PRINT December 1974

Picasso’s “Old Guitarist” and the Symbolist Sensibility

PICASSO’S OLD GUITARIST (FIG.1), 1903, has long been recognized as a major Blue Period masterpiece; however its deeper significance still largely remains in the realm of the arcane. On the one hand, this is as it should be, a natural part of the Symbolist effects intended in the painting, but on other hand, it reveals the inadequacy of most art-historical explorations of Picasso’s Blue Period. The Old Guitarist, like so many works from this period, has been considered an “Expressionist” or “Mannerist influenced” painting rather than a Symbolist work.1 Even explorations which have shifted from a stylistic to a thematic viewpoint have largely failed to consider the larger Symbolist ethos which themes such as death, the blind, the drinker, and many other subjects perfectly reflect.2 Consequently both a period perspective and a comprehensible framework within which to view Picasso’s early developments are lacking. By focusing intensely on only one painting, the Old Guitarist and its antecedents, something of the esthetic approach of the artist may be measured that is lost in the usual hop, skip, and jump method. This is not to deny that the reciprocal relationships presented in this essay do not have certain perils of their own, but at least these risks are rooted within conceptual contexts indigenous to the period — a period which is submerged in all the confusions now labeled “Symbolism.”

Symbolism is not a conventional art movement, school of artists, or style, but more an international tendency of an idealistic nature. Mystery and vagueness have so cloaked this development that a few introductory remarks are necessary to briefly provide a background into its nature. It was first and foremost a spiritual subjective tendency in which mood and states of soul replaced dramatic action and in which description gave way to suggestion. Conditions of the soul, one of the basic interests of Symbolist artists, were thought too complex and mysterious to be represented allegorically or symbolized in this type of painting. Consequently correspondences, synthesis, mystification, suggestion, and denial as processes tended to replace the use of simple symbols or an objectified equivalent. In other words late 19th- and early 20th-century Symbolism cannot be properly characterized by the conventional use of symbols. When symbols were used they were usually expansive and imprecise with multiple meanings. This does not mean that certain subjects do not recur in Symbolist art but that their poetic and musical qualities are more significant than their literary or narrative aspects. Ideal types replaced individuals, historical or naturalistic particularization was suppressed for changeless states, and materialistic interests were replaced by explorations of the soul. The Symbolist artist did not blatantly express his emotions through heightened action or overly dramatic situations, but drained the energy out of his figures. He spoke more abstractly rather than in the first person so that the viewer could experience the interior world of his own soul where the beyond and the unknown were to be sought. The Old Guitarist is unquestionably a cogent example of this new spiritual mood in art.

From the Old to the New Spiritual Art

In turn-of -the-century Barcelona, where Picasso painted the Old Guitarist, a spectrum of Symbolist tendencies were represented by the Modernistas.3 They advocated, among other things, a return to earlier native traditions which included the Catalan language, a revival of poetry, and of native arts. In painting, El Greco was the most venerated of earlier artists for his spiritual portrayals of saints and religious experiences. Santiago Rusiñol, one of the founding fathers of Modernismo, purchased paintings of the Magdalen and of St. Peter in Tears by El Greco and in 1894 these were ceremoniously carried to a chapel at Sitges, a few miles south of Barcelona. This dignified procession was part of the third Fiesta Modernista.

Picasso, a second generation Modernista, likewise made the pilgrimage to Sitges a few years later to admire these paintings.4 He had already studied and copied paintings by El Greco in the Prado and at Toledo in 1897 and periodically returned to El Greco’s paintings for inspiration throughout his early career. In addition to the St. Peter in Tears (Fig. 2) at Sitges, at least two other versions of this subject by El Greco were in Barcelona collections in 1903. Thus comparison of this work with Picasso’s Old Guitarist is appropriate in terms of its availability and also in credibly specifying his long recognized indebtedness to El Greco. The facial type of the Old Guitarist appears to have been inspired, at least in general aspect, from the St. Peter in Tears type. The white hair, moustache, and beard are similar, and the tendons and the bony structure of the neck nearly identical. The blue clothing, ashen highlights, and suffering mood are also comparable. Picasso’s Ascetic (Fig. 3), 1903, a companion piece to the Old Guitarist, is even more recognizably influenced by the St. Peter in Tears since the pose is frontal rather than profile. More important however than any specific borrowings from the St. Peter in either of these paintings is the spiritual essence of such a saint which Picasso is able to revive in Symbolist terms in the Old Guitarist and the Ascetic.

