Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
|English: The Young Ladies of Avignon|
|Type||Oil on canvas|
|Dimensions||243.9 cm × 233.7 cm (96 in × 92 in)|
|Location||Museum of Modern Art. Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest, New York City|
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon, and originally titled The Brothel of Avignon) is a large oil painting created in 1907 by the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881–1973). The work portrays five nude female prostitutes from a brothel on Carrer d'Avinyó (Avinyó Street) in Barcelona. Each figure is depicted in a disconcerting confrontational manner and none are conventionally feminine. The women appear as slightly menacing and rendered with angular and disjointed body shapes. Three figures on the left exhibit facial features in the Iberian style of Picasso's native Spain, while the two on the right are shown with African mask-like features. The racial primitivism evoked in these masks, according to Picasso, moved him to "liberate an utterly original artistic style of compelling, even savage force."
In this adaptation of Primitivism and abandonment of perspective in favor of a flat, two-dimensional picture plane, Picasso makes a radical departure from traditional European painting. This proto-Cubist work is widely considered to be seminal in the early development of both Cubism and Modern art. Les Demoiselles was revolutionary and controversial, and led to wide anger and disagreement, even amongst his closest associates and friends. Matisse considered the work something of a bad joke, yet indirectly reacted to it in his 1908 Bathers with a Turtle. Braque too initially disliked the painting, yet perhaps more than anyone else, studied the work in great detail. And effectively, his subsequent friendship and collaboration with Picasso led to the Cubist revolution. Its resemblance to Cézanne's Les Grandes Baigneuses, Paul Gauguin's statue Oviri and El Greco's Opening of the Fifth Seal has been widely discussed by later critics.
At the time of its first exhibition in 1916, the painting was deemed immoral. The work, painted in the studio of Picasso at Le Bateau-Lavoir, was seen publicly for the first time at the Salon d’Antin in July 1916; an exhibition organized by the poet André Salmon. It was at this exhibition that André Salmon, who had already mentioned the painting in 1912 under the title Le Bordel philosophique, gave the work its present title Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (in preference to the title originally chosen by Picasso, Le Bordel d’Avignon) to lessen its scandalous impact on the public. Picasso, who had always referred to it as mon bordel (my brothel), or Le Bordel d'Avignon, never liked Salmon's title, and as an edulcoration would have preferred Las chicas de Avignon instead.
- 1 Background and development
- 2 Rivalry with Matisse
- 3 Influences
- 4 Impact
- 5 Public view and title
- 6 Interpretation
- 7 Purchase
- 8 Legacy
- 9 Painting materials
- 10 Notes
- 11 References
- 12 External links
Background and development
Picasso came into his own as an important artist during the first decade of the 20th century. He arrived in Paris from Spain around the turn of the century as a young, ambitious painter out to make a name for himself. Although he eventually left most of his friends, relatives and contacts in Spain, he continued to live and paint in Spain while making regular trips back to France. For several years he alternated between living and working in Barcelona, Madrid and the Spanish countryside, and made frequent trips to Paris. By 1904, he was fully settled in Paris and had established several studios, important relationships with both friends and colleagues. Between 1901 and 1904, Picasso began to achieve recognition for his Blue period paintings. In the main these were studies of poverty and desperation based on scenes he had seen in Spain and Paris at the turn of the century. Subjects included gaunt families, blind figures, and personal encounters; other paintings depicted his friends, but most reflected and expressed a sense of blueness and despair.
He followed his success by developing into his Rose period from 1904 to 1907, which introduced a strong element of sensuality and sexuality into his work. The Rose period depictions of acrobats, circus performers and theatrical characters are rendered in warmer, brighter colors and are far more hopeful and joyful in their depictions of the bohemian life in the Parisian avant-garde and its environs. The Rose period produced two important large masterpieces: Family of Saltimbanques (1905), which recalls the work of Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) and Édouard Manet (1832–1883); and Boy Leading a Horse (1906), which recalls Cézanne's Bather (1885–87) and El Greco's Saint Martin and the Beggar (1597–1599). While he already had a considerable following by the middle of 1906, Picasso enjoyed further success with his paintings of massive over-sized nude women, monumental sculptural figures that recalled the work of Paul Gauguin and showed his interest in primitive (African, Micronesian, Native American) art. He began exhibiting his work in the galleries of Berthe Weill (1865–1951) and Ambroise Vollard (1866–1939), quickly gaining a growing reputation and a following amongst the artistic communities of Montmartre and Montparnasse.
