1920s were the time of Pablo Picasso’s heyday and his maximum creative activity. Picasso was staying in the villa in Fontainebleau on the south-east of Paris at that time. “Three Musicians” is one of the most famous paintings of that period. It exists in two variations. They were both created in the summer of 1921. The most interesting variant is the one with the dog. This is a nice example of the return to the synthetic cubism. Picasso summed up a long list of commedia dell’arte characters with this work. He treated his characters in a more and more abstract way and he reached his definite limit in this work.
A composition of three figures drawn in a strict synthetic cubism technique is considered a kind of a feat, which Picasso never tried to accomplish before. Two of Picasso’s greatest friends are immortalized on this painting. There are three images, three characters, three parts of a single creative organism. Guillaume Apollinaire, a poet and a critic, who died from the Spanish flu in 1918, is represented in the image of lyrical and pensive Pierrot (some art critics believe that this work was some kind of a final farewell to Apollinaire, who died shortly before this painting was created). Max Jacob, who took monastic vows in real life in 1921, is presented as a mysterious monk. Finally, Picasso painted himself as a cheerful and reckless Harlequin. They are rivals while on the stage, but here on the painting they are friends and musicians that are creating a “melody” of the painting and its artistic sound. All three friends were in the avant-garde of literature and pictorial art. “Three Musicians” can be considered as a monument to the departed close friends and to the bohemian youth at the same time. It is a farewell for something that will never come back. Pablo Picasso immortalized the friendship of three avant-garde artists, two poets and one painter, united by common searches for new ways in art.
Picasso sometimes concentrated all his energy to make one painting that would summarize all his artistic period during his long artist’s career. “Three Musicians” is one of those paintings. It is a huge canvas more than two meters in width and height. It is painted in an amazingly confusing mosaic style. It is saturated with gloomy innuendos and mystical symbolism. There is a clarinetist on the left, a guitarist in the center, and a dark figure with notes that is singing on the right side. They are dressed as typical actors. Pierrot is dressed in blue and white, as he is a character from the Italian theater. One of his limbs is long, thin, and black, while other one is absent. Harlequin is the brightest one, he is wearing orange and yellow dress made out of rhombuses. However, the most mysterious figure is a monk on the right. He is dressed in black, his face is covered with the mask with a long beard and he holds notes in his tiny claw-like hands. There is a table in front of Pierrot with different objects. There is also a dog beneath them. The light brown floor is visibly wider on the left side of the painting while other sides and walls are uneven. It is very hard to tell where one figure ends and another one begins. The shapes are intersecting and overlapping each other. They are very similar to the way memories work. Some parts are filled with darkness and bleak lights, while others are bright and daring. The painting imitates a collage technique, but it really is oil on canvas. Figures seem to be modeled separately from each other. There is a feeling that they are individually glued to the canvas. Thanks to the style chosen by the author, the boundaries of the characters do not look tough. They are heavy, but the contours of their bodies seem to diverge in space, allowing you to see the volume, texture, mood and movement. Picasso took an inspiration for clown costumes in the commedia dell’arte style for the main characters of his canvas in the Roman theater. He tried to catch every small detail, which allowed him to realistically convey the images of friends in his work. He suffered from the limitations of the chosen style, which did not allow him to fully embody all creative thoughts. That is why Picasso seeks to modernize the formed canons and add some identity to them.
The size of the painting makes this trio of musicians festive and even majestic. The composition of the painting is simple like no other cubist painting. The plot is clear and all the characters are quite distinguishable. At the same time there is no human-like shape, only a combination of colorful planes and torn figures. All the faces under the masks and all the body parts are designated by symbols, which are rough spots and geometrical figures. These images are nothing like real people, and yet they are quite recognizable. Their borderlines intervene with each other. Blue Pierrot overflows into Harlequin and his blue mask, which is transformed in its turn into the third figure of monk. Blue meets with white, red, and black. Generally every color meets every other color in all possible ways. The paints are lively and intensely saturated. The colors abruptly change from one to another spotlight flashes. A complex of visual associations and bright colorful stains develop into a festive yet menacing organic whole. This ghostly and deceptive world of paints, sounds, and forms is being transformed into extravaganza carnival spectacle in our minds. This time Pablo Picasso is interested in the festive spirit of masquerade, and not in the characters that are hiding behind theatrical clothes. “Three Musicians” can be compared to lively jazz music. Swing bouncing of negro jazz can be heard in the sharp color contrasts. It is no coincidence that jazz became so popular in France just at that time. Picasso animates his painted puppets with a skill of an ingenious puppeteer. Although these figures seem unreal, the gestures, habits and antics seem inimitable in their truthfulness. This version with a dog is considered to be more expressive and interesting than the other one. Although, it is known that they were being created at the same time. Pablo Picasso thought that a painting can not be premeditated and created according to a plan. It is being changed in the work process alongside with the flow of the mind. Even when it is finished, it still changes depending on who is observing it.
Although this famous painting uses bright colors and cheerful characters that are playing music, it still makes me feel sad for Pablo Picasso. It is obvious from the picture that he misses his dear friends and his ingenuity makes me feel the same way.
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Richardson, John. A Life of Picasso. New York: Random House Inc., 2007.
Ritter, Naomi. Art As Spectacle. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1989.
Walther, Ingo F. Picasso. Germany: Taschen, 2000.