If the stylistic and spiritual relationship to El Greco is apparent, the thematic link of the blind guitarist is not. It is another Spanish master, Goya, who gave authority to this theme in three prints. The print closest to Picasso’s painting is the Blind Singer (Fig. 4) which depicts a single isolated blind man. He is a guitarist, and even holds his instrument at an angle similar to Picasso’s blind guitarist, but his appearance is much coarser. Because of this coarseness he is mostly readily associated with peasant life. One feels he has suffered and perhaps he has been abused, but this does not invest him with a spiritual essence like the Old Guitarist. Instead his abject appearance evokes shades of social injustice, not a saintly state of soul. Picasso’s treatment of outcasts in 1903 is not as depressing, nor are his outcasts necessarily studied from life. The messages of poverty and rejection are not Picasso’s end and only partially his means. Poverty and rejection are just the surface credentials for his types, which reveal truths rendered in a modern idiom. Picasso’s return to the Goyaesque theme of the blind guitarist through El Greco is unique among his contemporaries and yet saturated with tradition.

Preparation Studies and Related Drawings

The Old Guitarist is not an isolated work in Picasso’s Blue Period but one of at least 12 works employing the guitar.5 The motif is clearly established in two drawings which appear in the preliminary issue of an ephemeral Madrid art journal, Arte Joven, edited in collaboration with Francisco de A. Soler. As artistic editor, Picasso included his own sketches almost exclusively, but seldom directly illustrated the short stories and poetry. The smaller of the two sketches, Dancing Gypsy (Fig. 5), depicts a young gypsy woman wearing a long swirling skirt and a shawl. She is dancing to the rhythm of castanets yet in relation to the guitar. Her raised arm dramatically frames her head as she gazes down at a guitar propped against a chair. This and other sketches from 1901 were often mocking in character, like the articles in Arte Joven which they accompanied. Picasso was influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec, Daumier, Van Gogh, and Goya in 1900–01 although his work in Madrid was even more caustic than theirs. Thus, while this 1901 sketch is not Symbolist in style, sentiment, or energetic action, it is important in suggesting correspondences between a woman and the guitar.

In the third issue of Arte Joven, April 15,1901, the significance and moods of the guitar are further elaborated in a rather maudlin but still elucidating essay entitled “Psicologia de la guitarra.”6 The author speaks of the guitar not just as an instrument, but as “an intimate orchestra which murmurs the mysteries of the heart.” He characterizes the guitar as “a symbol of the popular soul and a symbol of sentiment.” Accordingly, it speaks of love and suffering in their deepest aspects. Detailed correspondences between the guitar and woman are developed throughout the article in order to fully reveal the “feminine” form and moods of the guitar. For example, “the box has the proud curve of the shoulders, the magic of the hips” and the deeper character is “faithful,” “affectionate,” “capricious,” and “difficult,” but can be “corrupted” by the “delights of the flesh.” Love and suffering are viewed as inseparable and the image and music of the guitar were thought to appropriately evoke them simultaneously. Each of the six strings “express feelings of the soul”: “laughter, love entreaties, kisses, sighs, hatred and jealousy, and weeping.” Although such characterizations appear mawkish today, they seemed suitable in relation to the “liberated” turn-of-the-century woman who in Spain was identified with a gypsy sensibility.

While the 1901 sketches have a bitter quality often rebellious in tone and full of social commentary, drawings from 1903 are more Symbolist in sensibility. Gauguin, who died in 1903, had largely replaced Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh as the primary influence in Picasso’s work. Actions are simple or eliminated, figures are withdrawn and introspective, silhouettes are often closed, and tonal treatments become frequent. There is also a less anecdotal quality to the work of 1903 with practically no settings and less easily specifiable moods. The inner state of figures, often outcasts, now interests Picasso more than social commentary. These changes are perfectly reflected in the differences between the Dancing Gypsy (Fig. 5) and Seated Woman and Two Personages (Fig. 6).