Picasso became a favorite of the American art collectors Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo around 1905. The Steins' older brother Michael and his wife Sarah also became collectors of his work. Picasso painted portraits of both Gertrude Stein and her nephew Allan Stein.
Gertrude Stein began acquiring Picasso's drawings and paintings and exhibiting them in her informal Salon at her home in Paris. At one of her gatherings in 1905 he met Henri Matisse (1869–1954), who was to become in those days his chief rival, although in later years a close friend. The Steins introduced Picasso to Claribel Cone (1864–1929), and her sister Etta Cone (1870–1949), also American art collectors, who began to acquire Picasso and Matisse's paintings. Eventually Leo Stein moved to Italy, and Michael and Sarah Stein became important patrons of Matisse, while Gertrude Stein continued to collect Picasso.
Rivalry with Matisse
The Salon d'Automne of 1905 brought notoriety and attention to the works of Henri Matisse and the Les Fauves group. The latter gained their name after critic Louis Vauxcelles described their work with the phrase "Donatello chez les fauves" ("Donatello among the wild beasts"), contrasting the paintings with a Renaissance-type sculpture that shared the room with them. Henri Rousseau (1844–1910), an artist that Picasso knew and admired and who was not a Fauve, had his large jungle scene The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope also hanging near the works by Matisse and which may have had an influence on the particular sarcastic term used in the press. Vauxcelles' comment was printed on 17 October 1905 in the daily newspaper Gil Blas, and passed into popular usage.
Although the pictures were widely derided—"A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public", declared the critic Camille Mauclair (1872–1945)—they also attracted some favorable attention. The painting that was singled out for the most attacks was Matisse's Woman with a Hat; the purchase of this work by Gertrude and Leo Stein had a very positive effect on Matisse, who was suffering demoralization from the bad reception of his work.
Matisse's notoriety and preeminence as the leader of the new movement in modern painting continued to build throughout 1906 and 1907, and Matisse attracted a following of artists including Georges Braque (1880–1963), André Derain (1880–1954), Maurice de Vlaminck (1876–1958). Picasso's work had passed through his Blue period and his Rose period and while he had a considerable following his reputation was tame in comparison to his rival Matisse. To make matters worse Matisse shocked the French public again at the 1907 Société des Artistes Indépendants when he exhibited his painting Blue Nude (Souvenir de Biskra), completed in early 1907. The Blue Nude was one of the paintings that would later create an international sensation at the Armory Show of 1913 in New York City.
By the spring of 1907 when he began to paint Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, until its completion later in the year, Picasso was vying with Matisse for the preeminent position of being the perceived new leader of Modern painting. Upon its completion the shock and the impact of the painting propelled Picasso into the center of controversy and all but knocked Matisse and Fauvism off the map, virtually ending the movement by the following year. In 1907 Picasso joined the art gallery that had recently been opened in Paris by Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884–1979). Kahnweiler was a German art historian, art collector who became one of the premier French art dealers of the 20th century. He became prominent in Paris beginning in 1907 for being among the first champions of Pablo Picasso, and especially his painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Before 1910 Picasso was already being recognized as one of the important leaders of Modern art alongside Henri Matisse who had been the undisputed leader of Fauvism and who was more than ten years older than he was and his contemporaries the Fauvist André Derain and the former Fauvist and fellow Cubist, Georges Braque.
In his 1992 essay Reflections on Matisse, the art critic Hilton Kramer wrote,
- After the impact of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, however, Matisse was never again mistaken for an avant-garde incendiary. With the bizarre painting that appalled and electrified the cognoscenti, which understood the Les Demoiselles was at once a response to Matisse's Le bonheur de vivre (1905–1906) and an assault upon the tradition from which it derived, Picasso effectively appropriated the role of avant-garde wild beast—a role that, as far as public opinion was concerned, he was never to relinquish.
