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  • Nathan Weakley

The Old Guitarist

For several years, I had a poster up in my room of my absolute favorite painting, Picasso's The Old Guitarist (1904). All of my friends found it deeply off-putting. So did I, especially at night when the darkness brought uniformity to browns, blues, and reds and made it appear as though the old blind man was really there, sitting on top of my shelf. But, as much as it upsets me, and in fact, because it upsets me, I feel a real emotional connection to it. I'll tell you why.

The Old Guitarist is a viscerally unsettling image. Upon first viewing, one begins to feel tired and lonely. The central figure is emaciated, grotesque, and nearly alien in appearance, and yet the viewer is immediately drawn to him and, in fact, drawn into him. The viewer can feel his hunger and exhaustion. Perhaps it is the near-life-size scale and the figure’s singularity within the work that allow one to identify with him rather than pitying him detachedly. The blue colors that dominate the artwork help to cultivate an atmosphere of sadness. There’s also a claustrophobic quality to the artwork—the old man’s cramped and unnatural sitting position seems to indicate that he is boxed in by the tight pictorial space; Picasso only permits him his toes outside the canvas. But, most of all, the painting feels lonely. The guitarist is completely alone, and yet it is unlike a typical portrait, wherein, in some sense, the subject’s position acknowledges the presence of the artist. Here, the man depicted has nobody and nothing but his guitar to keep him company.

Shortly before the first of the Blue Paintings, Pablo Picasso, still a young man, left behind the vibrant Parisian art scene and returned to his home country of Spain. This marked the beginning of a period of both relative isolation and flowering individuality for the artist, who was beginning to develop a style apart from contemporary European painters—a style that was at once distinctly Spanish and yet divergent from the trends of any previous art movement. He began to take influence from the poverty and struggle of his surroundings in Barcelona, painting poor and downtrodden figures much like those he encountered on the streets near his home.

But the Blue Period was not inspired solely by societal hardships. At the time, Picasso was dealing with a personal tragedy—namely, the death of fellow artist and friend Carles Casagemas, who committed suicide after a love affair went awry. Picasso was devastated by this loss, and as he found himself racked with despair and thoughts of mortality, he was compelled to focus his artworks on darker themes. Two of the Blue Period’s earliest paintings, Evocation (1901) and The Burial of Casagemas (1901), were created in memory of the artist’s late friend.

While Casagemas is not the subject of The Old Guitarist, his legacy is present, as it is in every painting of the Blue Period. Casagemas’s death and the heartache that came in its wake led Picasso to develop an obsession with misery, with starvation, sickness, and suffering. His subjects became the homeless, the deprived and depraved, and the tortured and marginalized. While it’s certainly true that these subjects mirrored Picasso’s own grief and fractured state of mind, it’s quite possible that he also saw in them something of his lost, tortured friend. The Old Guitarist is undoubtedly a cry of loneliness, and perhaps it is the loneliness of a man who has lost a companion.

There are a number of different ways to interpret The Old Guitarist. As with many of Picasso’s works, it is rife with symbolism that provides greater depth to an already striking image. Blindness, for example—the figure in the painting appears to have lost his vision. This connects him with the Blue Period’s other stars, nearly all of whom were ailing or threatened by some other condition. The figure’s blindness adds a truly tragic aspect to his plight and serves to elicit sympathy from the viewer. Furthermore, it amplifies the importance of the guitar. When we observe the man’s ragged clothing, his thin, wiry body, his barren and cold surroundings, and his closed eyes, we get the sense that this guitar and the music he makes with it are, in fact, all that he’s got. This may be seen as a heartbreaking lament of the physical and spiritual suffering of those living in poverty; in another sense, however, the man and his guitar may be a surrogate for Picasso and his paintbrush, the painting a solemn avowal of the necessity for an artist to create and the desperate passion with which he does so.

The guitar itself has also been an object of speculation. It is, notably, the only part of the work that is not blue in color. Picasso’s friends and colleagues interpreted it sexually, as twentieth-century artists did with everything. They projected onto it a feminine form. As strange as this interpretation may be, it is not entirely absurd to compare the guitar’s curved figure with a woman’s hips, and it’s certainly worth noting that the guitar’s color is closer to healthy flesh than the guitarist's. It’s possible to read this as a juxtaposition of feminine beauty and warmth with the image of a sickly, destitute man, and to view the guitar as emblematic of the love that this desperate man lacks. In any case, it seems that the guitar is an object of passion in what is otherwise a scene of cold decadence and despair.

All this history is unimportant. I'm sorry if it has been boring. But I love this painting, in part because I can see myself in it. I'm not completely sure why. But have played the guitar since I was a little kid, and I think that if I ever found myself in an awful position wherein I was forced to give up my personal belongings, I'm sure that my guitar would be the last thing I would hold onto. And in fact, the simple yellow guitar in the picture reminds me a little bit of the tiny First Act model that I learned on. So, maybe that's it.


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