In this 1903 drawing of a woman (Fig. 6) more melancholy moods of the guitar motif are realized in a characterization approximating some of those in the “Psicologia de la guitarra.” A young woman is accompanied by the depicted thoughts of a soulful guitarist to whom her anguished nude figure responds, and in a companion drawing (Z XXII: 5) there are additional paired lovers desperately clinging to one another in romantic agony. Significantly these vignettes occur in her mind and contemplative states now become the new realm of art. Even in appearance she is now simply dressed or nude without the large feather hats, crinolines, or gypsy attire of the earlier 1900–01 drawings and paintings. More matronly passive types replace the aggressive dance-hall girls. Masks of heavy makeup with harsh silhouettes have given way to gaunt dreamlike visages lost in contemplation and drained of will. The mocking dancing gypsy has now become the tragic suffering woman.

In Seated Woman and Two Personages (Fig. 6) and another sketch from 1903 of a guitar, a haggard woman in a sorrowful pose, and the bearded profile of an old man (Fig. 7), Picasso seems to be thinking through various stages of the guitar theme. He is reaching beyond the gypsy woman to tragic love, to its aftereffects, and eventually in the Old Guitarist to its vaguest memories and subtlest suggestions. Symbolist artists frequently dealt with stages of life through themes of love and death; in this regard one should perhaps think of the Old Guitarist and these studies as a continuation of the problems raised in La Vie (Fig. 8) (Z 1:179).

The tragic love affair of Picasso’s close friend Casagemas with Germaine Pichot ended in his eventual suicide. La Vie is a climax of Picasso’s artistic exploration of this theme, but his last fortnight with Casagemas was probably also the inception of the guitar theme. Picasso had accompanied Casagemas to Paris in 1900 and undoubtedly knew firsthand of his impotency and the rejections he suffered. On returning to Spain, Picasso tried to divert his friend’s melancholy thoughts from suicide by bringing him to Malaga in his native Andalusia; it soon became apparent however, that his efforts were hopeless and he decided to leave for Madrid. As a farewell, he brought Casagemas to a local tavern “hoping the seduction of the guitar might eventually divert his thoughts.”7 Casagemas, nevertheless, returned to Paris where he took his own life while Picasso went on to Madrid and did his first sketches depicting guitars. Picasso even sketched peasants listening to cante jondo guitar music in the tavern in Malaga in which he left Casagemas (Z XXI:185). Thus it is possible some of the Madrid sketches such as Dancing Gypsy may have been done in Malaga and, in any case, it is likely that the tragedy of Casagemas was associated in Picasso’s mind with the guitar theme.

Other series of drawings and paintings of boatmen, isolated women on the beach, and tragic couples by the sea reveal the breadth of Picasso’s examination of the tragic qualities of love. Several of these evince themes and figure types nearly identical to those in the drawing with a guitar (Fig. 7). (See e.g., Nude Boatmen Z 1:127, Nude Couple Z 1:126, Woman and Child on the Shore A 1:381, and the Tragedy Z 1:208.8) The poetry beneath the figures and the guitar allude to these themes.

A dream leaves another dream
it almost seems like a lie
and in my view
there is no possibility that a dream
comes out of another. I dreamt that
you did not love me and
since then
I don’t sleep

I will not say that my boat
is the best in the port but
I know that this one has better movements
than those of any other boat

You are like a big tree
that the wind whipped
which has beautiful foliage
and has no heart.9

These Symbolist suggestions of dreams and tragic love appear to be by Picasso himself and are analogous if not related to E. A. Poe’s poem, “A Dream Within a Dream.” They are a poetic state of mind evident in the pitiful woman who is comparable to the tragic depictions in the background of La Vie or to Van Gogh’s Sorrow.

Even in the final painting of the Old Guitarist a specterlike nude woman is becoming ever more visible as the painting ages. Her face is easily visible above the Old Guitarist’s neck and her breasts, her left hand, and long hair can be seen with careful viewing. It is probable that this underpainted woman thematically fulfilled a project like those in the two drawings cited (Figs. 6, 7) and correlated with an earlier stage of the guitar theme or La Vie. The painting closest to it in pose and facial features is the Blue Nude (Fig. 9), which is a very iconic presentation of a seductive woman. In painting over the Magdalen-like young woman it is reasonable to conclude that the guitar sufficiently alluded to her so that she did not need to be included. Picasso expressed this idea many years later when commenting on a work by Lipchitz: “All the same, it was much better when he painted a guitar instead of a woman. Because that means all sorts of things. Of course you know why we began with musical instruments. After all, the rest is ‘charm.’ Lots of things I’ve done since have been nothing but charm. Whereas then. . . .”10 In other words the guitar could simultaneously suggest woman and tragic love and her actual appearance in the final painting was not necessary. The several stages of her love life could be synthesized in the visual music of the guitar, an object more subtly alluding to the nature of worldly love.

