Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

The search for unity in Picasso’s ‘Three Musicians’

By DAVID A. KING, PH.D., Commentary | Published September 20, 2018

Like all of us, I am shocked and dismayed by the horrific abuse scandal in the Church. It is no exaggeration to say that I am heartbroken. Many times throughout the last several weeks, I have felt empty. I am a writer, but I have had no words.

Seeking solace in this distress, I have found myself looking more and more at the visual. Turning away from the countless opinions, allegations, protests and apologies, I have sought comfort in the paintings of the 20th century, a century whose aesthetic legacy remains the search for cohesion in a world defined by fragmentation.

The American band The Grateful Dead sang “once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if you look at it right.” So I’ve been looking, and I’ve found comfort in one of the great artists of the world.

When we consider the great minds of the 20th century, those intellects that can only be defined as genius, one man from the visual arts must be considered: Pablo Picasso. No other artist of the modern era so completely mastered his medium, and few creative minds were ever able to realize as fully as Picasso did the triumph of the ideal over reality.

Whether in painting, sculpture, ceramics, illustration or collage, Picasso captured fully the essence of the age while also adhering to fundamental principles of aesthetics and universal nature that exist outside of time. Even as he uniquely defined the 20th century, he affirmed everlasting truths common to all experience.

Constant artistic changes over a long life

More than any other artist, in perhaps any medium, Picasso constantly changed, and yet while always evolving, he remained fixed in his belief that “to find is the thing.”

Picasso’s art, which he created over a long life of 91 years, came into being through a rapid succession of stylistic change. Moving from his earlier Blue Period and into the Rose Period, Picasso then stunned the art world with the painting “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon” in 1907. That masterpiece ushered in the evolution of Cubism, which went through two key phases, the Analytical and the Synthetic.

“Three Musicians,” by Pablo Picasso, painted in 1921, resides in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Synthetic Cubism is more approachable than Analytical, primarily because the style is characterized by simplicity. Yet this simplicity is deceptive, and if the viewer doesn’t take his time, he can easily overlook important details of the painting.

Such is the case with Picasso’s masterpiece of Synthetic Cubism, “Three Musicians.” Picasso actually painted two versions of “Three Musicians,” both completed in 1921. One is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The better known version, and the subject of this column, is the painting in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

To me, “Three Musicians” is one of the most striking Christian paintings Picasso ever attempted.

A spiritual presence

Picasso was, in fact, a Christian and a Catholic. He was baptized in the church, and though he did not practice his faith and often claimed not to believe, toward the end of his life he made clear that he wished to die in communion with the church. We do know that a priest was present at his small funeral.

One of Picasso’s earliest major paintings, “First Communion,” took as its subject an explicit Catholic theme. The picture features a girl, actually Picasso’s younger sister, kneeling at the altar rail for her first holy Communion, but the painting highlights the altar boy who is arranging flowers on the altar.

Further, throughout his career, Picasso was fascinated by the Crucifixion, and it was a subject he either drew or painted many times.

Some of Picasso’s greatest paintings are completely explicit. The massive “Guernica” addresses directly and brutally the horror of war. The simple “Don Quixote” so perfectly evokes the story of the windmills that I cannot read the episode without visualizing Picasso’s interpretation. Yet for most people, Picasso will always be associated with the abstract, and for these viewers, the abstract equates with confusion, disorder and chaos.

Picasso himself argued that “there is no abstract art. One must always begin with something. Then all traces of reality can be removed. There isn’t any danger then, because the idea of the object has left an indelible mark. It is what moved the artist originally, inspired his ideas, set his emotions to vibrating. In the end his ideas and emotions become imprisoned in his painting. No matter what happens, they can no longer escape from the picture.”

Such is the case with “Three Musicians.” By obscuring the real essence of the painting, Picasso actually makes more vivid the spiritual presence, which initially might seem to be absent.

All of us know how to look, but it takes practice to see. Spending time with “Three Musicians” offers both spiritual insight and comfort.

“What about the dog?”

I often use the painting as a means to teach my students how to look carefully at a film. I ask the students to tell me how many figures are in the painting. Almost without exception, they always immediately reply “three.” “Are you sure,” I ask. “What about the dog?” And they look harder, and upon seeing the head, and body, and tail of the dog under the table, they exclaim with the delight of discovery.

Other than the obscured dog, the painting does feature three discernible figures, flattened by means of Synthetic Cubism into a unified whole. Picasso was fascinated by the number three, which I believe relates to the holy Trinity, and a number of paintings Picasso finished in the early 1920s prominently feature three figures. “Three Women at the Spring,” painted the same year as “Three Musicians,” is one example; another, more famous, is “The Three Dancers” from 1925.

Who are these three musicians? Moving from left to right, they consist of a Pierrot, a Harlequin, and a monk.

The Pierrot and Harlequin are both common characters beloved in classic comedy and burlesque. The Pierrot is a buffoon, the Harlequin, a mischief-maker, and like Shakespeare’s fools, they often know more than they might let on. The monk is the most important figure in the painting, though he is less defined by color than the other characters.

The Pierrot and Harlequin each hold musical instruments. The Pierrot plays a clarinet, and in the center of the picture, the Harlequin plays the guitar, the instrument so beloved by Picasso. The monk, however, holds the music, a score split, or rather shared, by the blue middle ground that unites all three figures.

Look carefully at the monk, who dominates the more powerful right side of the frame. I especially like Picasso’s monk, the silent one. He reminds me of Thomas Merton’s description of the monastery as the “axle upon which the whole country blindly turns.”

His beard, which looks like a stringed instrument, covers but does not conceal his nose and mouth. Look carefully. See how the nose and mouth look almost exactly like a host dipped into a chalice?

And the table … is it really a café table? I liken it to an altar, complete with the missal and perhaps other implements associated with the Mass.

Am I overreaching? Perhaps. But I don’t think so. I see a painting that echoes the ideal Picasso might have subconsciously sought to reveal, whether to himself or to the viewer. To me, the painting is less about distortion or fragmentation than it is about seeking unity and wholeness. And it achieves this without words. No language is necessary. We have the image, and the image contains the Eucharist, and music, and a unification of human and animal so that all creation and meaning seem contained in the almost elementary shapes and colors of the painting.

In his great poem, “The Wasteland,” T.S. Eliot sums up his attempt to find order in chaos by writing simply “these fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Our church may seem to be broken and fragmented, but an appreciation of the Catholic imagination, and its profound insight into the central Christian mysteries, is one essential way of beginning to heal.

David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta.