The Melancholy and the Playfulness Aspects of Modern Portrait: A Brief Analysis of Modernism

Modernism is arguably the depiction of an object, theme, or subject matter that builds upon its predecessors to become relevant with its time period. In mere contrast to Renaissance paintings and Academic paintings before them, Modernism was provocative and unexpected in nature. Essentially, Modernism breaks those barriers in order to enhance the audience’s experience and to challenge them to understand the painting from many different lenses. Although seemingly different upon first glance, Picasso’s The Old Guitarist 1903-04 and Man with a Pipe, 1915 both built upon previous styles of portraiture to evoke emotions relevant to their time. 

Notably one of Picasso’s most famous works, The Old Guitarist emerges from his blue period, one in which he captures the essence of dark human emotion. Painted a year after the suicide of his best friend, Picasso evokes feelings of pain and misery, but more important, empathy for his subject matter. Regarding light source, he utilizes white paint to highlight the gauntness of this emaciated figure, establishing a sense of melancholy. The pale skin of the figure alludes to the rather unhealthy nature of the man, provoking a feeling of worry within the viewer for the figure. Picasso utilizes white pigment to outline every crevice of the visible bone structure of the figure, indicating a sense of hollowness and emptiness. Furthermore, the exploration of various hues of blue within the painting were an outward expression of the inner thinking of Picasso himself, for this was a time when he was sinking into a dark depression. The various shades of blue in contrast with the dull brown of his guitar create a dramatic emphasis on the instrument. While everything around the guitar proves to be accentuating the misery of the man, the instrument being the only non-blue element within the painting alludes to the idea that the guitar is possibly the only hope the man has left. Moreover, situated within the center of the painting and being the only non-blue element, the guitar arguably overpowers the miserable figure within the scene and redirects the human gaze to a possible commentary on the last source of hope for this man. 

Picasso further utilizes a very dramatic approach to positioning of the figure to further evokes the sense of melancholy from his audience. The severely bent neck and head of the old man is rather difficult to imagine, for it must be incredibly painful. The figure’s head is hanging straight down, avoiding any sense of eye contact with the viewer. Moreover, the positioning of the figure through his seated and bent manner diminish his size—which accentuates his misery for he appears to evoke a sense of “hiding from the world."

It is important to note that this was in stark contrast to his previous paintings, for his blue period placed an apparent focus on society's outcasts and poor—something he had not done before. Through capturing the emotional and physical aspects of the outcasts, Picasso brought to light a realistic aspect of society, one that many wealthy art collectors had sought to avoid. In fact, many paintings from this period were not popular within even the public, for they evoked feelings of intense sorrow and depression that barely any wealthy art connoisseur had the desire to display these within their homes. Nonetheless, Picasso continued to produce a myriad of paintings through his blue period, for it was an outlet for him to pour his own emotions to, and generate awareness of everyone within society—not just what the public wanted to see. 

A little more than a decade later, Picasso completed the piece Man with a Pipe, 1915. Utilizing a jigsaw like composition in conjunction with pointillism dots, Picasso was once again back to the exploration and experimentation with color. Set within a muted teal green background, there are a wide range of colors from the notes of fiery pink on the man’s hands to an emerald green patch dossled with burgundy elements. While at the same time the painting is composed of a series of angular blocks, the frieze-like technique that Picasso uses ultimately creates movement within a rather concrete and solid like frame, if absent. Although there is no explicit light source in the painting, the subsequent layering breaks the tension of what would have been a solid silhouette and creates a sense of multi-dimensionality. Man with a Pipe is arguably a return to naturalism from his previous explorations in cubism, for there is this clearer and distinct depiction of the facial expression and features in the figure. 

It is important to note that taken within context, 1915 was a somber year in which the impacts of World War I were heavily felt and reverberated across the globe. In stark contrast to his previous painting The Old Guitarist, Man with a Pipe incorporates an element of playful exploration. Regarding the face, through the experiential layering of different textures and patterns, Picasso inserts the image of a pale and muted bird-like figure within the right side of the face. In particular, there is this sense of comical humor and cleverness through this little and unexpected bird that has been inserted into the painting. Moreover, Picasso incorporates a smoke pipe on the bottom right of the painting, with its upward flowing smoke curling against the image. These series of minute details in conjunction with each other add a surprising and delightful aspect to the painting. Arguably, taking into account the playful, colorful, and surprising elements,  Man with a Pipe was a distraction from the pain of war. 

Both of these paintings redefine the essence of what modern art is, and that is the continuing construction of art that is based on free experimentation and deciphering modern events. In contrast to previous arts in the Renaissance for example, Modernist portraits do not seek to recreate the same iconographical portraits such as Madonna and Child, in different variations. Rather, Modernist painting creeps one step further and forces the viewer to interpret the contextual meaning behind a painting and adhere it to their own life. Picasso’s The Old Guitarist was not the painting that the public desired to be seen, but Picasso saw the urge to not just paint daily life, but the daily life of someone that the public sought to avoid. Utilizing almost a monochromatic color scheme, Picasso further brought out the feelings of despair and misery within a man. He utilized light source and careful positioning to allude to the meaning of human existence in a time when he himself was miserable. 

Moreover, in Man with a Pipe, there is no one arguably “smooth” figure, yet through the various layering and jigsaw techniques it becomes apparent that there is a coherent figure that is sewn together. Differing from the way in which previous Academic portraits depicted a singular figure, Man with a Pipe juxtaposes rigid structure through the use of layering and insertion of unforeseen objects. While both pieces establish very different feelings—one of melancholy and another of playfulness— they relate to each other in their groundbreaking manner in comparison to those portraits before them. Furthermore, there was a sense of relevance in regard to the time period, each taking into account the condition of human life at the time and either sought to bring light to emotions, or cheer up a sense of somberness. Both pieces incorporated previously unseen methods, but both broke barriers by building upon what a portrait is by definition. The Old Guitarist depicted the never before seen, whereas Man with a Pipe explored the configuration of “building” a figure with varying pieces that would seemingly not blend well to form a unified figure. 

Modernism is difficult to mold into one coherent definition, for many different examples of “Modernist” paintings may look nothing alike. However, they all seek to express with the same purpose; to redefine what has come from before it and to jump into new territories and styles that have not been ventured into before. 


1. What do you see in Man with a Pipe? What feelings does it evoke in you?

2. Based on your previous knowledge of Picasso’s life, how does The Old Guitarist serve as an extension of Picasso himself? How does this painting make you feel?

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