The denouement of the article “Psicologia de la guitarra” is, as one might suspect, the appearance of the Old Guitarist. The author concludes: “She [the guitar] feels all the tenderness, and when she is old, when she cannot sing of happiness nor breath loves,she goes to the hands of the poor blind man and petitions alms for him.” This is exactly the image in a postcard size drawing of a blind guitarist begging (Fig. 10) which is the most direct antecedent of the Old Guitarist in subject. The Blind Beggar (Fig. 10) is, however, a much more anecdotal and narrative work than the final painting and in its more fully specified activity is less characteristically Symbolist. He is a beggar extending his hand for alms. He reaches out for contact with the world and more direct involvement with the viewer who becomes the implied alms giver. His headband characterizes him as an old gypsy near the end of the road with blind eyes and sunken orbits partially evoking a death’s-head; nevertheless he is still upright, a testimony to pitiful perseverance. He is the last stage in the passions of the guitar and a prelude to the Old Guitarist.

The Old Guitarist

The theme of blindness received intense consideration in Picasso’s work in late 1903. At first seated blind men and beggars predominated but then Symbolist allusions to other senses occurred through the theme of the blind man’s meal and the blind musician. Eyes, blindness, vision in blue, and the night world were favorite themes for the Symbolist poet and artist. Vision in its simplest sense, that is perception of the natural world in daylight, was not a Symbolist concern. Penetration of the surface of things down to the depths of the soul to suggest the spiritual, was considered a more worthy exploration. The eyes could then become measures of the spiritual, inward in direction. Eyes to the Symbolist were not windows to the exterior world but windows to the soul. Likewise the blue of peripheral vision, where objects are indistinct, the blue of the night world, where mystery and suggestiveness abound, the blue of the sea and sky, images of the infinite and unfathomable, were all sheer poetry for the Symbolist painter. All of these attitudes inform the blue mood of the Old Guitarist.11

In the final painting, the old guitarist is extremely withdrawn. He has lost his beggar’s headband, is seated with his legs folded, and his head is lowered creating a continuous long line of left shoulder, neck, and the back of the head. The shoulder is accentuated by the torn shirt, which with his emaciated appearance emphasizes his poverty. His depressed undernourished demeanor characterizes him as the lonely isolated outcast. He seems pressed down in the space so that there is insufficient room for him to raise his head or to stand up. The acute angles of limbs, the elongated proportions, the ghostly pallor, and anonymous drapery all recall El Greco’s ascetic saints. Even the open mouth does not have the quality of a vigorous cry or utterance but of a hardly audible sound, a dry cry of silence. His suffering is more melancholy and pitiful than heartbreaking anguish. His hollow sockets are effective determinants of mood in this regard and elicit multiple suggestions for his former life and present thoughts. The facial features are not sufficiently defined to allow the viewer to read the personality of this blind man. He is a blind man anywhere, more a state of soul than a specific individual. He is so thin and blends with the blue atmosphere so well that one almost thinks of him as a vision appearing and disappearing. He is alone, isolated from us through his blindness, yet he somehow silently speaks to us bypassing didacticisms or moral messages.

The only mediation of this sea of blue is the slightly warm brownish tone of the guitar. Its gently curving body and round sound hole add the only moderately pleasant shapes to an otherwise austere presentation. This “feminine” note is slightly out of tune with the rest of the painting and forms a major contrast with the other chords in blue. It replaces and recalls the underpainted young woman and the tragic nature of love.12

In Spain, and particularly Picasso’s native Andalusia, the songs of gypsies are called the cante jondo or deep song, which has developed into numerous moving forms. A contemporary author has described its significance:

Today the term cante jondo or Deep Song is used for the traditional song form of Andalusia, and the Gypsies apply the words to the most genuine and traditional of their songs, and for this reason Deep Song has been called by poets the song of the Tragic Sense of Life. Countless coplas of cante jondo celebrate the deep sentiment of pity for the humble victims of social injustice. The victim is exalted at times into a hero because he has been crushed by his destiny and by this injustice, and he wins the sympathy of the folk because he is a rebel against the inhuman world which surrounds him. His song, in fact, is the agonizing cry of humanity in chains.13

The above characterization of cante jondo applies doubly to the Old Guitarist since he is both an outcast and a guitarist. In typical Symbolist manner the old musician only minimally appears to play his guitar, if at all. In fact the strings of the guitar seem to appear and disappear in the painting. The use of denial was frequent among Symbolists as one of the most effective methods of elevating the spectator to the level of the ideal, to avoid being a slave to the material. In this instance, then, the music of cante jondo need not be physically played by the Old Guitarist since everything in the painting suggests it and implies it. The idea of correspondences, that material things can correspond to spiritual things, or that one sense can be substituted for another to arrive at the spiritual, is a kind of dialectic central to most Symbolist works. In suggesting one thing by means of another (e.g., a sound by a color) musical correspondences were often favored since music was thought the most spiritual and least physical art. The correspondence depends on an assumption by the artist of a direct relationship between the quality of a sensation and the type of effect it arouses (e.g., blue). The ideal performance is then located in the mind, in dreams, or in memories, in other words in a spiritual realm. In the Old Guitarist the song is thus of the player’s soul, and it is within more than without that he plays his melancholy lament.

Only a year before painting the Old Guitarist Picasso wrote to his Parisian friend, the poet, Max Jacob: “I show what I do to my friends the ‘artists’ here; but they find that there is too much soul and not enough form. . . .”14 Indeed, between late 1902 and 1904 many Barcelona artists were moving away from such Symbolist effects as the feelings of drained energy, isolation, poverty, melancholy, states of being, and conditions of the soul. To Picasso these artists’ sight must have blinded them to deeper qualities, and he states this near the end of this letter. Picasso was striving for insight, and the theme of blindness was most effective in this elicitation. Blindness was a favorite Symbolist theme and had long been frequent in several Spanish picaresque novels. In novels by authors of the generation of ’98 and in several plays by Maeterlinck, the greater perceptive powers of the blind are emphasized. Usually a blind outcast is the main protagonist in these works and insightfully understands human and transcendental relationships to which the sighted are blind.15 Picasso adopted many similar themes and in some instances subjects drawn directly from the picaresque tradition.16

Later in his career Picasso spoke in terms of musical correspondences about the greater perceptive powers of the blind utilizing a concept that had been applied much earlier in the Old Guitarist. “They should put out the eyes of artists as they do goldfinches to make them sing better.“17 The quality of soulfulness in the blind guitarist is exactly comparable to the goldfinch parable. He sings and plays a more beautiful and suggestive music than the sighted just because he has had the exterior world blotted out for him. The viewer is drawn in a parallel direction into the blue minimal world the artist has visualized through a tragic sense of life. Correspondences and denial then reinforce and expand suggestiveness, the possible allusions and mysteries of being.

In addition to the typical Symbolist use of musical correspondences and various types of denial suggested in the Old Guitarist, the use of blindness and asceticism in this work verges on derangement of the senses. Many Symbolist poets fostered derangement of the senses as one of the most powerful and sure ways of exploring the inner world of the soul and arriving at insightfulness. Mental voyages on absinthe, hashish, perfumes, etc. are poeticized by Gautier, Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Rimbaud among others. Madness was considered closer to truth than conventionality and was advocated by the Modernista coterie of which Picasso was a member.18 This is particularly relevant in regard to the beggar type outcast series, because following the blind musicians, Picasso closes the series with drawings of madmen before leaving for Paris in 1904 and launching the Rose Period.

