Consider Pablo Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist.” A smaller-scale work in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, I’ve been looking at this painting since I moved here to study art and philosophy more than thirty years ago. I felt an intimate connection from the moment I first saw it, perhaps because of the painting’s implicit reflection of my own plight as a young artist.
Painted in the last few weeks of 1904, it was made during a period when many artists were following on the heels of the successive rebellions, against the institutions of art, that defined the Secession movements of the late-eighteenth-to-nineteenth century. Inspired initially by the French Revolution, many of the Modernist choices of artists such as Edvard Munch, Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt were considered obscene by the Academy and state officialdom, which in previous eras would have otherwise determined their success or failure as working artists. In many ways, rejecting these institutions meant risking the loss of one’s livelihood, much as it still does today.
Picasso was conversant, literally as well as in visual vocabulary, with many of these movements of the era at which “The Old Guitarist” sits at the intersection. “The Blue Period, the way I see it anyway, establishes him as a significant figure, although he’s extremely young,” says Elizabeth Cowling, art history professor at the University of Edinburgh and a foremost authority on Picasso, who has written several books on the artist and staged multiple exhibitions, including at London’s Tate Modern, MoMA in New York and elsewhere. “As you probably know, he sold a lot of these Blue Period pictures, and the subsequent Rose Period pictures to Ambrose Vollard, the dealer who also bought Cubist work, exhibited some of the Cubist sculptures and helped very much launch Picasso’s career. I don’t think the Blue Period paintings as such were particularly influential, but I think they established him as a significant figure. Once he paints ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ and follows up with Cubism, that’s when he really becomes influential.
“He himself dismissed the Blue Period work as overly sentimental, and I think he’s right,” Cowling says. But he was a very sentimental artist and it’s a side of his work that I think is interesting, and the extremism is interesting. It’s a very important painting, there’s no question about that, and it’s interesting how important that early work has been in maintaining his popularity. I remember as a child becoming interested in Picasso’s work, and that was on the basis of the Blue Period and Rose Period pictures. There were lots of little publications, cheap little books with color plates that I collected as a child, and they were of that period. I liked the sentiment. I liked the fact that I could see the imagery of the tragedy, it was easy to read, it spoke very directly and I was not aware, because I did not have the knowledge, that it was drawing on his admiration for El Greco in that period. I knew nothing about it, and didn’t realize that it was part of a whole movement, but I found it very appealing, and I think that period does remain appealing to many people. It stands out very clearly—this is Picasso—and they can identify that, and I think that’s the first moment in his career when you have that sense of a particular style. It’s the first style of many styles that Picasso worked through in his long career.”
Though Picasso hadn’t visited Germany by then, the artists of “Die Brücke” (The Bridge) were aware of his work and incorporated it into their own to foster German Expressionism’s signature use of heightened colors and depictions of free sexuality. Later, Picasso would exhibit as a member of the group “Der Blaue Reiter” (“The Blue Rider”) alongside Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and others. A favorite of many of those artists, the color blue was almost a mystical force.
“It is pre-Cubist, of course, but the iconographic motif will become central to his later work,” says WJT Mitchell, professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago and editor for more than four decades of the university’s journal of art, culture and politics, Critical Inquiry. “Why? I am tempted to treat it as a synesthetic motif, meant to insist on the interaction of sound and sight in the arts. And when it starts to show up in the Cubist works, it becomes even more insistent about the third sense—touch—which is not only a matter of the skeletal fingers, but the way the strings and the body of the guitar emerge from the most abstract paintings as features of the tactile surface.”
Perhaps a synesthesia brought on by the traumas of precarity and poverty? And the widely noted influence of the untimely death of his friend Carles Casagemas, who shot himself in the head at a dinner party over a failed romance. I didn’t have more than a vague notion about any of this at the time, but I was about the same age as Picasso was when he painted it when I first encountered “The Old Guitarist” and, similarly, I’d also had an artist friend commit suicide by jumping from a roof the year before, in my first year of art school in Savannah, Georgia. I wrote about the experience for my hometown newspaper just prior to my move to Chicago, two years younger than Picasso when he painted “The Old Guitarist” and similarly living without a safety net, in a new city with no family, no means of support, anonymous, much like the artist in his early twenties, when he first relocated to Barcelona, at a time of dire economic straits for the country.
There’s an intensity of these real-life moments of grief and loss that comes through. “I think it’s like a number of other works he produced at the same moment in 1903-04, they’re very extreme,” Cowling says. “They’re taking El Greco and running with it, and taking the style he’d developed over the previous few years to an extreme pitch and I think that what he was doing with a lot of those paintings of impoverished figures—the blind men, ascetic figures, the beggars—I think he’s very consciously producing a series, a series of secular saints if you like, which are the secular equivalent of the religious figures you’d see in a church, decorated entirely by an artist like El Greco, you can imagine them almost in a succession of chapels, these figures.”
Especially pertinent to this discussion of “The Old Guitarist” is a notion of artists struggling to make their work while facing the crushing pressures of everyday survival, especially resonant for me at the time. Just as in the aftermath of the Secession, artists were left to fend for themselves without the support of the state or Academy and the vast majority of the gallery system—you don’t hang Goya’s “The Third of May 1808” over the couch, after all—entry into the avant-garde required self-awareness and sacrifice.
It is especially relevant now, at a time when we’re rethinking these millennia-old problems of economic inequality, with places like New York having launched the largest guaranteed income program for working artists in the country, an ambition that Chicago continues to fall short of. There’s something to be said for arguments that funding for the arts is important for maintaining a healthy democracy at a time when politicians like Trump still don’t see the harm in using Hitler’s favored term of “art criticism” when discussing contemporary artists such as Chris Ofili’s work as “absolutely gross, degenerate stuff.”
I’m not very hopeful that American society will ever find value in funding art as a matter of cultural democracy, in the way most other advanced nations do. Still, an empathy with personal and economic traumas may have been part of a background intentionality, Mitchell speculates. “The guitar is held, embraced, and I have always felt Picasso wanted to produce a kind of liberalizing of the beholder as one who holds and is held by the painting itself. He clearly returns to the image repeatedly and compulsively, usually in the framework of an interior with a window.”
Iconology of a hopeful motif? Perhaps. For me, it had an emotional resonance that stubbornly persists to this day. For Cowling, the influence of the series also extends the artist full circle: “In terms of his whole career, I do think the Blue Period is interesting in terms of his own work, because he seems to come back to that extremism of emotion and El Greco when he’s a very old man—particularly in the prints and drawings—when you find almost pastiches of El Greco’s work. I’m now talking about the 1960s and seventies when he’s very old and he’s living on memory very much, and that kind of Expressionism that you find in the Blue Period is also very much strong at that late period as well. I think he also then does become an influence on his own work.”
That conflation of beginning and end is disheartening, inasmuch as when you traverse art history so thoroughly you come all the way back around to yourself, a part of the mystery you started long ago, with all the wonder and heightened senses of youth and struggle. In that moment of looking, in that sense of remembering who you were when you first started out in the world, you’re infused again with that hope to make a mark, to see, in yourself, in your work, in all the things we’ve learned, lost and lived through, just how far you’ve yet to go.