I think everybody knows Picasso’s famous paintings like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Guernica (1937) or Woman Weeping (1937) where he deconstructs objects and humans into shapes. You may also know his collaboration with George Braque with whom he invented cubism. Today however I would like to talk about Picasso’s blue period (1901-1904), a development period for the young artist when he tried to find his style. No other artist has had such a period.
Pablo Picasso was born in Malaga, Spain in 1881 and studied in Barcelona and Madrid. Paris was considered the art metropolis at the turn of the century, and Picasso visited for the first time in 1901. There, he studied artworks from El Greco, Cézanne, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. They inspired him to choose outsiders from society as subjects for his works. In the years 1901-1904 Picasso visited Paris several times, painted there but had no fixed studio and ultimately decided to move to Paris in 1904. In the time of his blue period he was very open to the artistic influences around him, like the Fauve works, mostly from Henri Matisse who later became Picasso’s friend.
While he tried to figure out his own style, his works of art were painted mostly in cold colors and shades of blue and green between 1901 and 1904. The cause of this was the suicide of Picasso’s old friend Carlos Casagemas. During this period, he mourned and themes of his artworks were misery and grief. He painted outcasts like homeless, beggars, sad women, addicts, emaciated artists or acrobats, careworn mothers with their children and blind people, all of them introverted with a very minimal background. The painted men and women are a manifestation of isolation, weakness and mental exhaustion; they don’t look like individuals rather more like soulless shells. His paintings are very melancholic and cold, and show the loneliness that Picasso was undergoing.
The Old Guitarist, for example, represents a timeless expression of human suffering. It shows an old, blind and haggard man with shabby clothing, weakly hunched over his guitar. He shows no sign of life and appears to be close to death, implying little comfort in the world and accentuating the misery of his situation. You can see Picasso’s interest in El Greco in the elongated, angular figure of the blind musician, where the upper torso seems to be reclining, while the bottom half appears to be sitting cross-legged. The monochromatic color scheme creates flat, two-dimensional forms that dissociate the guitarist from time and place. The large, brown guitar is the only significant shift in color found in the painting. Its dull brown and highlighted against the blue background, so it becomes the center and focus of the painting. This blind and poor subject depends on his guitar and the small income he can earn from his music for survival. Despite the isolation, the guitarist (artist) depends on the rest of society for survival. All of these emotions reflect Picasso’s predicament at the time and his criticism of the state of society. The Old Guitarist becomes an allegory of human existence.
You can see in Picasso’s paintings from this time how the artist lived in Spain and spent a lot of time in Paris where he was alone and lived in poverty and instability. His financial problems and loneliness are shown in his paintings as isolation, poverty and pensiveness. Therefore, it is clear that expressionism had a big impact on the artist.
Picasso’s depression didn’t end with the beginning of his rose period (1904/1905). In fact, it lasted until the end of his cubist period and in his neo-classicist period, when Picasso showed some playfulness in his works. He died in 1973 in Mougins, France. In the blue period he tried to find his style and his paintings weren’t successful at this time. He even resorted to use some of his drawings as kindle for warmth during the winter. Today we can learn a lot about Picasso from this short timeframe. We can see the circumstances in which he lived and with what emotional stress he had to deal.