The Symbolist artist or poet in many instances cultivated the role of the outcast himself, feeling a common bond to outcasts such as the old guitarist. He viewed his role as that of a visionary or seer who sees beneath the crust of external reality just like the blind in picaresque novels. One path which led to the ideal was through a beautiful woman as an image of the artist’s soul; however, more frequent among Spanish artists was the road of the outcast or the downward material path which eventually led inward and spiritually upward. In this regard, as has been stated in the discussion of cante jondo, the victim becomes the hero and suffering becomes his primary pedigree to obtaining truth. He is often hated and rejected by society and usually willingly so. The numerous outcast themes then imply a rejection of the material world for spiritual values on the part of the artist. The artist becomes the brother of the outcast seeking similar goals and sometimes portrays himself in this guise. This is more obvious in the paintings of saltimbanques in the Rose Period, but it is also implicit in many Blue Period works as well. This is also apparent in many self-portraits by Gauguin to whom Picasso turned for inspiration in 1903. It is even possible the Old Guitarist was directly influenced by Gauguin’s Self-portrait with a Mandolin (Fig. 11) which is similar in several significant respects.

The blind guitarist was thus conceived as the equivalent of a saint like those Picasso drew upon for inspiration from El Greco. He penetrated the crust of reality through blindness, through musical correspondences, and through asceticism and denial to become the insightful visionary of Picasso’s early career. He was the new saint of a Symbolist age which was deeply depressed in its own melancholy.

Nietzschean Esthetics

The visual sources for the Old Guitarist are largely the Old Masters combined with the music of cante jondo, both patently Spanish, but the philosophical outlook which helped draw these sources together for Picasso reflects a more particular esthetics. Probably the most significant foreign influences of a philosophical nature in Spain were Germanic, and they thoroughly permeated the writings of the generation of ’98 and the paintings of the Modernistas. In fact, much of the implicit philosophical core of Symbolism in Spain as well as France was of Germanic origins through the writings of Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and others. Particularly influential on Picasso and Spanish authors and poets were the writings of Goethe and Nietzsche.19 Phoebe Pool claims:

Nietzsche, probably the greatest intellectual influence of the time, came as an antidote to the numbing determinism of the Materialists, the cult of pity in Tolstoy and of death and pessimism in Wagner and Schopenhauer. A friend of Picasso has said that before he was seventeen he had read most of the works of Nietzsche and that this was characteristic of his companions in Els Quatre Gats.20

The latter contention seems likely since there were articles on Nietzsche and translated extracts of his writings in many Spanish periodicals by Jaime Brossa, Pompeyo Gener, Joan Oliva Bridgman, and Miguel de Unamuno, authors respected by and in some cases personally acquainted with Picasso. In Arte Joven there was a continuing advertisement for Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy in the Biblioteca de Filosofia y Sociologia series, additionally confirming Nietzsche’s currency in Picasso’s circle.

In The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, questions about the nature of music and tragedy were answered in a way very similar to many of Picasso’s paintings from the Blue Period about 30 years later. The book is addressed to artists, and, in the tradition of Schopenhauer, it credits art as “the highest human task, the true metaphysical activity.”21 The central problem of the book is a consideration of the origins of tragedy through Greek drama and the god Dionysus; however this is brought into contemporary terms through pertinent comparisons. Tragedy is seen indissolubly linked to the Dionysian spirit which is characterized by ecstasy and manifest through music. Nietzsche further characterized tragedy as purely religious in origin, as “exempt since its beginning from the embarrassing task of copying actuality,“ and as not originally drama at all but only chorus.22 Tragedy is likewise apparent in Picasso’s Old Guitarist who is obviously an outcast and blind. The Old Guitarist’s tragedy is, however, more explicitly Nietzschean in abandoning overt dramatics or a naturalistic approach for a more spiritual consideration.

Of even greater significance, Picasso has adopted the central theme of The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music as his own, that is of uniting tragedy and music through the guitar. At first, this may seem to be too all-inclusive a claim since Nietzsche’s examples are the Greek chorus and later Wagner, but Nietzsche primarily finds the Dionysian current in folk songs. In other words the Dionysian chorus is for Nietzsche basically an outgrowth of folklore and myth; it is the “ideal spectator” or “only seer of the visionary world of the proscenium.” He understands “folk song as a musical mirror of the cosmos, as primordial melody casting about for an analogue and finding that analogue eventually in poetry.“23 With this elevation of folk song as a kind of national voice of truth, the above doubt seems nullified, and Picasso’s approach to tragedy through the tradition of cante jondo is seen to be congruent with Nietzschean esthetics.

