I sit listening to Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue.” The world weariness channels into me with a forward shuffling, indiscreet as it comes to sit right next to me. The joviality of life and the incessant choir of a fast paced world seem to collapse into oblivion. I have become one with the music.
There are many great artists. Picasso is in that elite club. What’s the criteria for actually getting into it? I would imagine one would need a diverse oeuvre, with a style and resonance of one’s own. But as the cocktails go around, and the music swells, so does the group. I can think of many artists that could fit into that group with that criteria. Caravaggio, Van Gogh, Goya, Matisse, Gauguin… where does one end? Probably at the kitchen where Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons reside. But, Picasso… well, he has to be the de facto #1 choice. Love or hate his work, there is always something to like. Anyone that tells you otherwise must be looking at too many tiger sharks. Yet, when push comes to shove, I don’t particularly fancy Picasso’s Cubist works. They’re too divided, for the parts never seem to transmit a coherent whole. Some can be very good, but overall they are hit and miss. However, when one leaves an estate of over 50,000 works, then one will probably have a few artistic duds. In the end though, one cannot deny Picasso’s place in the club. (For whatever reason, I can readily imagine a Turkish bath there. Picasso, Goya, Gauguin, Van Gogh, er… maybe having the latter two would be a bad idea. I would just hate to see a fight in the Turkish bath between those two.)
Painting in blue was not Picasso’s choice. A dear friend of his, Carlos Casagemas, in 1901, committed suicide by shooting himself in the right temple at a cafe in Paris. When Picasso heard of this he gradually began the move to a more subdued style. This was a daring thing for him to do. He was reportedly on the rise in Paris at the time, but with his new found tendency for the pensive, public and critics alike were not interested in peasants, prostitutes, and dead friends in blue monochrome. Even though the public was turning their heads to other horizons, Picasso’s sunrise as an emerging, important artist had just begun.
The ability to evoke a mood is one of the great strengths of Picasso’s Blue Period. Think about it: how many artists have created such an iconic style that transmits a recognizable mood that would go on to influence music, for example? Or at the very least, be companionable with a different art form? Not many I would imagine. Picasso had managed to capture the zeitgeist of the struggling avant-garde in the early 20th century. The forlornness of a generation that would soon be witnessing the end of sabre-rattling and the inevitable commencing of trenches being dug in, were not yet fully recognized. And capturing this mood one of the aspects that makes Picasso a great artist. He simply creates a mirror of the times he lives in. Ironically enough, he was not trying to be avant-garde by being reflective. I cannot just look at these pictures and say, “Picasso is clearly making his stamp in the midst of the avant-garde, this is his first real foray into work that would later redefine art (Cubism), blah, blah, oh by the way, Koons loves Picasso, blah, blah.” Though, these are artworks that were created in his most realistic period. A period that posterity has treated kindly, and posterity is right. Time is indeed the best critic, and Picasso has made his subjects timeless. Indeed, that quality of making fleeting moments integral to humanity, or conveying what it means to be human. People are being depicted at their most vulnerable in Picasso’s Blue Period. That’s what makes the Blue Period his most enticing work.
Clearly, Picasso was coming deep from the heart. And his heart throbs in “Old Guitarist.” An old man, down on his luck, playing the last notes on his guitar will make sure that they are the last he will ever strum again. He sinks away into some oblivion, muscles straining in persuasive blue monochrome, and eventually dies. It is a haunting painting in every sense of the word. Everybody dies and it’s a fact that comes almost too hard throughout these works. I can see in “Woman with Folded Arms” that she possesses a depressive stare that suggests she is facing an existential crisis of some kind, likely realizing that she is facing her inevitable demise. Surely, she thinks, “if this is pain, and if death is supposedly nothingness, then how can death be worse than to endure more misery?” These paintings are not light at all. They come with an existential frontal assault that few have matched since the film director Ingmar Bergman.
I started off my piece with mentioning Miles Davis and especially his album, “Kind of Blue.” It would seem strange that I should suddenly become “one with the music” in a sense that is not entirely possible in art. To become one with something, there has to be a mood that comes through. In music it could be anger, joy, melancholy or any such emotions. In that sense, it is possible for music to have that lucidity of interpretation, expression and perception that painting and drawing sometimes struggle to communicate. To put it short, mood is more difficult to capture in 2D than it is in music. But Picasso approaches his work as if it were music. This is what makes Picasso a true artistic genius. He manages to make his art resonate through a simple, yet totally different approach. By layering his works in blue monochrome the mood is encapsulated. Artists had never pulled off one overarching emotion (melancholy) throughout one distinct period in such a direct fashion before. I don’t think artists have since…
And what would I say to contemporary artists? No pretentious experimentation and no guff, just the real marrow of life. That is what Picasso’s Blue Period stands for.