Picasso painted The Ascetic (a practice of severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons) in 1903 after returning to Barcelona from a stay in Paris. This period marked a drastic change in his palette from bright colors to a narrow range of blue.
During his blue period, we see love and death as the two most prominent themes. Picasso pursued blue in both senses of the word, being sad and feeling marginalized, the sick, the blind, the imprisoned, and the indigent. He sought out those who he could identify with in the bleak early years of his career.
Some Picasso scholars trace the roots to the 1901 suicide of his close friend Carlos Casagemas. Both young men were in love with the same woman, Geraldine. When she rejected Casegamas, at age 20, he shot himself.
In the painting above, we see the gaunt ascetic sitting behind a table with the most meager meal, an atmosphere of solitude, hunger and everyday misery. He holds a crust of bread in one hand. A napkin as a table cloth, an empty plate, a loaf of bread and a pitcher with possibly wine. The pitcher and the bread, give the only color contrast. This disturbing image conveys dignity in the face of suffering.
Perhaps Picasso is making reference to the Christian tradition of the Eucharist by placing association with Christ’s sacrifice and suffering onto the emaciated figure, bread and wine, the body of Christ and the blood of Christ. Like many of the great Spanish painters in the 16th and 17th century, such as EG, Murillo and Velasquez, Picasso turns an everyday scene into a holy image. Notice his thick ribbed column-like neck.
We witness the ravaged form with the long slanted nose, uneven sloping shoulders, sunken, emaciated chest, sharp cheekbones and hollowed cheeks. One of his eyes is turned right and the other directed toward the viewer. If you look closely, you will notice his gaze appears unfocused, maybe unseeing, and possibly blind? We know this was one of Picasso’s themes during this time.
The fact that most of the works of the Blue Period were painted in Barcelona could account for the resemblance of many of his models to figures by El Greco. Can you see EG influence in his elongated proportions and emphasis on expression? I feel this painting shows Picasso’s affinity to EG and the way he makes use of it to express his solidarity with, and his active compassion for the poor, to whom he belonged himself in that period of his life.
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