The dependence of Nietzsche’s concept of tragedy through music on Schopenhauer is evident from a three-page quote from the latter’s The World as Will and Idea.24 The heart of the quote in Nietzsche’s words stresses that music “is the metaphysical complement to everything that is physical in the world; the thing in itself where all else is appearance.” Schopenhauer characterizes music as a universal language capable of reproducing “the very soul and essence as it were without the body.” It is also clear that Nietzsche believes Schopenhauer’s universal language of music is capable of being applied to images. “Image and concept, on the other hand, gain a heightened significance under the influence of truly appropriate music.” In essence Nietzsche, through Schopenhauer, is putting forth as his central artistic process the theory of correspondences. This is most clearly expressed in the following quote: “that a relation is generally possible between a composition (musical) and a perceptible representation rests, as we have said, upon the fact that both are simply different expressions of the same inner being of the world.”25 That correspondences are a central concern of Picasso in the Old Guitarist and numerous paintings from this period seems undeniable. It is the primary justification for the guitar and the evocation of cante jondo. It is behind the exploration of the senses by the ascetic outcast through touch, taste, hearing, and new sight in blind man’s meals, blind musicians, and madmen. It is the basis of the relationship between the woman and the guitar and the fundamental process of the painter in spiritualizing his creations.

The Hero

Just as explicitly Nietzschean as the linking of music and tragedy is Picasso’s adoption of a similar conception of the hero. Nietzsche’s primary example in The Birth of Tragedy is Oedipus, who tears out his eyes blinding himself to the external world.

Like a mighty titan, the tragic hero shoulders the whole Dionysiac world and removes the burden from us. At the same time, tragic myth, through the figure of the hero, delivers us from our avid thirst for earthly satisfaction and reminds us of another existence and a higher delight. For this delight the hero readies himself, not through his victories but through his undoing.26

Thus for Nietzsche as for Picasso the hero is necessarily defeated in the material world to triumph in the spiritual realm. The delight Nietzsche speaks of is not of the phenomenal world but of what lies behind it. It is esthetic, comparable to the “kind of delight dissonance creates in music” and “destruction of appearances,” of “illusion,” of “beauty,” of even the hero himself are inherent to the Nietzschean conception of tragedy. The hero views “quotidian reality,” as Nietzsche calls it, with such contempt that “the consequence is an ascetic, abulic state of mind.”27 These descriptions by Nietzsche of the nature of the hero perfectly characterize Picasso’s old Guitarist. The self-sacrificing hero, blind to daily reality, submitting to the destruction of appearances for the music of the soul, that is Picasso’s image.

Thus the Symbolist character of Picasso’s Old Guitarist finds philosophical and esthetic support in Nietzsche’s particular Symbolist proclivities and thematically realizes depth of meaning through the Spanish traditions of cante jondo and influences from El Greco. The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, then, offered both a thematic and philosophical mandate to the young Picasso. By advocating tragedy through music under the banner of correspondences and denial it demanded paintings like the Old Guitarist. It set out a definition of Art as “not an imitation of nature but its metaphysical supplement, raised up beside it in order to overcome it.”28 Twenty years after painting the Old Guitarist, Picasso verbally expressed the same esthetic conception even more incisively: “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth. . . . Through art we express our conception of what nature is not.”29 That Picasso could still hold such a view considering the phases his career had then passed through augurs well for the significance and elasticity of that esthetics and the masterful contribution of the Old Guitarist as its early fulfillment.

Ron Johnson



1. P. Daix and G. Boudaille, Picasso: The Blue and Rose Periods, Greenwich, Conn., 1967, p. 62, and A. Blunt and P. Pool, Picasso: The Formative Years, London, 1962, p. 21.

2. E.g., T. Reff, “Love and Death in Picasso’s Early Work,” Artforum, May, 1973, pp. 64–73.

3. There was the Whistlerian Symbolism of Casas and Rusiñol, the art nouveau tendencies of De Riquer,.and the social and then more formalistic concerns of Nonell and the Colla Safra of which Picasso was a member. Nonell was Picasso’s most closely related Modernista predecessor who painted and at times lived among gypsies, beggars, outcasts, and the poor; however despite his similarity to Picasso in the introverted types he selects, Nonell does not use the theme of the blind guitarist.