Kramer goes on to say,
- Whereas Matisse had drawn upon a long tradition of European painting—from Giorgione, Poussin, and Watteau to Ingres, Cézanne, and Gauguin—to create a modern version of a pastoral paradise in Le bonheur de vivre, Picasso had turned to an alien tradition of primitive art to create in Les Demoiselles a netherworld of strange gods and violent emotions. As between the mythological nymphs of Le bonheur de vivre and the grotesque effigies of Les Demoiselles, there was no question as to which was the more shocking or more intended to be shocking. Picasso had unleashed a vein of feeling that was to have immense consequences for the art and culture of the modern era while Matisse's ambition came to seem, as he said in his Notes of a Painter, more limited—limited that is, to the realm of aesthetic pleasure. There was thus opened up, in the very first decade of the century and in the work of its two greatest artists, the chasm that has continued to divide the art of the modern era down to our own time."
Painted in Paris during the summer of 1907, Picasso had created hundreds of sketches and studies in preparation for the final work. He long acknowledged the importance of Spanish art and Iberian sculpture as influences on the painting. The work is believed by critics to be influenced by African tribal masks and the art of Oceania, although Picasso denied the connection; many art historians remain skeptical about his denials. Several experts maintain that, at the very least, Picasso visited the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro (known today as Musée de l'Homme) in the spring of 1907 where he saw and was unconsciously influenced by African and Tribal art several months before completing Les Demoiselles.
In 1907, when Picasso began to work on Les Demoiselles, one of the old master painters he greatly admired was El Greco (1541–1614). At the time El Greco was largely obscure and under-appreciated. Picasso's friend Ignacio Zuloaga (1870–1945) acquired El Greco's masterpiece, the Opening of the Fifth Seal, in 1897 for 1000 pesetas. While Picasso was working on Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, he visited his friend Ignacio Zuloaga in his studio in Paris and studied El Greco's Opening of the Fifth Seal. The relation between Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and the Opening of the Fifth Seal was pinpointed in the early 1980s, when the stylistic similarities and the relationship between the motifs and visually identifying qualities of both works were analysed.
El Greco's painting, which Picasso studied repeatedly in Zuloaga's house, inspired not only the size, format, and composition of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, but it inspired its apocalyptic power. Later, speaking of the work to Dor de la Souchère in Antibes, Picasso said: "In any case, only the execution counts. From this point of view, it is correct to say that Cubism has a Spanish origin and that I invented Cubism. We must look for the Spanish influence in Cézanne. Things themselves necessitate it, the influence of El Greco, a Venetian painter, on him. But his structure is Cubist."
The relationship of the painting to other group portraits in the Western tradition, such as Diana and Callisto by Titian (1488–1576), and the same subject by Rubens (1577–1640), in the Prado, has also been discussed.
Cézanne and Cubism
Both Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) and Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) were accorded major posthumous retrospective exhibitions at the Salon d'Automne in Paris between 1903 and 1907, and both were important influences on Picasso and instrumental to his creation of Les Demoiselles. According to the English art historian, collector and author of The Cubist Epoch, Douglas Cooper, both of those artists were particularly influential to the formation of Cubism and especially important to the paintings of Picasso during 1906 and 1907. Cooper goes on to say however Les Demoiselles is often erroneously referred to as the first Cubist painting. He explains,
- The Demoiselles is generally referred to as the first Cubist picture. This is an exaggeration, for although it was a major first step towards Cubism it is not yet Cubist. The disruptive, expressionist element in it is even contrary to the spirit of Cubism, which looked at the world in a detached, realistic spirit. Nevertheless, the Demoiselles is the logical picture to take as the starting point for Cubism, because it marks the birth of a new pictorial idiom, because in it Picasso violently overturned established conventions and because all that followed grew out of it.
Although not well known to the general public prior to 1906, Cézanne's reputation was highly regarded in avant-garde circles, as evidenced by Ambroise Vollard's interest in showing and collecting his work, and by Leo Stein's interest. Picasso was familiar with much of Cézanne's work that he saw at Vollard's gallery and at the Stein's. After Cézanne died in 1906, his paintings were exhibited in Paris in a large scale museum-like retrospective in September 1907. The 1907 Cézanne retrospective at the Salon d'Automne greatly impacted the direction that the avant-garde in Paris took, lending credence to his position as one of the most influential artists of the 19th century and to the advent of Cubism. The 1907 Cézanne exhibition was enormously influential in establishing Cézanne as an important painter whose ideas were particularly resonant especially to young artists in Paris.
Both Picasso and Braque found the inspiration for their proto-Cubist works in Paul Cézanne, who said to observe and learn to see and treat nature as if it were composed of basic shapes like cubes, spheres, cylinders, and cones. Cézanne's explorations of geometric simplification and optical phenomena inspired Picasso, Braque, Metzinger, Gleizes, Delaunay, Le Fauconnier, Gris and others to experiment with ever more complex multiple views of the same subject, and, eventually to the fracturing of form. Cézanne thus sparked one of the most revolutionary areas of artistic enquiry of the 20th century, one which was to affect profoundly the development of modern art.
Gauguin and Primitivism
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the European cultural elite were discovering African, Oceanic and Native American art. Artists such as Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse and Picasso were intrigued and inspired by the stark power and simplicity of styles of those cultures. Around 1906, Picasso, Matisse, Derain and other artists in Paris had acquired an interest in primitivism, Iberian sculpture, African art and tribal masks, in part because of the compelling works of Paul Gauguin that had suddenly achieved center stage in the avant-garde circles of Paris. Gauguin's powerful posthumous retrospective exhibitions at the Salon d'Automne in Paris in 1903 and an even larger one in 1906 had a stunning and powerful influence on Picasso's paintings.
In the autumn of 1906, Picasso followed his previous successes with paintings of oversized nude women, and monumental sculptural figures that recalled the work of Paul Gauguin and showed his interest in primitive art. Pablo Picasso's paintings of massive figures from 1906 were directly influenced by Gauguin's sculpture, painting and his writing as well. The savage power evoked by Gauguin's work lead directly to Les Demoiselles in 1907.
According to Gauguin biographer David Sweetman, Pablo Picasso as early as 1902 became an aficionado of Gauguin's work when he met and befriended the expatriate Spanish sculptor and ceramist Paco Durrio (1875–1940), in Paris. Durrio had several of Gauguin's works on hand because he was a friend of Gauguin's and an unpaid agent of his work. Durrio tried to help his poverty-stricken friend in Tahiti by promoting his oeuvre in Paris. After they met Durrio introduced Picasso to Gauguin's stoneware, helped Picasso make some ceramic pieces and gave Picasso a first La Plume edition of Noa Noa: The Tahiti Journal of Paul Gauguin.
Concerning Gauguin's impact on Picasso, art historian John Richardson wrote,
- "The 1906 exhibition of Gauguin's work left Picasso more than ever in this artist's thrall. Gauguin demonstrated the most disparate types of art—not to speak of elements from metaphysics, ethnology, symbolism, the Bible, classical myths, and much else besides—could be combined into a synthesis that was of its time yet timeless. An artist could also confound conventional notions of beauty, he demonstrated, by harnessing his demons to the dark gods (not necessarily Tahitian ones) and tapping a new source of divine energy. If in later years Picasso played down his debt to Gauguin, there is no doubt that between 1905 and 1907 he felt a very close kinship with this other Paul, who prided himself on Spanish genes inherited from his Peruvian grandmother. Had not Picasso signed himself 'Paul' in Gauguin's honor."
Both David Sweetman and John Richardson point to Gauguin's Oviri (literally meaning 'savage'), a gruesome phallic representation of the Tahitian goddess of life and death intended for Gauguin's grave. First exhibited in the 1906 retrospective, it was likely a direct influence on Les Demoiselles. Sweetman writes, "Gauguin's statue Oviri,, which was prominently displayed in 1906, was to stimulate Picasso's interest in both sculpture and ceramics, while the woodcuts would reinforce his interest in print-making, though it was the element of the primitive in all of them which most conditioned the direction that Picasso's art would take. This interest would culminate in the seminal Les Demoiselles d'Avignon."
According to Richardson,
- "Picasso's interest in stoneware was further stimulated by the examples he saw at the 1906 Gauguin retrospective at the Salon d'Automne. The most disturbing of those ceramics (one that Picasso might have already seen at Vollard's) was the gruesome Oviri. Until 1987, when the Musée d'Orsay acquired this little-known work (exhibited only once since 1906) it had never been recognized as the masterpiece it is, let alone recognized for its relevance to the works leading up to the Demoiselles. Although just under 30 inches high , Oviri has an awesome presence, as befits a monument intended for Gauguin's grave. Picasso was very struck by Oviri. 50 years later he was delighted when [Douglas] Cooper and I told him that we had come upon this sculpture in a collection that also included the original plaster of his Cubist head. Has it been a revelation, like Iberian sculpture? Picasso's shrug was grudgingly affirmative. He was always loath to admit Gauguin's role in setting him on the road to primitivism."
African, Ethnographical and Iberian
During the 19th and 20th centuries, Europe's colonization of Africa led to many economic, social, political, and even artistic encounters. From these encounters, Western visual artists became increasingly interested in the unique forms of African art, particularly masks from the Niger-Congo region. In an essay by Dennis Duerden, author of African Art (1968), The Invisible Present (1972), and a former director of the BBC World Service, the mask is defined as "very often a complete head-dress and not just that part that conceals the face". This form of visual art and image appealed to Western visual artists, leading to what Duerden calls the "discovery" of African art by Western practitioners, including Picasso.
The stylistic sources for the heads of the women have been much discussed, in particular the influence of African tribal masks, art of Oceania, and pre-Roman Iberian sculptures. The rounded contours of the features of the three women to the left can be related to Iberian sculpture, but not obviously the fragmented planes of the two on the right, which indeed seem influenced by African masks. Picasso emphatically denied the influence of African masks on the painting: "African art? Never heard of it!" (L'art nègre? Connais pas!), asserting instead that the primitivism in his work during, before and after the painting of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, from spring 1906 through the spring of 1907 was primarily influenced by Iberian sculpture. Some Iberian reliefs from Osuna, then only recently excavated, were on display in the Louvre from 1904. Archaic Greek sculpture has also been claimed as an influence.
The influence of Iberian sculpture became an issue in 1939, when Alfred Barr claimed that the primitivism of the Demoiselles derived from the art of Côte d'Ivoire and the French Congo. Picasso insisted that the editor of his "catalogue raissonne", Christian Zervos, publish a disclaimer: the 'Demoiselles,' he said, owed nothing to African art, everything to the reliefs from Osuna that he had seen in the Louvre a year or so before. Nonetheless, he is known to have seen African tribal masks while working on the painting, during a visit to the Ethnographic Museum of the Trocadero with Andre Malraux in June 1907, about which he later said "When I went to the Trocadero, it was disgusting. The flea market, the smell. I was all alone. I wanted to get away, but I didn't leave. I stayed, I stayed. I understood that it was very important. Something was happening to me, right. The masks weren't like any other pieces of sculpture, not at all. They were magic things." Maurice de Vlaminck is often credited with introducing Picasso to African sculpture of Fang extraction in 1904.
Picasso biographer John Richardson recounts in A Life Of Picasso, The Cubist Rebel 1907–1916, art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler's recollection of his first visit to Picasso's studio in July 1907. Kahnweiler remembers seeing dusty stacks of canvases in Picasso's studio and African sculptures of majestic severity. Richardson comments: so much for Picasso's story that he was not yet aware of Tribal art.  A photograph of Picasso in his studio surrounded by African sculptures c.1908, is found on page 27 of that same volume.
Although Les Demoiselles had an enormous and profound influence on modern art, its impact was not immediate, and the painting stayed in Picasso's studio for many years. At first, only Picasso's intimate circle of artists, dealers, collectors and friends were aware of the work. While many were shocked and some outraged, influential people such as Georges Braque and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler were supportive. Soon after the late summer of 1907, Picasso and his long-time lover Fernande Olivier (1881–1966) had a parting of the ways. The re-painting of the two heads on the far right of Les Demoiselles fueled speculation that it was an indication of the split between Picasso and Olivier. Although they later reunited for a period, the relationship ended in 1912.
Les Demoiselles would not be exhibited until 1916, and not widely recognized as a revolutionary achievement until the early 1920s, when André Breton (1896–1966) published the work. Richardson goes on to say that Henri Matisse was fighting mad upon seeing the Demoiselles at Picasso's studio. He let it be known that he regarded the painting as an attempt to ridicule the modern movement; he was outraged to find his sensational Blue Nude, not to speak of Bonheur de vivre, overtaken by Picasso's "hideous" whores. He vowed to get even and make Picasso beg for mercy. Just as the Bonheur de vivre had fueled Picasso's competitiveness, Les Demoiselles now fueled Matisse's.
Among Picasso's closed circle of friends and colleagues there was a mixture of opinions about Les Demoiselles. Georges Braque and André Derain were both initially troubled by it although they were supportive of Picasso. According to William Rubin, two of Picasso's friends, the art critic André Salmon and the painter Ardengo Soffici (1879–1964), were enthusiastic about it while Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918) wasn't. Both the art dealer-collector Wilhelm Uhde (1874–1947), and art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler were more enthusiastic about the painting however.
According to Kahnweiler Les Demoiselles was the beginning of Cubism. He writes:
Early in 1907 Picasso began a strange large painting depicting women, fruit and drapery, which he left unfinished. It cannot be called other than unfinished, even though it represents a long period of work. Begun in the spirit of the works of 1906, it contains in one section the endeavors of 1907 and thus never constitutes a unified whole.
The nudes, with large, quiet eyes, stand rigid, like mannequins. Their stiff, round bodies are flesh-colored, black and white. That is the style of 1906.In the foreground, however, alien to the style of the rest of the painting, appear a crouching figure and a bowl of fruit. These forms are drawn angularly, not roundly modeled in chiaroscuro. The colors are luscious blue, strident yellow, next to pure black and white. This is the beginning of Cubism, the first upsurge, a desperate titanic clash with all of the problems at once. (Kahweiler, 1920)
Public view and title
From 16 to 31 July 1916 Les Demoiselles was exhibited to the public for the first time at the Salon d'Antin, an exhibition organized by André Salmon titled L'Art moderne en France. The exhibition space at 26 rue d'Antin was lent by the famous couturier and art collector Paul Poiret. The larger Salon d'Automne and Salon des Indépendants had been closed due to World War I, making this the only Cubists exhibition in France since 1914. On 23 July 1916 a review was published in Le Cri de Paris:
The Cubists are not waiting for the war to end to recommence hostilities against good sense. They are exhibiting at the Galerie Poiret naked women whose scattered parts are represented in all four corners of the canvas: here an eye, there an ear, over there a hand, a foot on top, a mouth below. M. Picasso, their leader, is possibly the least disheveled of the lot. He has painted, or rather daubed, five women who are, if the truth be told, all hacked up, and yet their limbs somehow manage to hold together. They have, moreover, piggish faces with eyes wandering negligently above their ears. An enthusiastic art-lover offered the artist 20,000 francs for this masterpiece. M. Picasso wanted more. The art-lover did not insist.
Picasso referred to his only entry at the Salon d'Antin as his Brothel painting calling it Le Bordel d'Avignon but André Salmon retitled it Les Demoiselles d'Avignon so as to lessen its scandalous impact on the public. Picasso never liked the title, however, preferring "las chicas de Avignon", but Salmon's title stuck.
The only other time the painting might have been exhibited to the public prior to a 1937 showing in New York was in 1918, in an exhibition dedicated to Picasso and Matisse at Galerie Paul Guillaume in Paris, though very little information exists about this exhibition or the presence (if at all) of Les Demoiselles.
Afterwards, the painting was rolled up and remained with Picasso until 1924 when, with urging and help from Breton and Louis Aragon (1897–1982), he sold it to designer Jacques Doucet (1853–1929), for 25,000 francs.
Picasso drew each of the figures in Les Demoiselles differently. The woman pulling the curtain on the upper right is rendered with heavy paint. Composed of sharp geometric shapes, her head is the most strictly Cubist of all five. The curtain seems to blend partially into her body. The Cubist head of the crouching figure (lower right) underwent at least two revisions from an Iberian figure to its current state. She also seems to have been drawn from two different perspectives at once, creating a confusing, twisted figure. The woman above her is rather manly, with a dark face and square chest. The whole picture is in a two-dimensional style, with an abandoned perspective.
Much of the critical debate that has taken place over the years centers on attempting to account for this multiplicity of styles within the work. The dominant understanding for over five decades, espoused most notably by Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and organizer of major career retrospectives for the artist, has been that it can be interpreted as evidence of a transitional period in Picasso's art, an effort to connect his earlier work to Cubism, the style he would help invent and develop over the next five or six years..
