Nov 6, 2019 in Review

Pablo Picasso: The Old Guitarist

The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso is a symbiosis of inner progress, Spanish tradition and influence of global tendencies. The oil painting was created in 1903 in Madrid within the Picasso’s Blue Period that started after an artist’s close friend committed suicide. It became prophetic and based on an autobiographical point creature with rich semiotic context. That is why the goal of the paper is the achievement of analytical consensus of The Old Guitarist within the exploration of Picasso’s Blue Period for proven of Picasso’s personal tragedy. 

To achieve the goal the current paper was organized into three main sections. The first section represents Picasso’s Blue Period. The second one is analysis semiotic and symbolic meaning of The Old Guitarist. The paper is finished with the third section that explains the painting that was hidden under The Old Guitarist.

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Picasso’s Blue Period

Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period dates between October 1900, when he was nineteen and April 1904th. He made four journeys from Barcelona to Paris, artistic Mecca of that time. While his second stay in Paris Picasso created his first blue pictures. Indeed, Picassos’s close friend Carlos Casagemas committed suicide on February 2nd and with that the period of Picassos’s rootless and depressive tone of art started. 

When Casagemas killed himself, Picasso had been too far and could not attend the funeral and probably this enhances the feeling of apotheosis and death. The series of hidden for over a half a century canvas of that time prove the fact of strong artist’s feeling of burial burden. But the entire understanding of Picasso’s personal tragedy should be made through his tragedy of 1895 when his younger sister Concepciona died of diphtheria. Picasso was fourteen for that time and it could establish his blaming himself for the deaths of close people and continue this self-eradicating after Casagema’s death. This aspect is important, as it is necessary to define the root reason of the beginning of the Blue Period in Picasso’s life.

Fall and winter of 1901-1902 was a time of almost abandoning of warm tones in Picasso’s palette and using of different shades of blue and sometimes green. Loneliness and inner coldness dwell the figure in helpless reproachful recalls Fabre’s and Josep Palau’s contention with Picasso’s blue period. An important reminiscent of Picasso’s technique was the one of Paul Gaugin, whose influence on the Blue Period is notable. Picasso’s portraits of 1901 and 1902 after his another visit to Paris reminds destitute dropping Madonnas with mortal boneless bodies almost fuse with their infants. 

Within a Picasso’s artistic period of fall and winter of 1903 The Old Guitarist is one of a number of paintings of male indigents with sad view, half-naked blind or psychotic beggars that appeared during his blue period. Indeed, Picasso’s stay in Barcelona and frequent communication with a cult figure of avant-garde El Greco made an impact on his own painting’s structure. The notable elements in his pictures are angular physiques and slender, tapering, elongated fingers that somehow similar to El Greco’s style. This allows making an assumption that Picasso’s The Old Guitarist was painted during the last week of 1903 and the corroboration of it can be that the physical type of the picture belongs to the closing phase of Picassos’ blue period.

In fact, The Old Guitarist is a unique representation of protagonist’s spiritual transformation by creative effort instead of being mired in hopeless passivity. The guitarist’s song dwells the protagonist in a world apart that mirrors the opposite condition of his like calmness and joy. An interesting moment is that Picasso tried to hold his guitarist inside of too small pictorial format like trying to emphasize self-containment of the protagonist. Hypothetically, the old man could strengthen his legs or to raise his head and burst the bound around. Instead of it he just represents squeezed and locked energy that was fitted in a tiny box.

Semiotic and Symbolic Interpretation of the Old Guitarist

Pablo Picasso’s The Old Guitarist demonstrates a scene with a double way of understanding. The period when the painting was made the Symbolist movement waned with the element of the blind protagonist with a strong and mature vision of surrounding. Picasso’s personal story and psychological acceptation of the world around made a symbiotic connection between Spanish tradition, inner feeling and passing global tendencies.  

The analysis of symbolic interpretation requires knowledge of hermeneutics and semiotic peculiarities. It is better to search within connotative and denotative issues as the meaning, so entire painting will be obvious. From the denotative point the adjective ‘old’ means someone who lived for a long time, we can approximately identify the age and accept the inevitable death. Connotative meaning is that an old person has weak body and lack of physical and mental energy that a young person has. The emotional opportunity and sensibility degrades. Together, those qualities predict soon death.

Semiotic analysis is conducted by the focusing on the sign’s meaning that can conclude entire conception of the painting. The arbitrary nature of language allows painting interpreting based on own experience. In addition to semiotic analysis, the guitar can be considered as the image referent that is an alternative opportunity to express the world outside of the author’s language: the sounds of guitar are known to all people so they can hear the melody through watching the painting and understand the motive instead of thousands words. From the other hand the artist anthropomorphized this guitar with a feminine form into feminine psychology. Ron Johnson saw the influence of “Nietzschean’s Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music” together with the Gypsies motives of socially conviction of people with free soul but sad destiny. Johnson argument it by the fact of Picasso’s belonging to the Catalan artistic cycle whose members were followers of some Nietzsche’s conceptions and definitely Picasso absorbed this expressional wave. However, it is possible to refute such a radical opinion as despite the fact that Picasso was easily influenced by surrounding processes the inner subjective condition of him is dominant.

