Pablo Picasso. La Celestine, 1903, Spanish. Oil on canvas, 81.0 × 60.0 cm. MuséePicasso, Paris, France, 2003 Estate of Pablo Picasso.
Pablo Picasso. The Old Guitarist, 1903/1904, Spanish. Oil on panel. 122.9 ×82.6 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Ill, Helen Birch BartlettMemorial Collection.
Pablo Picasso, The Blind Man's Meal, 1903, Spanish. Oil on canvas. 95.3 × 94.6cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, Mr and Mrs Ira Haupt Gift,1950.
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Ravin JG, Perkins J. Representations of Blindness in Picasso's Blue Period. Arch Ophthalmol. 2004;122(4):636–639. doi:10.1001/archopht.122.4.636
The Spanish painter Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was the most importantartist of the 20th century. It is impossible to consider the development ofmodern art without him. A unique, highly productive artist who created morethan 20 000 works in more than 75 years of activity, Picasso was themost frequently exhibited and critiqued artist of the last century. Best knownas a painter, he also worked in sculpture, prints, ceramics, and theater design.Blindness was a theme that played an important role in the artist's firstdistinctive style, known as the Blue Period.
Picasso's earliest work was done in a naturalistic manner and givesfew hints of the future direction his art would take. While still a teenager,Picasso made several visits to Paris, the capital of the artistic world, wherehe exhibited paintings and drawings at the gallery of Ambrose Vollard, whorepresented postimpressionists and younger members of the French avant-garde.The exhibition was a modest financial success and brought him further commissions.One art critic saw in this show the debut of a "brilliant newcomer," but wrotethat "Picasso's passionate surge forwards has not yet left him the leisureto forge a personal style."1 During his earlyyears Picasso developed a strong personality and envisioned himself a sortof artist-hero, akin to a Nietzschean superman. He had encountered philosophyand art theory a few years earlier but remained a studio artist and neverconsidered abstract thinking important to the way he worked. He found thistype of discussion irrelevant and distracting, and even used the word "blinding"2 to describe such activity.
In late 1901 his work took a dramatic turn when he developed his firstdistinctive style, the nearly monochromatic works of the Blue Period (1901-1904).These works are instantly recognizable by their overwhelming use of blue colorsand melancholy figures. Several oil paintings and a print from this periodhave blindness as a theme. The sad, brooding mood of these works may havebeen a reaction to the suicide of his close friend and fellow artist, CarlosCasagemas (1880-1901), which followed a failed romance.
Images of blindness may be traced back to Greek antiquity, where theblind poet Homer is a familiar figure. In Spanish art and literature, theblind poet evolved into the blind guitarist. Blind beggars were a common sighton the streets of Spain for centuries. Francisco Goya (1746-1828) createdseveral paintings and prints of this subject. Picasso painted and engravedworks based on the theme of blindness several times during his Blue Period.Occasionally he returned to images of the blind later in his career, suchas his depictions from the 1930s of a blind minotaur, an ancient Greek mythologicalfigure who had the head of a bull and the body of a man.
Pervasive use of blue pigment was not invented by Picasso, for thereis a long history of working this way. His immediate predecessors in thismanner were symbolist painters of Spain and France, who used blue to boldasizethe emotional sensations of sadness and despair. Many works in the Art Nouveaustyle created toward the end of the 19th century also have an overwhelmingblue tone, with one good example being Emile Galle's work in glass entitled Blue Melancholia.3(p216) Throughout his career Picasso incorporated the methods of otherartists into his work. Others have put it more sharply—he stole fromeveryone, from the old masters to his contemporaries. According to FrancoiseGilot, one of his many mistresses, Picasso said, "When there's anything tosteal, I steal."4 The blue works show a particulardebt to El Greco which is evident in the elongated hands and faces. He foundworking in blue highly compatible with his subject matter—the poor,disabled, and downtrodden.
Some have suggested the poverty-stricken subjects reflect his lifestyleat the time. Picasso was certainly not as rich then as he was to become later,but he was not greatly different financially from the rest of his artisticand literary circle. He had financial support from home and had exhibitedsuccessfully by this time. Some have suggested he used blue primarily becausehe could only afford cobalt blue paint. This is incorrect. He could certainlyafford to purchase whatever paints he wanted. He was still in his youth, testinga technique that proved to be effective for him and that had been exploredpreviously by others.5 Perhaps Picasso identifiedwith the unfortunate individuals he painted. His ambivalent comments aboutParis are evident in a letter he wrote that same year to his friend, the poetand artist, Max Jacob:
My dear old Max, I think about the room on the boulevard Voltaireand the omelets, the beans, and the brie and the fried potatoes. But I alsothink about those days of misery and that's very sad. And I remember the Spaniardsfrom the rue de Seine with disgust.6
If Picasso ever told anyone precisely why blindness was important tohim, we have not been able to find a description. We do know that his father'svision was deteriorating from an unknown cause at this time. Inevitably, psychoanalyticapproaches have been attempted. The psychiatrist Carl Jung saw "incipientpsychic dissociation" and even schizophrenia in Picasso's paintings.7 Blindness is a most serious problem for a painter.In a recent, highly acclaimed biography of Picasso, Richardson noted thatPicasso was at home in Barcelona with his parents when he painted some ofthe blind figures from his Blue Period, and that by depicting "the prospectof what he most feared in life, was not this a way of protecting himself againstit?"3(p279) The closest Picassocame to discussing blindness is this cryptic quotation from the mid 1930s:"There is in fact only love that matters. Whatever it may be. And they shouldput out the eyes of painters as they do to goldfinches to make them sing better."8 Roland Penrose, who recorded these words, also wrote"The allegory of the blind man pursued Picasso throughout life as though reproachinghim for his unique gift of vision."9 Thesequotations give a hint that Picasso was confronting and naming his fears butdo not clarify the meaning of his portraits of the blind.