- Blunted by the insolence of so much recent art, we probably tend to underestimate the brutality of the Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. All his friends who saw it in his studio were at first shocked by it. And it was meant to shock…
- A brothel may not in itself be shocking. But women painted without charm or sadness, without irony or social comment, women painted like the palings of a stockade through eyes that look out as if at death – that is shocking. And equally the method of painting. Picasso himself has said that he was influenced at the time by archaic Spanish (Iberian) sculpture. He was also influenced – particularly in the two heads at the right – by African masks…here it seems that Picasso’s quotations are simple, direct, and emotional. He is not in the least concerned with formal problems. The dislocations in this picture are the result of aggression, not aesthetics; it is the nearest you can get in a painting to an outrage…
- I emphasize the violent and iconoclastic aspect of this painting because it is usually enshrined as the great formal exercise which was the starting point of Cubism. It was the starting point of Cubism, in so far as it prompted Braque to begin painting at the end of the year his own far more formal answer to Les Demoiselles d’Avignon…yet if he had been left to himself, this picture would never have led Picasso to Cubism or to any way of painting remotely resembling it…It has nothing to with that twentieth-century vision of the future which was the essence of Cubism.
- Yet it did provoke the beginning of the great period of exception in Picasso’s life. Nobody can know exactly how the change began inside Picasso. We can only note the results. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, unlike any previous painting by Picasso, offers no evidence of skill. On the contrary, it is clumsy, overworked, unfinished. It is as though his fury in painting it was so great that is destroyed his gifts…
- By painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon Picasso provoked Cubism. It was the spontaneous and, as always, primitive insurrection out of which, for good historical reasons, the revolution of Cubism developed.
In 1972, art critic Leo Steinberg in his essay The Philosophical Brothel posited a wholly different explanation for the wide range of stylistic attributes. Using the earlier sketches—which had been ignored by most critics—he argued that far from evidence of an artist undergoing a rapid stylistic metamorphosis, the variety of styles can be read as a deliberate attempt, a careful plan, to capture the gaze of the viewer. He notes that the five women all seem eerily disconnected, indeed wholly unaware of each other. Rather, they focus solely on the viewer, their divergent styles only furthering the intensity of their glare.
The earliest sketches feature two men inside the brothel; a sailor and a medical student (who was often depicted holding either a book or a skull, causing Barr and others to read the painting as a memento mori, a reminder of death). A trace of their presence at a table in the center remains: the jutting edge of a table near the bottom of the canvas. The viewer, Steinberg argues, has come to replace the sitting men, forced to confront the gaze of prostitutes head on, invoking readings far more complex than a simple allegory or the autobiographical reading that attempts to understand the work in relation to Picasso's own history with women. A world of meanings then becomes possible, suggesting the work as a meditation on the danger of sex, the "trauma of the gaze" (to use a phrase of Rosalind Krauss's invention), and the threat of violence inherent in the scene and sexual relations at large.
According to Steinberg, the reversed gaze, that is, the fact that the figures look directly at the viewer, as well as the idea of the self-possessed woman, no longer there solely for the pleasure of the male gaze, may be traced back to Manet's "Olympia" of 1863. William Rubin (1927–2006), the former Director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA wrote that "Steinberg was the first writer to come to grips with the sexual subject of the Demoiselles."
A few years after writing The Philosophical Brothel, Steinberg wrote further about the revolutionary nature of Les Demoiselles:
- Picasso was resolved to undo the continuities of form and field which Western art had so long taken for granted. The famous stylistic rupture at right turned out to be merely a consummation. Overnight, the contrived coherences of representational art - the feigned unities of time and place, the stylistic consistencies - all were declared to be fictional. The Demoiselles confessed itself a picture conceived in duration and delivered in spasms. In this one work Picasso discovered that the demands of discontinuity could be met on multiple levels: by cleaving depicted flesh; by elision of limbs and abbreviation; by slashing the web of connecting space; by abrupt changes of vantage; and by a sudden stylistic shift at the climax. Finally, the insistent staccato of the presentation was found to intensify the picture's address and symbolic charge: the beholder, instead of observing a roomfuI of lazing whores, is targeted from all sides. So far from suppressing the subject, the mode of organization heightens its flagrant eroticism.
