The Old Guitarist | Art as Therapy

An analysis of “The Old Guitarist”, a 1903 painting by Spanish painter Pablo Picasso.

Pablo Picasso is one of the most distinguished artists of the 20th century. He made more than 13,000 paintings before he died in 1973, aged 91. Picasso made art in a wide variety of styles, even developing and inventing styles and techniques such as the Cubist movement and the collage. His art has inspired and influenced both art producers and art consumers.

Picasso was born in Spain where he studied art from an early age at the country’s foremost art school in Madrid. Picasso was talented, but he was uninterested in education, so he would skip classes to wander around the city, painting what he observed.

In 1901, at the age of 20, Picasso and his good friend Carlos Casagemas moved to Paris in pursuit of fame. However, they did not succeed particularly well, hardly earning any money from their artistry, and one year later Casagemas took his life because of a failed love affair.

Picasso was profoundly affected by the suicide of his friend, sinking into a severe depression that lasted several years. Reflecting his mental state, Picasso then started painting in cold, monochromatic blue tones, painting motifs that carried emotional, psychological themes of human misery and alienation. Because of the blue palette of his paintings, the years between 1901 and 1904 is known as Picasso’s ”Blue Period”.

”I started painting in blue after Casagemas’s death.” – Pablo Picasso

During this period, Picasso often painted marginalized and deprived people. He empathized with the poor and the outcasts of society, since he himself lived in poverty as he was unable to sell his melancholy paintings.

The most famous painting of Picasso’s Blue Period is The Old Guitarist, which Picasso painted in 1903. The painting has the period’s customary motif of penury and lament, depicting an old, haggard man with worn clothes weakly hunched over his guitar. It is painted in different shades of blue—as typical of the period—with the exception of the guitar, which has a warmer, brown colour.

the-old-guitarist

The haggard man in The Old Guitarist represents Picasso himself, who was a poor, struggling artist at the time. The cold tones of the painting reflect Picasso’s sorrow as he was mourning the suicide of his friend.
Even though the haggard old man is so poor and ill, he keeps playing his guitar. Similarly, Picasso kept painting despite his depression, and it yielded many masterpieces of art, though at the time he probably never expected it to.
Picasso made art because it was his passion, because he found purpose in painting, because making art was a bright spot even in his darkest time. The bright colour of the guitar reflects this. The guitar is the only hope for the old guitarist, so he clings to it, just like Picasso clung to his painting during difficult times, because it brought him comfort.

One of the purposes of art is for it to console us from our sorrows and bring us hope; not only for the art consumer, but also for the art producer. Art can be even more beneficial for the artist than the audience, since art is an expression of emotion and thought that enables self-understanding and reconciliation, especially in times of sadness and despair. The artist is more connected to the artwork, which often symbolizes the life and mind of the artist, just like The Old Guitarist represents Picasso’s condition and feelings at the time. Through the process of creation, art can be therapeutic and soothing for the artist, better than any self-help quick fix.

Good art is not made for selling or being commercialized. Picasso did not paint to be popular. He did not paint what people wanted to see. He painted for himself. He made art as therapy. And now we can take part of that. We can relate to paintings such as The Old Guitarist, because many of us have had the same feelings as the haggard man, or we might have been in similar situations. It is therapeutic and healing and it can help us to understand ourselves and empathize with others.

Picasso is one of the greatest artist of our time, and we should appreciate all qualities of his art. The Old Guitarist is one of thousands of his paintings, and it is one of the essential pieces of art that can do what art ultimately is for: make our lives better.