4. X. de Salas, “Some Notes on a letter of Picasso,” Burlington Magazine, September, 1960, p. 484, note 3.

5. Z1:178, 202; Z V1:279, 313, 337, 348, 373, 481; Z XXII: 5,7; C. Zervos, Pablo Picasso, Editions Cahiers d’Art, Paris, 1932 ff. (henceforth abbreviated Z); Daix and Boudaille, p. 62; and J.-E. Cirlot, Picasso: Birth of a Genius, New York, 1972, #954.

6. N. Maria Lopez, “Psicologia de la guitarra,” Arte Joven, Número 2, April 15,1901, p. 5 unnumbered. Cirici-Pellicer gives the proper importance to this article and even suggests Picasso influenced the author. A. Cirici-Pellicer, Picasso Avant Picasso, Editions Pierre Cailler, Geneve, 1950, pp. 85–86.

7. R. Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, New York, 1958, p. 65.

8. It is also likely that Puvis de Chavanne’s Poor Fisherman was influential in mood and theme on these works.

9. This was most kindly translated from Picasso’s nearly illegible handwriting by John Golding.

10. Picasso statement 22 lune 1946: D.-H. Kahnweiler, Picasso: “Ours is the only real painting,” The Observer (London) December 8, 1957, pp. 8–9.

11. Whistler’s Nocturnes, and plays, poems, and novels of a Symbolist character continually saturated Barcelona with themes of blindness and the blue ideal. Magazine illustrations in blue were also common. See e.g., two by Picasso in Pel & Ploma, Ill, lune 1901, p. 18.

12. It is apparent that in France the mandolin was employed in an almost identical way to that of the guitar in Spain. Watteau portrayed several guitarists and mandolin players and Verlaine’s “Mandoline” from Fête Galante pays homage to Watteau. Gauguin especially draws upon the same correspondences and associations in Nude Study 1880 and Self-Portrait with a Mandolin 1889. Even when Picasso returned to musical instrument themes in 1909–1910, his first painting was Girl with a Mandolin, Z,11.1:133.

13. W. Starkie, In Sara’s Tents, London, 1953, p. 92. I owe a debt of gratitude to David Goist for bringing the significance of cante jondo to my attention and its applicability to the Old Guitarist.

14. J. Sabartes, Picasso: Documents Iconographiques, Pierre Cailler, Genève, 1954, illustration #70. It is also about this time that the periodical Pel & Ploma is replaced by Forma revealing the new interests of many artists.

15. In Lazarillo de Tormes a young boy guides a blind man but the blind man’s greater insight is a guide to the boy. Ferdinand de Rojas, Comedia de Calixto y Melibea (La Celestina) features a partially blind procuress who is wise in the ways of love yet she dies tragically like the lovers she manipulates. Marinella by B. Perez Galdos is a novel about a young girl who leads a loving blind boy but when he regains his sight he recognizes her physical ugliness and she dies heartbroken and rejected. Pio Baroja’s novel El Mayorazgo de Labraz (1903) features a blind hero. For further development of Picasso’s relation to the picaresque tradition see G. Scott, Pablo Picasso: The Theme of Blindness and the New Perception, University of California, Berkeley, unpublished M.A. thesis, 1967.

16. The Mistletoe Seller, Z 1:123 — Lazarillo de Tormes and Celestina, Z 1:183, Z 1:191 — La Celestina.

17. E. Tériade, “En causant avec Picasso,” L’Intransigeant, 15 lune 1932, p. 1.

18. E.g., at the third Fiesta Modernista Rusiñol declared: “. . . we prefer to be symbolists and unbalanced, even to be mad or decadent, rather than weak and gentle . . .” 1. Ráfols, Modernismo y Modernistas, Edicones Destino, Barcelona, 1949, p. 57.

19. I would like to thank Mark Rosenthal for drawing my attention to the significance of Nietzsche for Picasso’s early work in an unpublished paper “The Nietzschean Spirit in the Art of Picasso,” University of Iowa, 1972.

20. Blunt and Pool, p. 7.

21. F. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and the Genealogy of Morals, Garden City, 1956, p. 5 ff.

22. Ibid., pp. 47-58.

23. Ibid., pp. 42-43.

24. Ibid., pp. 98-101.

25. Ibid., p. 100.

26. Ibid., p. 126.

27. Ibid., p. 51 ff.

28. Ibid., p. 142.

29. Picasso statement, 1923, A. Barr, Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art, New York, 1949, p. 270.