At the end of the first volume of his (so far) three volume Picasso biography: A Life Of Picasso. The Prodigy, 1881–1906, John Richardson comments on Les Demoiselles. Richardson says:
- It is at this point, the beginning of 1907, that I propose to bring this first volume to an end. The 25 year-old Picasso is about to conjure up a quintet of Dionysiac Demoiselles on his huge new canvas. The execution of this painting would make a dramatic climax to these pages. However, it would imply that Picasso's great revolutionary work constitutes a conclusion to all that has gone before. It does not. For all that the Demoiselles is rooted in Picasso's past, not to speak of such precursors as the Iron Age Iberians, El Greco, Gauguin and Cézanne, it is essentially a beginning: the most innovative painting since Giotto. As we will see in the next volume, it established a new pictorial syntax; it enabled people to perceive things with new eyes, new minds, new awareness. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is the first unequivocally 20th-century masterpiece, a principal detonator of the modern movement, the cornerstone of 20th-century art. For Picasso it would also be a rite of passage: what he called an exorcism.' It cleared the way for cubism. It likewise banished the artist's demons. Later, these demons would return and require further exorcism. For the next decade, however, Picasso would feel as free and creative and 'as overworked' as God.
In her 1973 article "Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Vanguard Painting", Carol Duncan considers Les Demoiselles as both a product and reflection of pre-World War I social relations between men and women. She writes: "What is so remarkable about this work is the way it manifests the structural foundation underlying both the femme fatale and the new, ‘primitive’ woman. Picasso did not merely combine these into one horrible image; he dredged up from his psyche the terrifying and fascinating beast that gave birth to both of them. The Demoiselles prismatically mirrors her many opposing faces: whore and deity, decadent and savage, tempting and repelling, awesome and obscene, looming and crouching, masked and naked, threatening and powerless."
Rubin, Seckel, Cousins
The 1994 book Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by William Rubin, Helene Seckel and Judith Cousins represents an in-depth analysis of the work and its genesis. Rubin suggests that some of the figure's faces symbolize the disfigurements of syphilis, and that the painting was created following a series of brothel visits by Picasso, who was then temporarily separated from his mistress Fernande Olivier. Rubin interprets the painting as expressing the artist's atheism, his willingness to risk anarchy for freedom, his fear of disease and illness, and, most forcefully, 'his deep-seated fear and loathing of the female body, which existed side by side with his craving for and ecstatic idealization of it.'
Jacques Doucet had seen the painting at the Salon d'Antin, yet remarkably seems to have purchased Les Demoiselles without asking Picasso to unroll it in his studio so that he could see it again. André Breton later described the transaction:
I remember the day he bought the painting from Picasso, who strange as it may seem, appeared to be intimidated by Doucet and even offered no resistance when the price was set at 25,000 francs: "Well then, it's agreed, M. Picasso." Doucet then said: "You shall receive 2,000 francs per month, beginning next month, until the sum of 25,000 francs is reached.
John Richardson quotes Breton in a letter to Doucet about Les Demoiselles writing:
through it one penetrates right into the core of Picasso's laboratory and because it is the crux of the drama, the center of all the conflicts that Picasso has given rise to and that will last forever....It is a work which to my mind transcends painting; it is the theater of everything that has happened in the last 50 years.
Ultimately, it seems Doucet paid 30,000 francs rather than the agreed price. A few months after the purchase Doucet had the painting appraised at between 250,000 and 300,000 francs. Richardson speculates that Picasso, who by 1924 was on the top of the art world and didn't need to sell the painting to Doucet, did so and at that low price because Doucet promised Les Demoiselles would go to the Louvre in his will. However after Doucet died in 1929 he did not leave the painting to the Louvre in his will, and it was sold like most of Doucet's collection through private dealers.
In November 1937 the Jacques Seligman & Co. art gallery in New York City held an exhibition titled "20 Years in the Evolution of Picasso, 1903–1923" that included Les Demoiselles. The Museum of Modern Art acquired the painting for $24,000. The museum raised $18,000 toward the purchase price by selling a Degas painting and the rest came from donations from the co-owners of the gallery Germain Seligman and Cesar de Hauke.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York City mounted an important Picasso exhibition on November 15, 1939 that remained on view until January 7, 1940. The exhibition entitled: Picasso:40 Years of His Art, was organized by Alfred H. Barr (1902–1981), in collaboration with the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition contained 344 works, including the major and then newly painted Guernica and its studies, as well as Les Demoiselles.
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