The Old Guitarist – one of Picasso’s most powerful artistic creations in the feeble form of a blind musician. This beautiful paradox was painted in 1903 in Madrid, a moment in time in which Picasso himself was not only emerging from poverty, but was also recovering from the suicide of his close friend Carlos Casagemas. The gaunt figure of the guitarist can therefore be seen to be a reflection of its creators own mental and physical suffering, perhaps explaining its power as a work of art.
The dominant blue of the painting (marking it as part of Picasso’s melancholic ‘Blue Series’) invokes this sense of grief, forcing us to confront the force of Picasso’s own pain. This impression is clearly displayed in the wilting figure that is the Old Guitarist, head bent and body reclined under the burden of poverty and isolation. Picasso is relentless in his depiction of suffering – the jaunt shoulder of the figure sticking out of his fraying clothes (note how the elongated figure is also reminiscent of the 16th century work of El Greco). Yet, it is also necessary to note the sheer depth behind that same blue that creates such a sense of sadness. In another paradox therefore, the very quality of the painting that makes grief such a potent emotion, is the very same quality that highlights there is more to the Old Guitarist than merely this grief.
Looking into the depth of the painting, one is able to recognise that this isn’t simply a depiction of suffering. This is also a depiction of survival through the soul. The large guitar dominates the forefront of the painting in its browny tone, allowing the frail figure behind it to encase it in a sea of blue. The bent head in this light becomes less a symbol of pain and more an immersion in the music being played – the guitar, and music, are the means through which the figure survives. Picasso is highlighting the idea that in the absence of material plenty and ultimately, sight (the guitar player, remember, is blind), one can take comfort in the soul. In this way, Picasso and his figure have a lot in common. The Old Guitarist was painted in a period where Picasso had very little, and was undergoing a process of artistic evolution (which would eventually lead him to Cubism). His survival was achieved through his soul as a painter, going against convention to achieve a new and exciting artistic vision.
Although some suggest that The Old Guitarist is a depiction of pain and isolation in the extreme, I would argue that it conveys more than this. Of course these themes are prevalent, but Picasso also suggests that the artist might just be able to triumph over these negative forces through the beauty of his craft.