Behind the Art: Why is The Old Guitarist one of the most haunting pieces created during Pablo Picasso’s ‘Blue Period’?

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The Old Guitarist is one of the most iconic and haunting pieces of Pablo Picasso’s ‘Blue Period’ which is enriched by surrealism and symbolism. The artist painted this masterpiece during 1903-1904, a period during which he was going through emotional turmoil and poverty. Made using oil on canvas, this painting is huge and measures 48 3/8 x 32 1/2 inches, roughly four by 2 2/3 feet. It is also notable for the ghostly presence of a mysterious image painted underneath. Currently gracing the walls of the Art Institute of Chicago, USA, it is worth more than $100,000,000. It is safe to say that The Old Guitarist is a priceless piece of art by the master of Cubism and Surrealism, but what is the real story behind the art? What is the mysterious image painted underneath?

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Picasso’s ‘Blue Period’ and the painting

When Picasso started working on this grand masterpiece, he was going through what art critics now call the ‘Blue period’. The term refers to the period when Picasso only used the colour blue in various shades as well as greys and blacks to paint anything and everything. His agent struggled to sell his paintings but he refused to touch any other colour between 1901 and 1904. The Old Guitarist was painted in 1903, just after the suicide death of Picasso’s close friend Casagemas. Carles Antoni Cosme Damià Casagemas I Coll was a Spanish painter and poet who committed suicide in a Paris cafe, during a farewell dinner party he held for himself. This incident remained with Picasso for life and he dedicated several paintings to his friend. At the same time, the artist was nearly penniless and knew how it was like to be impoverished. He felt excluded from society and was sympathetic to the plight of those cast out of society such as the poor, prostitutes, and the ill. Thus, Picasso chose to use the colour blue to communicate the pain and desolation that he was feeling at the time. During the ‘Blue Period’, he continued to feature outcasts as the subject matter of his paintings. He also included subjects that were considered exiles and recluses, such as drunkards, the homeless, and of course, individuals that were struggling to keep up with the pressures of day-to-day life.

Picasso Pablo Picasso painted this masterpiece during 1903-1904, a period during which he was going through emotional turmoil and poverty. (Photo: artic.edu)

The Old Guitarist was made during the peak of Picasso’s ‘Blue Period’ in Madrid Spain. Also known as ‘The Blind Guitarist’, it shows a skinny old man whose bones are visible. He can be seen latching on to his guitar despite his weak state. His skin is pale blue and his clothes are torn. His sad state is further highlighted by his blindness, the isolation, and the atmosphere which surrounds him. The man’s guitar is painted using brown – a colour that represents hope in Picasso’s mind. He wanted to showcase how the guitar is the only hope for survival for the man in the painting and how dependent he is on it.

Although Picasso is clearly showing the world how lower-class societies suffer every day, some believe that he used the old man as the subject of his artwork to represent the isolation that most artists observe. Society often isolates artists even though it is art and culture that brings together people. This represents Picasso’s criticism of society as well as the reality of human existence.

Mysterious images underneath The Old Guitarist

During his ‘Blue Period’, Picasso covered sketches on canvases possibly due to poverty and not enough canvases available on hand. The Old Guitarist has intrigued researchers for a long time because of the sketches hidden behind the main figure in the painting. Recent x-rays by curators found three figures behind the guitarist’s body. The three figures are a young mother with a small child kneeling by her side and an animal on the right side of the canvas; an old woman with her head bent forward. The young mother in the painting has long dark hair and a thoughtful expression. No one to date knows why he chose to not complete those sketches and instead painted The Old Guitarist. However, this is not an uncommon practice. Artists tend to change their minds about their subjects all the time and Picasso was known to paint subjects that emotionally moved him. It is speculated that he may have drawn upon George Frederic Watts’s 1886 painting of Hope, which also depicts a hunched, helpless musician with a distorted angular form using a blue tone.

Picasso X-ray version of the painting. (Photo: artic.edu)

Popularity and impact on Modern Culture

Picasso’s ‘Blue Period’ began with the painting Casagemas in His Coffin, which was a painting showing his friend lying in a coffin after he committed suicide. After that, he made several paintings that showed despair and sorrow, all of which are scattered around the world. The Old Guitarist, however, remains to be the most popular piece of artwork. The Art Institute of Chicago acquired the piece in 1926 in what turned out to be a pivotal moment for the artist. The Old Guitarist became Picasso’s first painting to be acquired by an American museum and it was also the first Picasso painting that any museum in the world acquired for its permanent collection.
Over time, the painting has influenced several artists of all backgrounds. Paul McCartney drew from the painting when creating a chord progression. It is this progression and McCartney’s accompanying melody that became his contributions to the 2015 Kanye West song “All Day”

Art critics could write endless books on why The Old Guitarist is so iconic even now. However, even those who hold no knowledge of art truly appreciate this piece due to the use of melancholy colours and the bony structure of a man who is latching on to his guitar.

Next Up in Behind the Art: How did Gustav Klimt’s iconic “Kiss” spark a sexual revolution in art? Why is the painting so iconic? 

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