An interesting thing for observation is the color background of The Old Guitarist. Within the colorful tradition, the blue color by its nature is calm and depressive, sad and cold. As a symbol of despair, the blues repress human senses to the state of dramatic feeling. In fact, Picasso’s symbolic filling in The Old Guitarist had some common issues with the painting La Vie where interlaced life and death. Neglecting hermeneutic principles, it is interesting to mention R.W. Johnson who found some connection with Picasso’s sister’s death. Nostalgic feeling appears if to look on a bitter expression on the man’s face and mortally elongated fingers over his guitar. 

Thus, monochromatic cold blue painting contents an element of warm brown tone of the guitar that means a hope given by the music. It reinforces the important symbolic meaning of the guitar as music can transfer a person to any period and any universe, remembering the good times, young age and ability to escape.  The guitarist with the amount of allusions refers to Picasso’s family drama with him and his parents. It is known that he was dependent on his parents and relied on his father’s artistic opinion since school time. The pose of the old man is closed and independent: he has no wish to appear outside of the box and communicate, but just meditating.  Partly is might have relating to Picasso’s leaving of his parental home: he has got intension to be alone. The blindness might be related to the doublet semiotic point: as a symbol of new life beyond his dependence and a wish to avoid visual provocations assailing humanity. The guitarist could close eyes with the purpose not to observe the nudity that was painted on the same canvas. It is like intension to avoid any temptation and sublimate the energy into the art and creating. The guitarist looks very slim man with skeletal body and in ripped clothing. A typical representation of Picasso’s beggars and homeless protagonists requires observer’s empathy. Visually the time represented by Picasso is 19th century, when Europe suffered from total poverty and diseases. In fact, this is very delicate and tender indexation of the somber and desperate mood.  

Additionally, the observer can notice a hint on the candle light. This is hidden, but very important sign that neglects entire material world with its profits and luxury, making poverty an immanent component of the guitarist. There is “nothing more important than music, art and spirituality”. With that, it brings a small romantic atmosphere and has something common to El Greco’s manner, which made an impact on Picasso. With that, The Old Guitarist with its prophetic qualities defined the future setting of Picasso as iconic master of immanent expression.

The Old Guitarist Under X-rays

The financial condition and necessity in economy established a practice of painting on a picture among artists, that brought some additional issues while exploration of their creativity. Picasso’s The Old Guitarist was made on a small table with previously used canvas as Picasso’s financial support was low and he had a hope that The Old Guitarist will bring him an income to go back to Barcelona for Christmas. So in fact there is no additional mystic intention of the artist but just poverty. Looking on The Old Guitarist it is possible to discern additional artistic layer with a transparent paint. This previous incarnation became more visible so it is easy to see the ghostly woman’s face disguising in the top center of the canvas. Her face is quite a depth if to graze it with the correct light. With that, it is possible to see a woman’s neck and jaw that was fitted in the guitarist’s neck; and under his shin two vertical outlines of legs distinguished. 

X-rays qualities of Picasso’s guitarist are well described by Mary Gedo. Indeed, The Old Guitarist shows that Picasso established repainting of the pictures in his own specific way. He just put a new figure on the original one without previous obliterating of the first layer or turning the support 180 or 90 degrees like some artists used to and like Picasso did by himself while working on La Vie. 

The exhibition of 2001 at the Cleveland Art Museum opened silhouettes that were concentrated under The Old Guitarist. It was obviously shown that there is a woman with looking left head and outstretched arm and opened hand to the right. The x-rays rendered that the woman’s shins were painted in seated position. However, the woman was not the only one figure on Picasso’s painting. The x-rays notably illustrate another turned right face that was noticed near the young woman’s neck. Detailed observation and analysis proved the presence of the profile, torso and feet of the child on the young woman’s left side. It was also found out that Picasso’s letter dated by March 1903 already opened this secret. Indeed, that was an image of a mother and her child, and the right side of the painting contained a bull and a small calf.

Ryan Hillback’s publication about Picasso’s The Old Guitarist proves the hypothesis that the original canvas includes “old penitent woman near the young woman’s neck”. A logical assumption is that the author altered her as there is no evidence of torso image as well as the silhouette position: the arms and shoulders of the young woman were made a bit higher than the shoulders of the old woman were made first. However, the bold face and posture of the woman seemed unpleasant, so Picasso refused from his idea and implemented it in the painting “The Blue Nude”. Soon “The Old Guitarist” covered artistic fail. Due to Picasso’s habit to put new compositions on unwashed, used canvas, his masterpiece “The Old Guitarist” became more interesting for learning and development of discussions around.


One of the brightest paintings of Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period is The Old Guitarist that proclaimed the new episode of the artist’s life and became canvassed confession about inner fears. The painting was made on another picture of a young woman that convince the fact of Picasso’s strong and fastened intension to image the old blind man keeping his guitar like anthropomorphized woman’s symbol of escape and hope. Thus, protagonist of the painting became Picasso’s own prophet that predicted his blind love for art and magnetic esthetic taste.



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