Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

by Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907. Oil on canvas. 8' x 7' 8". Museum of Modern Art, New York.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the laws of naturalistic representation in art were beginning to crumble. Starting with the Impressionists in the 1870s, the focus of art shifted toward abstraction and nonrepresentational approaches, where attention would be given to line, color, texture, and other avant-garde modes of meaning-making. This was also tied to an increasing exposure to non-Western cultures through colonialism, resulting in a fascination with what was coined as “primitive art.”

Though experiments with style, optics, depth, and color application were being explored by other Parisian artists like Paul Cézanne (whose use of perspective and geometrics in The Large Bathers [1906] would greatly influence Cubists and Fauvists alike), there was perhaps no greater thrust into the Modernist “-isms” of art than Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). This piece not only exemplifies the highly influential Cubist technique but also illustrates a revolutionary defiance of the traditions solidified in the Renaissance, as well as a liberating (albeit controversial) embrace of creative form outside of the Western canon.

More specifically, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, depicting five prostitutes in a Barcelona brothel, took nine months to complete between hundreds of sketches and has been argued to be a response to Henri Matisse’s Le Bonheur de Vivre (1906).

Henri Matisse. Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life), 1905-1906. Oil on canvas. 5’ 8.5” x 7’ 9.75”. The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania.

In contrast to the bright, expressive pigments and curvaceous brushstrokes of Matisse’s characteristic Fauvist work, Picasso’s use of harsh, angular linework and clashing colors is an aesthetic retort – a retort that is not wholly critical. Indeed, Picasso alludes to Matisse’s influence in the central figure of his work, who bears the same posture as the far-right figure in Matisse’s painting. Instead of the celebratory, sensual atmosphere in Matisse, however, Picasso depicts a claustrophobic and erotic environment that was considered “immoral” upon its unveiling in 1916. The violence and sharpness of the painting are in part a result of Picasso’s reconceptualization of space, reimagined two-dimensionally to not only recognize the canvas’ natural, artistic “flatness” but also to capture multiple perspectives simultaneously.

Unlike the Renaissance’s ideal linear perspective, Picasso is able to portray more than one scene or time-space, refuting depth and illusionism as temporal, scenic structures for the more transient, allusive structures of line and hue saturation. In this light, one could argue that Picasso depicts both five figures, as well as different angles of the same woman, all in one picture plane.

As such, Picasso’s innovative technique (later coined as “Cubism” for its fractured, geometric forms) was also culturally liberating for the time. As argued by art critic Leo Steinberg, the women here perform a “reverse gaze,” glaring back at the viewer in a manner that appropriates the assumed patriarchal gaze. Instead of depicting female sexuality as an open, freely accessible, and passive presence for the male vision to penetrate, Picasso’s grating, multi-perspective painting provides some sense of visual agency to the object being viewed.

His use of Iberian and African influences (the former visible in the three leftmost figures and the latter evident in the “masks” of the rightmost women) also provides an anachronistic critique of Western idealism and progression. Nevertheless, one must acknowledge the misogynistic and romanticized representations inherent in this work.

Art historian Carol Duncan notes that the painting “manifests the structural foundation underlying both the femme fatale and the new primitive woman,” which is most apparent through the pornographic stances of the figures and the still life at the bottom of the painting, a traditional symbol of sexuality. The phallic melon, erected in the position of the viewer, points fiercely towards the lower-right woman, implying a male (and sexually aggressive) viewership.

Therefore, while Les Demoiselles d’Avignon represents the burgeoning and revolutionary originality of the avant-garde art world, it also relied on more conventional tropes and representations than it appears to at first sight.

Overall, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is widely recognized as one of the most important works of art of the 20th century, and its influence can be seen in a wide range of artistic movements and styles that have emerged since its creation.

Quotes

“Everything you can imagine is real.” – Pablo Picasso

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” – Pablo Picasso

“Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.” – Pablo Picasso

“Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness.” – Pablo Picasso

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