Pablo Picasso. The Old Guitarist, late 1903–early 1904. The Art Institute of Chicago. Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection. © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Pablo Picasso. The Old Guitarist, late 1903–early 1904. The Art Institute of Chicago. Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection. © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Picasso’s The Old Guitarist

Pablo Picasso. The Old Guitarist, late 1903–early 1904. The Art Institute of Chicago. Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection. © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Pablo Picasso. The Old Guitarist, late 1903–early 1904. The Art Institute of Chicago. Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection. © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Don't be deceived by this seemingly simple painting of a man and his instrument. Pablo Picasso's The Old Guitarist has secrets in its past and in its paint. 

1. Picasso related to his penniless guitar player. 

At 22, Picasso was overcome with a sadness that he projected on this piece, and many others from his Blue Period. He showed this through the monochromatic, flat representation. Picasso knew what it was like to be broke, spending most of 1902 in poverty. 

2. It's bigger than you'd expect. 

Contorted and cramped within the frame, you might think this Old Guitarist is presented on a small canvas, but it actually measures in at 48 3/8 x 32 1/2 inches, roughly four by 2 2/3 feet. 

3. It appears that the man pictured is blind. 

Observe his closed eyes, averted from the world and the instrument he plays. It's suggested that a key influence of The Old Guitarist was Symbolist literature, which often employed blind characters to suggest a vision beyond this world.  

4. The disenfranchised was a theme of the Blue Period. 

Marginalized and deprived people were often the subject pieces in the Blue Period. Picasso was especially intrigued by blindness and seemingly blind figures can be found in several of his works. The etching The Frugal Repast (1904) offers a blind man and a sighted woman sharing a sparse meal. A similar subject was tackled—minus the mate—with The Blind Man's Meal in 1903. Lastly, the 1903 portrait Celestina displayed a woman with one milky unseeing eye. 

5. It could also be viewed as a self-portrait of sorts. 

The only element of The Old Guitarist that is not devotedly blue is the man's guitar. Through his art, this isolated misfit finds solace. The brightness of the guitar could be seen to speak to how Picasso viewed his own art as a bright spot even in his darkest times. 

6. The Old Guitarist's composition is a nod to El Greco.

As with all of the pieces from the Blue Period, this piece is directly related to the artist El Greco. Picasso was fond of the artist because he was overlooked by scholars in favor of other Renaissance and Mannerist painters of the time. The guitarist's head crooked at a jarring angle and legs curled in make him appear cramped within the frame. Art historians suggest Picasso chose this angular pose accented by elongated limbs as a nod to the celebrated 16th-century artist.

7. This piece may have inspired poetry.

Three years after The Old Guitarist was exhibited in the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, American Modernist Wallace Stevens published the lengthy poem "The Man With The Blue Guitar." Despite a seemingly obvious link between the painting and the poem, Stevens denied any connection to Picasso's work, claiming, "I had no particular painting of Picasso's in mind and even though it might help to sell the book to have one of his paintings on the cover, I don't think we ought to reproduce anything of Picasso's."

8. There’s a woman hiding on the canvas.

If you look closely at the space above the guitar player's ear, through the blue-gray paint you might make out a forehead and eyes. This ghostly woman invited further study, so the museum that owns the painting, The Art Institute of Chicago, studied it in a conservation lab using infrared scans and X-rays to see what Picasso had painted over. What was discovered was an abandoned portrait of a nude young woman, seated and nursing a child from her right breast, as well as a calf and cow.

9. The Old Guitarist is the most iconic work of Picasso's Blue Period.

This chapter in the seminal painter's career began with Casagemas in His Coffin, which depicted his dearly departed friend in his final repose. From there came many more, solemn portraits of despair, desperation and desolation that have scattered to museum walls all over the world. But none has come close to surpassing the popularity of The Old Guitarist.

