grief, and dejection in a single canvas. Interestingly, most of the pieces created by Picasso during this Blue Period were executed on top of earlier works. One such piece that was created during the Blue Period was The Old Guitarist.

The Rose Period & Transitioning to Cubism

After 1904, Picasso’s style and palette started to change and brighten. For a close to a year, he embarked on painting in a style that was known as the Rose Period, which was a lot happier and cheerful compared to the Blue Period. The Rose Period, unlike the Blue, was characterized by the use of red and pink hues, which were more uplifting.

After a year or so of focusing on the Red Period, his style changed and darkened to feature forms that were more solid and heavier in aspect. It was during this period that Picasso met and became close allies with Georges Braque. Together the two created a new movement that was known as Cubism.

Georges Braque with Pablo Picasso
Georges Braque with Pablo Picasso

‘The Old Guitarist’, 1903

The Old Guitarist was created in 1903 in Barcelona, Spain at the height of Picasso’s Blue Period. The Old Guitarist was an oil painting on canvas and like many paintings of that time, it featured the usage of a monochromatic blue palette and an overall impoverished tone with the distinguished exception of the guitar, which Picasso rendered in a much warmer, brown hue.

Pablo Picasso – The Old Guitarist, 1903–1904, oil on panel, 122.9 x 82.6 cm (48 3/8 x 32 1/2 in.), Andrew Salituri
Pablo Picasso – The Old Guitarist, 1903–1904, oil on panel, 122.9 x 82.6 cm (48 3/8 x 32 1/2 in.)
Photo: Andrew Salituri/twitter.com

What the painting shows

The old guitarist, also sometimes referred to as the blind guitarist, featured an old man whose skins and bones were visible. Though clearly weak and feeble, the old man appeared to latch on to his guitar almost as though he was seeking redemption for his serious state of affairs. The pitiful state of the old man was depicted by his pale blue skin, his weak and hungry body, as well as his torn clothes. His sad state was further highlighted by his blindness, as well as the general atmosphere around him which was reflected by the sadness of the guitarist. His environment was also painted to represent the life that lower class individuals lived at the time.

Analysis & Meaning

In the painting, the guitar held by the blind man was the only element that had a color variation. The brown color used was intended to symbolically represent the only tool that the man could use to redeem himself or get himself out of his poor state. Picasso used brown for the guitar, instead of the ubiquitous blue to represents the old man’s only hope for survival. As such, Picasso painted the man as though leaning on the guitar with the hope that the music he produced would at least give him some reprieve from his terrible situation.

The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso still has universal appeal today as not much has changed over the years as it relates to the predicament faced by lower class societies. Elements in the Old Guitarist were carefully selected by Picasso as a means of generating a reaction from his audience.

The sad melancholic state was used by design and was intended to haunt onlookers in a way that would make them question why the working class and high-class individuals continued to prosper while those that needed the most help continue to languish in poverty.

The old man as a symbol for artists?

According to some, Picasso used the old man as the subject of his artwork to represent the life of isolation that most artists are often forced to live. Although music and art are often the things that bring society together, these elements also become burdens that isolate artists from the rest of the world. And yet despite the isolation, the guitarist depends on it for his survival. As such, the Old Guitarist was painted to not only represent Picasso’s criticism of society, but it was also created as a metaphor of human existence.

Being that the Old Guitarist was created during Picasso’s Blue Period, the painting represented a great deal of sorrow and grief. The melancholic tone of the piece is not only highlighted by Picasso’s use of blues but also his use of dark colors. The hardships that Picasso was enduring at the time are also reflected in the artwork; though the artwork depicts a poor man hunched over his guitar, the painting can also be used to represent Picasso’s own low standard of living at the time.

Old sketches underneath the ‘Old Guitarist’

As mentioned earlier, Picasso artwork during the Blue Period often included the covering of old sketches. Like many of his artworks that were created during the Blue Period, the Old guitarist also had older sketches underneath that may not be visible to the naked eye but are apparent when placed underneath an X-ray machine. Because the piece bore many layers of paint, the Old Guitarist appears to have a choppy feel and appearance, which depicts Picasso’s strong emotions and the ever-changing mind of a painter.

Old sketches underneath Pablo Picasso's Old Guitarist, from the book Looking at Art from the Inside Out by Mary Mattews Gedo
Old sketches underneath Pablo Picasso’s Old Guitarist, from the book ‘Looking at Art from the Inside Out’, 1994 by Mary Mattews Gedo
Photo: Alex Logsdon/alexlogsdoncapstone.com

Conclusion

Overall, Picasso was able to highlight the plight of the Old Guitarists outstandingly well through his exceptional use of color. Although the theme of desolation and hopelessness is prevalent, Picasso also conveys hope and the ability of the guitarist to triumph over the negative forces affecting his craft.

All images Sucesión Pablo Picasso, VEGAP, Madrid unless otherwise noted.

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