Picasso, “Man with a Violin” and “Man with a Guitar”

Via the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Man with a Guitar | Man with a Violin

I don’t know whether you can call Satie’s Gymnopédies Cubist (listen to Gymnopédie No. 1); his formal association with cubists seems to have happened later in his career. Nonetheless, a description of the Gymnopédies from Wikipedia in need of citations might prove helpful to us:

These short, atmospheric pieces are written in 3/4 time, with each sharing a common theme and structure. Collectively, the Gymnopédies are regarded as the precursors to modern ambient music – gentle yet somewhat eccentric pieces which, when composed, defied the classical tradition. For instance, the first few bars of Gymnopédie No. 1 consist of an alternating progression of two major seventh chords, the first on the subdominant, G, and the second on the tonic, D. This kind of harmony was almost entirely unknown at this time.

The melodies of the pieces use deliberate, but mild, dissonances against the harmony, producing a piquant, melancholy effect that matches the performance instructions, which are to play each piece “slowly”, “dolorously” or “gravely”

The emphasis is on “structure,” I imagine. If the piece is Cubist or moving towards Cubism, it is how things are set up in the notation, in the writing of the object, that is central to the effect. It is said that with visual cubism, objects are depicted from a multitude of perspectives, as if they are showing all sides at all times, and this can be said to result in a rearrangement of sorts. I don’t much like that description of what is termed “analytic cubism,” because it makes cubism sound like a rigorous analysis of an object that is an actual science. It’s better sometimes to just compare paintings and see what’s going on for ourselves.

“Man with a Violin” seems more accessible. The painting has a pyramid structure, with a face of sorts visible at the top, center. Something like an ear is sticking out at the right of that face, but it is very small and not terribly precise. The work consists of rectangular shapes that are longer than they are wide; browns and grays dominate, but blue is prominent in places. Directly underneath the “face” seem to be shapes that remind one of a collar and a suit; towards the very bottom left there might be a foot or another part of the violin. The violin itself is broken up at the bottom of the painting, not quite central. If the right of the painting depicts a brownish, rectangular arm that is fixed in the way a violinist might hold a violin, the left of the painting has semi-circular shapes depicting motion, like as if this man is in the act of playing the violin. The right side of the “head” does have a few semi-circular lines around it, suggesting that the head is bobbing. If I were to summarize this painting, I would say that the motion implies an ascent: the browns and blue give way to much lighter color as the eye moves up; the violin is at the bottom of the painting, almost giving the structure a starting point; the rectangles become finer as the painting ascends, dropping away completely at the sides. The man with a violin may be in some kind of melancholy rapture – Picasso will use brighter colors at other times. I do wonder about his relation to the music itself; the violin at the bottom may suggest the violin is being used, hacked away at, esp. when compared to the “Man with a Guitar.”

In a “Man with a Guitar,” the rectangular shapes are wider, and brown dominates the picture, especially towards the top. The bottom and lower sides of the picture look like stones creating a solid brick structure, and that structure has an opening with a staircase of sorts leading into it. The guitar and the man are not distinguishable in the least. The closest I can make to a nose and an eye is what is towards the lower-left, underneath that fret/staircase. The body of the guitar, abstracted, seems to define this man, and if “Man with a Violin” had a clear ascent, this does not seem to have motion upwards at all, but is earthier. I do wonder about the triangle-like opening in the center: is it a place we are supposed to walk into, or where the rest of the painting is emerging from?

Picasso has many other paintings involving guitars. Two later “Men with Guitars:” 1913 | 1915 – 1913 is much more colorful; the engraving from 1915 looks in the process of being abstracted.


  1. Hey Ashok, the music is very lovely and it actually reminds me of a more contemporary piece.
    I didn’t realize these works were on display here in Philly. I miss so much of what’s going on in the downtown area. This would be worth the trip. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I love that music. I know I have heard it used in several movies before, but I didn’t know what the piece was. I couldn’t distinguish anything in “Man with a Guitar” except what looks to me like a hammer in the lower left corner. Then I read your description and looked again. I can see what you described. I always enjoy your take on things.

  3. I took a good look at Man With a Guitar.. its very hard to distinguish the man at all and I see pieces of guitar behind all that abstract but its a great piece that symbolizes what the artist is feeling while creating that abstract… the empty space at the center could be that the man with a guitar is opening himself to a different dimension while playing music. Musicians at times can become lost in their music when they are carried away… just my two cents! =)

  4. I can relate to the painting “Man with a Guitar” by Picasso. It is a piece that needs to be viewed for a long time in order to pick up all the details that are purposely hidden. You need to grab yourself a cup of coffee from your coffee machine and spend time to deconstruct this very cubist piece. It’s inviting and I love all the different perspectives and alternating depths.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *