The Old Guitarist
Pablo Picasso
Oil On Panel, 1903

When the subject of monochromatic color schemes comes up, I think of Picasso and his “Blue Period”. I also think of this particlular painting, a prime example of that period, as it has been a great favorite of mine since I was a child.

Many years ago, I visited the Art Institute in Chicago and for some reason, the fact that this painting is in residence there had slipped my mind. I came around a corner and there it was! It’s a good thing there happened to be a bench right in front of it, because its power literally knocked me off my feet. I still get a shiver just thinking about it.

Pablo Picasso’s father was an art instructor, so he was trained as an artist as a very young man. Having outgrown his possibilities in Madrid (Spain) by the age of 19, he went to live in Paris where he was a small fish in a larger pond and had to struggle to figure where he fit into the society of artists there. Because he identified with those living on the fringes of society, he began to paint pictures of the downtrodden, depicting them in all of their misery, using a muted palette of blue - the color of melancholy. His sadness during this period was intensified by the suicide of a young friend. This became known as his “Blue Period” (1901-1904), one of two very prolific periods that were preambles to “Cubism”. Les miserables of the Blue Period gave way to the the clowns and other circus figures of the “Rose Period” (1904-1906), a much more cheerful body of work over all. After that, beginning with his experiments in Cubism, Picasso became a power to be reckoned with in the world of modern art and continued to be an innovator of the highest order for the rest of his life. This will not be the last we hear of him in our “Legacy” section.
The Man With the Blue Guitar
Wallace Stevens

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said to him, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar,
Of things exactly as they are.”

I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.

I sing a hero’s head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,

Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.

If a serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,

Say that it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.

A tune beyond us as we are,
Yet nothing changed by the blue guitar;

Ourselves in tune as if in space,
Yet nothing changed, except the place

Of things as they are and only the place
As you play them on the blue guitar,

Placed, so, beyond the compass of change,
Perceived in a final atmosphere;

For a moment final, in the way
The thinking of art seems final when

The thinking of god is smoky dew.
The tune is space. The blue guitar

Becomes the place of things as they are,
A composing of senses of the guitar.

Tom-tom c'est moi. The blue guitar
And I are one. The orchestra

Fills the high hall with shuffling men
High as the hall. The whirling noise

Of a multitude dwindles, all said,
To his breath that lies awake at night.

I know that timid breathing. Where
Do I begin and end? And where,

As I strum the thing, do I pick up
That which momentarily declares

Itself not to be I and yet
Must be. It could be nothing else.

And, whenever I think of this painting, it reminds me of a favorite poem that seems to go with it so well.

Some have said that Wallace Stevens wrote “The Man With the Blue Guitar” after viewing Picasso’s “Old Guitarist” and it certainly seems as if it could be so.

I reprint the whole text of the poem here although, honestly, I find it a bit disconcerting and difficult to stay with (it’s ok to admit these things). But the first six lines, which I highlighted with bold blue type, say it all, in my opinion. I have framed them on my studio wall to remind me that it is not always necessary to go by the book - that my art is my “blue guitar”, and through it, I can redefine my world to match my fancy.

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