Picasso's depictions of the blind are too stylized for us to diagnoseprecisely the diseases being delineated. Although the name of the model for La Celestine (Figure 1) is known, we do not know what caused her cornea to become opaque.Her white eye contrasts markedly with the blue that dominates the rest ofthis painting. She is the one-eyed procuress described in the drama of thesame name written by Fernando de Rojas (first known edition, 1499) that isconsidered second in importance in Spanish literature only to Cervantes' Don Quixote. Picasso knew Rojas's story from his adolescentyears, if not earlier.3(p288)
The cause of the atrophic orbit of The Old Guitarist (Figure 2) also remainsobscure. Picasso engulfed the region of the eye in a dark blue shadow in hispaintings of the blind, a characteristic that can be considered an archetypicalstylistic feature of the Blue Period. Similarly, we cannot identify a causefor the poor vision of the figure in The Blind Man's Meal (Figure 3). Picasso describedwhat he was creating in this work succinctly in a letter: "I am painting ablind man at a table. He holds some bread in his left hand and gropes withhis right for a jug of wine."10 This is oneof his few remarks about works made at the time, but reveals nothing.
Picasso did not depict figures in great detail, but tended to idealizethem in these Blue Period works. He took the elongated arms, hands, torsos,and heads of El Greco and placed them in an early 20th century setting. Somecritics have seen a "spiritual inner vision" in the blind figures Picassocreated in this way.11 The figures are isolatedand do not interact well. Other observers have felt this is a reflection ofPicasso's own isolation at that time.12 Despitenearly a century of critical comment on these works, the full meaning is stillunclear. The artist himself did not offer any help in deciphering them. Whenasked, he responded dismissively, terming the Blue and Rose Period works aspure sentiment.4
But we would argue that the blind characters in the Blue Period paintingswere not created simply to make the viewer feel sorry for them. Picasso foundan intensity of other senses in his depiction of the blind. In The Old Guitarist and The Blind Man's Meal differentsenses appear to be enhanced as compared with the lack of sight. The factthat the figures are blind might, in and of itself, indicate that other sensesare more acute, but Picasso boldasized other senses by elongating forms andwas influenced by El Greco. In particular, the long, thin hands of the figuresin both these works are fundamental to an enhancement of the senses becausethey are direct actors in creating music in the case of The Old Guitarist, and in touching the food in TheBlind Man's Meal. Picasso explored the "power" of blindness in La Celestine. By depicting an eye with an opaque corneanext to an apparently normal eye, Picasso juxtaposed vision and blindness.Paradoxically, it is the blind eye that draws the gaze of the viewer. Thefact that the opaque cornea blocks vision is the very element that attractsvision on the part of the viewer.
The style of the Blue Period may be thought of as a kind of meditationon blindness, or at least impaired vision. In these works the artist exploresthe expressive possibilities of a radical reduction of color. Picasso surroundedthe environment with a dark blue veil and used flat, simplified backgroundsthat threaten to disappear altogether. An obscuring of traditional visionis the fundamental expressive component of these works. In investigating blindnessPicasso chose a style that deboldasizes objective sight in favor of a deepervision.
The figures are recognizable as people, which is more than can be saidfor some paintings from his Cubist period. The fractured cubist portraits,which depict individuals from a multitude of directions, confuse many museumgoers. The public is interested in the Blue Period paintings from his youthbecause of what he created later. Early Picasso is not as pleasurable to viewas Impressionism, to cite just one example. Some of the reverence for theseworks comes from the fact that experts say they should be seen, enjoyed, andrespected for what Picasso was to become, the epitome of modernism. The mostimportant art may be difficult to understand, even disturbing, while art thatis superficially appealing may be overly saccharine, lack any meaning afterthe first glance, and remain totally unimportant.
Picasso made evaluating his work difficult. He treated with scorn attemptsat analysis and said he just painted what he saw, the things that moved him:
When I paint, my object is to show what I have found and notwhat I am looking for. . . . What one does is what counts and not what onehad the intention of doing. . . . There are no concrete or abstract formsbut only forms which are more or less convincing lies.13
He denied any evolution in his style even if others separated his workinto radically different phases: "Whenever I had something to say, I havesaid it in a manner in which I have felt it ought to have been said . . ." since
different motives inevitably require different methods of expression.This does not imply either evolution or progress, but an adaptation of theidea one wants to express and the means to express that idea.13
These statements reaffirm the common observation that an artist is inherentlybiased when it comes to evaluating and interpreting his own work. Picassoactually admitted as much in saying, "The connoisseur of painting gives onlybad advice to the painter. For that reason I have given up trying to judgemyself."14
Picasso's colors and subject matter brightened by the end of 1904 ashe entered the next major phase of his art, the Rose Period (1905-1906). Thechange to warmer colors and more pleasant themes is linked to the happinesshe shared with his first long-term liaison, Fernande Olivier. The works ofthe Blue and Rose Periods have certainly achieved critical acceptance, butif Picasso had stopped painting at this point, he would be remembered as asecond- or third-rank artist who had not reached full artistic maturity. Thenext phases of his career, particularly cubism (1906-1915) brought Picassofame on the international level and made him the single most important figurein 20th century art.
Corresponding author and reprints: James G. Ravin, MD, 3000 RegencyCt, Toledo, OH 43623 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Accepted for publication October 14, 2003.