Some people say that pain and anguish make for the best art. If this is true, then Pablo Picasso surely deserves his status as one of the world’s greatest artists for the artwork he produced during his “Blue Period.” The art Picasso produced during this period generally uses blue monochromatic tones to convey a subtle sense of the literal and figurative “blues;” a kind of soft, sweet, silent melancholy that dominates the low-lit, time-frozen artwork Picasso painted between 1901 and 1904. Picasso’s time-honored painting, “The Old Guitarist”, is an enduring work of art from his blue period and an exceptional artistic representation of the contradictive sentiments that often comprise melancholy.
The painting distinctly expresses a fragile, silent kind of anguish; a sense of painful, yet gentle, is withering. Like the painting’s thematic impression, the formal elements of the artwork often contradict to form and convey the painting’s paradoxical meaning. Analyzing these elements will help us to discover how they not only work together, but also conflict to express and reiterate the harsh fragility and delicate pain that is discernible in the old guitarist’s soft suffering, thus creating the (paradoxical) sense of bittersweet sorrow and gentle anguish that emerges from “The Old Guitarist”.
To begin, let’s look at the painting’s subject, the old man, and object, his guitar. The old man’s gaze, his body language, and focal object (the guitar) work in tandem against the other formal elements of the painting, such as its color, lighting, lines, and spacing to produce an effect of gentle suffering. The old man’s body language is stiff, rigid, and uncomfortable looking. He is bony and frail. He appears fragile and withered, yet anguished and pained, and still, some gentle sweetness, something softly alive, emerges from the image. Amidst the contradictive play of distinct lines and subtle curvature, of the guitarist’s sharply angled shoulders and the gently-flowing, rounded guitar that he stiffly embraces, is the heart and soul of man and instrument; that is, the painting’s very ability to not only express, but impress, the paradoxical experience of melancholy upon its beholder.
In this painting, the guitarist’s last discernible sign of life, what remains of his heart and soul, lies in his facial expression. If we hold a hand up in front of the painting for a moment and block the man’s face out of our view, we could easily (if not probably) think we are looking at a corpse. The body, stiff, elongated, gray, and blue, seems dried up and lifeless, alive only with the pain of sharp rigidity. His face, by contrast, is saturated with feeling and emotion. The guitarist’s face, angled sharply downward, reveals gaze-less eyes, but eyes full of life, nonetheless. Eyes are squinting in what can be either an exquisite burst of pain or a fleeting wave of relief; squinting in what may be a close, timid listen to the music or a sharp recoil of the bitter memory, to which he plays his guitar. The guitarist’s mouth, slightly agape, is hauntingly reminiscent of a dried and hallow corpse’s head, but his deeply-defined dimples let us know this isn’t rigor mortis. Whether in anguish or relief, in song or sigh, though most certainly, not in smile, this man’s mouth is actively expressing.
While multiple interpretations of the motives and meanings behind the guitarist’s facial expression are possible, two things are undeniable: the man’s life essence is captured in his face, and his face is expressing something bittersweet and melancholic. We know it is bittersweet and melancholic, because we take a cue from the painting’s formal elements of design; particularly, the literal and figurative meanings of the monochromatic blue color scheme.
The painting’s color scheme reflects the tone of melancholy and gentle anguish that emerges from the contradictions between the old man’s painfully deadened body language and his exquisitely sorrowful facial expression. The background is set in monochromatic shades of black, gray, and blue reflecting the old man’s shabby dark clothing, silver hair, and blue-gray old skin. The simple, distinct, yet softly-flowing lines that comprise the background image mimic and play between lines and curvature that inform the painting’s focal point, while further implying the painting’s tone of bittersweet melancholy through its thematic concept. The background depicts an unassuming, modest dirt road, in which the guitarist is sitting. It is suggestive of poverty and deprivation, similarly to the old man’s shabby clothing and emaciated figure. However, as with this painting’s other instances of contradiction at play, this dim and dirty street bears something quite warm and comforting; that is music.
Standing in stark contrast to the guitarist is the guitar itself, which is the true focal point of the painting. Though its color is muted, like its surroundings, its light, warm color stands in stark contrast to the guitarist’s dreary, cool color tones. The guitar’s spacing is centered and positioned in front of the guitarist; its lines are smooth and robust, standing in stark and contradictive contrast against the sharp lines of the man’s bony structure. Its position within the painting and its contrasting color and lines make the guitar the prominent focal point of this sorrowful work of art, almost as if to suggest that the music is the heart and soul of the scene. As the old guitarist withers away in quiet pain or anguish, the strings he gently plucks on the guitar breathe new life into the painting through music and song. Here, we have a conceptual play between the fading life of the guitarist and the emerging life of the music he is creating.
Studying the paining for a moment, allowing it to flood our senses and perception, we can almost hear the music being played. The painting’s colors and line weights combine with the expressive appearance of the old man to inform the sound we would expect to hear. To be sure, we know it cannot possibly sound like a killer solo or a lively, upbeat piece. That is not the sound that the painting impresses upon our imaginations at all. Rather, we hear something soft, something weak, yet hauntingly stirring, something hallow, yet rounded, deep, and full, something sorrowful, yet somewhat rigid and still, wavering, something powerful and strong in its frail simplicity.
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Look at the way the old man clutches the guitar. He cradles the instrument’s body in a kind of weak and unsteady embrace, yet the guitar neck is angled sharply upward. We know this song has a haunting tone, because the guitarist has his elongated, bony hand positioned on the fret board. The frets closest to the tuning keys produce the lowest notes, while the frets nearest to the guitar’s body produce the highest notes. In “The Old Guitarist”, the man’s hand is positioned somewhere seemingly between frets three and seven, which, as anyone who’s ever played guitar knows, produces a mid-low sound. The fact that he is fingering the (topmost) “E” string of the guitar across multiple mid-low frets suggests a slightly high-pitched note, amongst the open chord the guitarist appears to be stiffly and slowly strumming. In my mind’s ear, this is reminiscent of the way minor chords sound, slightly off-key, slightly sorrowful. The song this man is playing might come out soft, simple, and weak as he strums a low chord with only one string held against the fret board in rigid frailty, but the effect of its haunting sound is the epitome of bittersweet melancholy that exudes from this painting, captivating its beholder.