The first works by Picasso I considered were from his Cubist paintings, but the only response I could muster was one of intrigue accompanied by very few words. The first works which elicited some opinion of what I was seeing were paintings from his Blue Period, which was much more straightforward and obvious. It is this obviousness which I found myself thinking of.
I was intrigued by how the body language of the figures were exaggerated, making the gestures very explicit. They reminded me of religious iconography from the Italian Renaissance. By presenting humans emoting in the same way as how the divine were emoting, these pieces elevate our humanity; only instead of their being glorious and holy, they’re sad and human; bringing a viewer, possibly, to associate the grand gestures of a church mural (along with its extraordinary significance to our very existence) with very common, lowly human life.
Indeed, it goes beyond abstract symbolism. Picasso carefully chose the body language he would employ in each piece – body language which creates tension with the context in which it is employed.
The Old Guitarist is not only an image of an old man with his guitar. It is a dual image of financial poverty and emotional nourishment. Two women sitting at a bar (or Prostitutes at a bar), with the figures’ backs turned toward us, is an expression of not only a desire but a demand for privacy. This seems to contradict their extraordinary openness with strangers as a way to make a living, and more importantly, by giving us a glimpse of them while not acting as prostitutes, Picasso invites us to wonder about them as human beings. By not showing us their faces, we might wonder what they look like, and by presenting them together as a pair, we might wonder what they’re talking about, if anything.
This tension engages a viewer emotionally and intellectually, while associations with religious iconography engages us, at least on a subconscious level, spiritually. There is also, of course, all these pieces being cast in blue. Indeed, the color scheme of any of these pieces can make a fair claim to being the main feature, because (a) by overwhelming us with its color, the monochromatic blue can color one’s perspective of the scene, and (b) it’s a series of scenes – a world of blue — which Picasso was observing and giving back to his contemporaries. You might say he added something to what was not intrinsically apart of what he was observing. On the other hand, you might say what he was observing was the social atmosphere of a given time and place as seen through the prism of his own life and the emotional import of a piece was indeed intrinsic to his interpretation of those times.
Dance of the Veils (1907) was painted during Picasso’s African Period, which is just beyond his Blue Period, but I include it here because it’s an example of how the use of exaggerate body language can be seen throughout his works.