10. The Art Institute of Chicago made history with the painting.

The Art Institute of Chicago acquired the piece in 1926 in what turned out to be a pivotal moment for Picasso. The Old Guitarist became Picasso's first painting to be acquired by an American museum, and according to the Art Institute of Chicago, by all accounts it was also the first Picasso painting that any museum in the world acquired for its permanent collection. 

Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
The Covers of Jack Kerouac's Classic Titles Are Getting a Makeover
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press

Readers have been enjoying classic Jack Kerouac books like The Dharma Bums and On the Road for decades, but starting this August the novels will have a new look. Several abstract covers have been unveiled as part of Penguin’s "Great Kerouac" series, according to design website It’s Nice That.

The vibrant covers, designed by Tom Etherington of Penguin Press, feature the works of abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline. The artwork is intended to capture “the experience of reading Kerouac” rather than illustrating a particular scene or character, Etherington told It’s Nice That. Indeed, abstract styles of artwork seem a fitting match for Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose”—a writing style that was influenced by improvisational jazz music.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of The Dharma Bums, which was published just one year after On the Road. The Great Kerouac series will be available for purchase on August 2.

[h/t It's Nice That]

John MacDougall, Getty Images
Stolpersteine: One Artist's International Memorial to the Holocaust
John MacDougall, Getty Images
John MacDougall, Getty Images

The most startling memorial to victims of the Holocaust may also be the easiest to miss. Embedded in the sidewalks of more than 20 countries, more than 60,000 Stolpersteine—German for “stumbling stones”—mark the spots where victims last resided before they were forced to leave their homes. The modest, nearly 4-by-4-inch brass blocks, each the size of a single cobblestone, are planted outside the doorways of row houses, bakeries, and coffee houses. Each tells a simple yet chilling story: A person lived here. This is what happened to them.

Here lived Hugo Lippers
Born 1878
Arrested 11/9/1938 — Altstrelitzer prison
Deported 1942 Auschwitz

The project is the brainchild of the German artist Gunter Demnig, who first had the idea in the early 1990s as he studied the Nazis' deportation of Sinti and Roma people. His first installations were guerrilla artwork: According to Reuters, Demnig laid his first 41 blocks in Berlin without official approval. The city, however, soon endorsed the idea and granted him permission to install more. Today, Berlin has more than 5000.

Demnig lays a Stolpersteine.
Artist Gunter Demnig lays a Stolpersteine outside a residence in Hamburg, Germany in 2012.
Patrick Lux, Getty Images

The Stolpersteine are unique in their individuality. Too often, the millions of Holocaust victims are spoken of as a nameless mass. And while the powerful memorials and museums in places such as Berlin and Washington, D.C. are an antidote to that, the Stolpersteine are special—they are decentralized, integrated into everyday life. You can walk down a sidewalk, look down, and suddenly find yourself standing where a person's life changed. History becomes unavoidably present.

That's because, unlike gravestones, the stumbling stones mark an important date between a person’s birth and death: the day that person was forced to abandon his or her home. As a result, not every stumbling stone is dedicated to a person who was murdered. Some plaques commemorate people who fled Europe and survived. Others honor people who were deported but managed to escape. The plaques aim to memorialize the moment a person’s life was irrevocably changed—no matter how it ended.

The ordinariness of the surrounding landscape—a buzzing cafe, a quaint bookstore, a tree-lined street—only heightens that effect. As David Crew writes for Not Even Past, “[Demnig] thought the stones would encourage ordinary citizens to realize that Nazi persecution and terror had begun on their very doorsteps."

A man in a shop holding a hammer making a Stolpersteine.
Artisan Michael Friedrichs-Friedlaender hammers inscriptions into the brass plaques at the Stolpersteine manufacturing studio in Berlin.
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

While Demnig installs every single Stolpersteine himself, he does not work alone. His project, which stretches from Germany to Brazil, relies on the research of hundreds of outside volunteers. Their efforts have not only helped Demnig create a striking memorial, but have also helped historians better document the lives of individuals who will never be forgotten.


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