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Classical 101

The Sound of Picasso at The Columbus Museum of Art

The Art Institute of Chicago
Pablo Picasso's famous painting, "The Old Guitarist," is not one of the featured works at the CMA's exhibition, but it is a great illustration of the painter's relationship and understanding of musicians as fellow artists. To Picasso, Art was Art.

In late 1903, Pablo Picasso was living and working in Barcelona and still mourning the loss of his dear friend Carlos Casagemas. For nearly four years, the artist painted in somber, subdued tones of washed-out blue and sickly yellows. He even painted posthumous portraits of his longtime friend.

One painting from this period has served as hallmark for this blue period and music-in-art ever since; The Old Guitarist. But that wasn't Picasso's only depiction of music and musicians, in fact, it was a subject to which he returned quite often.

Along with his many visceral, female muses, Pablo Picasso clearly saw music as a muse. Here's a look at Picasso's relationship with music in honor of the Columbus Museum of Art's exhibition, Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change.


Picasso's Early Musical Influences

Pablo Picasso was many things to many people - he had a large social circle that included everyone from composers such as Stravinsky and Poulenc as well as artists and authors such as Jean Cocteau. Of course, he never seems to have been without a lover, or two, as well... One thing Picasso was not, however, is stagnant. 

Credit wikiart; public domain
wikiart; public domain
"Le Picador," was Pablo Picasso's first oil painting; likely painted in 1890 when he was just nine years old.

From the time he was 10 years old, Picasso had already moved from his native region of Andalusia to La Corogne, effectively seeing and experiencing the bulk of his native Spain before he had finished primary school.

This, and the inherent Iberian-French culture that came with it, greatly affected his aesthetic from the get-go. During this time, his father encouraged an immersion in art since he was an artist and professor of art himself. 

The Cafe Scenes

As he came of age, Picasso not only developed his visual vocabulary and reached into new thresholds of imagery, but he continued to expand and renovate his professional and private circle of friends. One of the greatest influences on what Picasso saw and heard was the Els Quatre Gats cafe in Barcelona.

Credit wikiart; public domain
wikiart; public domain
Pablo Picasso's commercial advertisement for his favorite cafe in Barcelona.

Along with many illustrious poets and painters, Picasso would have rubbed shoulders with musicians and composers such as Isaac AlbénizLluís Millet and Enric Granados. 

When you listen to the works of these composers while studying the early iconography of Pablo Picasso, there's an odd sense of symbiosis. One can easily imagine friendly or even heated discussions at the cafe between artists, poets, and painters.

After all, art does not thrive in a vacuum. 

At the end of Picasso's Blue Period, in 1904, he moved to Paris and established himself almost immediately amidst another circle of artists at the cafe Le Lapin Agile. He became enamored with the bohemian Medrano circus and quickly launched into his painting period known as the Rose Period in which his paintings were cast in a dusky pink. 

Credit wikiart; public domain
wikiart; public domain
Picasso's interest in the Bohemian circus lifestyle and his new exploration of dusky hues are in full effect for his 1905 painting, "A Family of Jugglers."

For musicians, this fixation on mood and its correlation to color and hue is deeply reminiscent of Picasso's contemporary, the composer Alexander Scriabin


"Primitive" Art and Cubism 

During 1905, Picasso moved to Schoorl, Holland where he soon began studying "primitive" art - the label designated to artwork created around the world, which were new and seemed primitive to the early-20th Century, European eye. This was, of course the beginning of our globalized world and the understanding of art and culture of non-white, non-Europeans was still liminal at best. 

Credit wikiart; public domain
wikiart; public domain
Picasso's painting, "Head of A Man" could easily be his representation of the African art he studied during his time in Holland.

This sort of Classicism still exists today in music, just look at the relationship between Western theory and Jazz studies in most U.S. music conservatories. But I digress.

Picasso was not the first to become enamored with the flashes of bright colors and brash lines of African art. He followed in the footsteps of painters before him such as  Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne. In particular, Picasso steeped himself in Cézanne's philosophy of the geometric importance in art of the cube, the cone and the sphere. 

During this time, geometry fascinated composers such as Picasso's own friend Edgard Varèse.


Much like Picasso's visual Cubism, Varèse's "sound blocks" give the impression of disjointed figures and patterns that function both together and piecemeal. 

During this exploration of Cubism and the subsequent shift to Neo-Classism from 1905-1911, the artist painted many highly abstracted depictions of musical instruments and musicians. 

Credit wikiart; public domain
wikiart; public domain
Picasso's 1911 painting, "Clarinetist."

One of the most important contributions of the friendship between Edgard Varèse and Picasso was the introduction of Pablo to Varèse's friend, and one of the most noteworthy French writers in history; Jean Maurice Eugène Clément Cocteau.

Picasso and Cocteau

The first work Picasso and Cocteau created together was the ballet Parade with music by Erik Satie and dancers from Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. The work premiered May 18, 1917 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and created quite a stir. 

Four of the costumes are currently displayed at the Columbus Museum of Art along with a fantastic series of photographs and descriptions of the ballet. And a lovely dress-up station with faux-costumes.

Credit http://www.pablo-ruiz-picasso.net/photo-174.php
Picasso, Cocteau, Stravinsky, and Hohlova stand together as friends and collaborative artists. (1926)


After Parade, Pablo Picasso went on to work with composers such as Stravinsky, Pergolese, DeFalla and Milhaud; a veritable who's who of 20th Century, European composition. 

The reason Picasso's works have lasted as icons of their time and catalysts of change within the history of music and art is because Picasso sought collaboration and input from other artists, poets, and musicians. But don't take my word for it; go see the exhibition, check out his fabulous representations of instruments at the CMA (especially the guitars from 1918 and 1924) and get inspired.  

Bibliographical Selections:

If you are interested in reading more about this fascinating ballet, the first of its kind and the first collaborative work between these two icons of art and literature, I recommend:  

  • Hargrove, Nancy (1998). "The Great Parade: Cocteau, Picasso, Satie, Massine, Diaghilev—and T.S. Eliot". Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature.
  • Klüver, Billy. (1997). A Day with Picasso. The MIT Press.

Most of the images of Picasso's paintings are from his chronological gallery on wikiart.org. 

The Sound of Picasso: