Picasso’s Three Musicians of 1921 is an exercise in flat shapes and two-dimensionality.Three Musicians demonstrates principles and observable characteristics of Synthetic Cubism.
In contrast to Analytic Cubism, developed between 1908 and 1912 by Picasso and Georges Braque, Synthetic Cubism is arrived at through a construction process rather than an intellectual breaking down of forms found in the real world such as cylinders, spheres, and cones. Synthetic Cubism is more decorative and experimental in nature than Analytic Cubism.
In this picture the flat planes and absence of the shading technique generally employed to intimate depth and realistic space anticipate the artist’s later foray into collage: the pinnacle or most extreme permutation of Synthetic Cubism.
With respect to the subject mater, Picasso’s Three Musicians recalls a somewhat idealized bygone era of bohemian life. Here, Picasso in the guise of the central figure of the Harlequin, is flanked by the recently deceased Guilliame Apollinaire and longtime friend Max Jacob.
Furthermore, the Harlequin, it is important to note, is a recurring stand-in for the artist himself. A stock character of the traveling Italian comedic troupe known as the Commedia dell’Arte, the Harlequin absorbed lower-class connotations and was very much emblematic of the outsider status of the artist-performer.
The role of outsider, of course, had a strong appeal to Picasso and explains his recurring self-identification with the figure. By aligning his identity with that of the Commedia dell’Arte figure, Picasso drew emphatic attention to his isolated existence as an artist.
Picasso’s substitution of the Harlequin for himself is a technique he first used between 1901 and 1905 during his Rose period. As a result Three Musicians is a painting that points to the past.
The reintegration of the Harlequin into Picasso’s painting is perhaps indicative of the artist reconsidering his artistic and social identity. Still the revival of the Harlequin could also have more straightforward, formal implications. The figure’s signature costume of brightly colored, intensely patterned fabric could simply be an excuse for Picasso to further experiment with surface design and flat geometry.