MoMA Audio: Collection, 2008
Curator, Anne Umland: We are looking at Pablo Picasso's Three Musicians, a monumental work executed during the summer of 1921 in Fontainebleau, which is a chateau town just outside of Paris where Picasso had rented a villa for the summer and was using a garage as his studio.
And it is interesting to think about Picasso's deep consciousness of the fact that he is painting in a location, which was renowned for its tapestries and monumental paintings in the grand French style. And to think of this painting, in fact, as an assertion of Picasso's confidence in Cubism as a style that could rival the greatest French art of the past.
The more you look at this picture, the more you begin to realize that each of these figures and the setting they inhabit is decidedly strange. On the left, a masked Pierrot who's playing a clarinet. The Pierrot figure has been related to the poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, who was a great friend of Picasso's in the years prior to World War II, and who by the time this work was dead. At the right, you see a singing monk who holds a sheet of musical notes in his very small sort of claw-like hands or paws. The monk has been connected to another old friend of Picasso, the poet Max Jacob, who earlier this year in 1921, had in fact, entered a Benedictine monastery. And then at center, strumming a guitar is the brightly colored figure of a harlequin who's often in Picasso's work—a stand-in or an alter ego for the artist himself.
I think one of the most humorous details in this large work is the dog. If you look very carefully at the lower left corner of the painting, you'll see his two forelegs and his head peeking out. And then follow along under the table and you'll find his curving tail pointing up rather suggestively between the harlequin's legs.
The three musicians and dog conjure a bygone period of bohemian life, enjoyed here by Picasso in the guise of a Harlequin flanked by two figures who may represent poet-friends of the artist: Guillaume Apollinaire, who had recently died, and Max Jacob. The patterned flatness of the work is derived from cut-and-pasted paper, and stands in stark contrast to the sculptural monumentality of Picasso’s Three Women at the Spring, also painted in the summer of 1921.
The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 101
At the left of a bare and boxlike space, a masked Pierrot plays the clarinet. At the right, a singing monk holds sheet music. And in the center, strumming a guitar, is a Harlequin, in Picasso's art a recurring stand-in for the artist himself.
Pierrot and Harlequin are stock characters in the old Italian comic theater known as commedia dell'arte, a familiar theme in Picasso's work. The painting, then, has a whimsical side, epitomized by the near-invisible dog: its head is about halfway up the canvas on the left, one of several subtle browns, and we can also make out front paws, a hind leg, and a jaunty tail popping up between Harlequin's legs. Overall, though, the work's somber background and large size make the musicians a solemn, even majestic trio.
The intricate, jigsaw-puzzle-like composition sums up the Synthetic Cubist style, the flat planes of unshaded color recalling the cutout and pasted paper forms with which the style began. These overlapping shapes are at their most complex at the center of the picture, which is also where the lightest hues are concentrated, so that an aura of darkness surrounds a brighter center. Along with the frontal poses of the figures, this creates a feeling of gravity and monumentality, and gives Three Musicians a mysterious, otherworldly air.