Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The story behind Picasso’s masterpiece Demoiselles D’Avignon

"...Perhaps due to the general reception amongst those who had first seen it, Picasso hid the painting from public view for nine years, it was not until 1916 that it was shown in an exhibition at the Salon d’Antin. It shows five naked female prostitutes, whose bodies & faces have been reduced to angular shapes which stare out at the viewer, two radically so..."


Arguably one of the most important paintings of the twentieth century, Picasso's Demoiselles D'Avignon is also one of those love it or hate it pieces of art. Well, we love it at Webphemera! It also has a fascinating story behind it too, and here Rynn Michaelz tells the story. African art, Gertrude Stein and prostitutes. What more can you ask? Fascinating!

Posted by RJ Evans at 21:03’avignon/

Picasso’s Masterpiece Demoiselles D’Avignon

Published on June 20, 2009 by Rynn Michaelz in Visual Arts

Why is the Demoiselles d’Avignon regarded as one of the most important paintings of the 20th century?

(Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, PAblo Picasso, 1907)

By 1907, Picasso had began to cause a stir in the art world. At the relatively young age of nineteen his work was shown in Paris, amongst the examples of Spanish art at an exhibition simply entitled “Universal Exhibition” (1900). By autumn 1906 he had painted his famous portrait of Gertrude Stein and had begun to be seen by a select few, including Stein, as an emerging modernist leader. It was in early 1907 that he began work on what would eventually be titled Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a painting regarded by many as the most important of the 20th century. Here I will discuss the reasons for the painting’s importance, starting by looking closely at Picasso’s motivation for producing the piece and the ideological significance behind it.

Like Picasso himself, Les Demoiselles made an impact amongst a number of people within art coteries before it became famous. While he was still at work on the painting talk began circulating throughout Paris of the interesting and unique nature of the piece, with many people (such as the art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler who would later become Picasso’s dealer) coming to view it before it was fully finished. It was so strikingly different from anything the artist or any of his other contemporaries had painted that quite a divided buzz began about the painting; some of the Parisian art community who observed it saw the potential of the work to change the nature of visual art. Most people however, including some of Picasso’s close friends, such as Leo Stein viewed it as a travesty.

Perhaps due to the general reception amongst those who had first seen it, Picasso hid the painting from public view for nine years, it was not until 1916 that it was shown in an exhibition at the Salon d’Antin. It shows five naked female prostitutes, whose bodies and faces have been reduced to angular shapes which stare out at the viewer, two radically so. The woman standing on the left is holding the curtain open, forcing us to watch the scene. Their shapes are sometimes so angular that they almost become abstract, especially on the right half of the painting. As a Proto-Cubist (which I will discuss later) element, the still life at the bottom of the canvas defies gravity and the entire painting refuses any sense of perspective and any realistic proportion or sense of depth. A relatively narrow palette is used; the cold, icy blues contrasting with the warm brown tones, giving the whole painting an impression of general discomfort. Two men were to have been included in the composition, a sailor seated amongst the women and a medical student on the left hand side of the painting, who held either a skull or a book. We know this from looking at Picasso’s preliminary sketches, which are plentiful, but both men were removed from the final composition. The faces of the women are similar to masks; the eyebrow, the ears and the shape of the eyes all combine to produce a mask-like quality.

At the time of Les Demoiselles creation Picasso was interested greatly in primitive statues and sculptures, which he showed in his work immediately preceding the piece, in what some critics have termed his “Negro Period”. By 1907 he had long moved his work towards simplification and “crudity” (Leighten, 2001, 79) and he introduced Iberian forms into his work during 1906. What is new for Picasso in Les Demoiselles is his introduction of a “more brutally primitivising style” (Leighten, 2001, 79) in the mask like faces of the prostitutes. The use of such forms also suggests at popular images and associations with superstition at the time, adding, in the words of Patricia Leighten, to the artist’s “considerable arsenal of anti-classical devices with which he assaulted European traditions of representation and taste”. (2001, 80)

Through these mask like faces Picasso “Africanizes” the pink (white European) bodies of the two prostitutes who are seen on the right hand side of the picture, the other three figure’s faces evoking Iberian ideas. This creates an effect of cultural confrontation; difference is explicitly present and causes uncomfortableness. Many people who first viewed the work did not like it, as can be seen in the words of Gertrude Stein (whose own opinion on the painting I will discuss later), who describes the reaction of Tscoukine, a wealthy Russian tea merchant and early buyer of Picasso:

“So Picasso commenced and little by little there came the picture Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and when there was that it was too awful. I remember, Tscoukine who had so much admired the painting of Picasso was at my house and he said almost in tears, what a loss for French art.” (Stein, 1938, 18)

Aside from the altogether differentness of Les Demoiselles, such sentiments regarding the painting might have arisen due to racist feelings (both conscious and sub-conscious) about Africa and its art at the time. French imperialism in Africa and the Pacific was at its peak, with boats and trading steamers bringing back ritual carvings and masks as curiosities. While the African carvings had a kind of quirky otherness, becoming very collectible in France, the general view of Africa was the symbol of savagery. Unlike most Europeans, however, Picasso saw this savagery as a source of vitality and renewal that he wanted to incorporate for himself and for European painting. His interpretation of African art, in the mask-like faces of the figures on the right hand side, was based on this idea of African savagery; the brush-strokes which create them have a stabbing violent quality to them.

(A ‘fang’ mask, used in ceremonies by the Ngil tribe of Gabon, West Africa)

The “Iberian faces” (Leighten, 2001, 92) of the three central figures suggest at Picasso’s origins and artistic concerns as outside of, and against, the tradition of classical French painting. The two right hand figures whose faces are transformed by African rather than Iberian masks add a significant charge to the work as do their poses, which “aggressively challenge ‘bankrupt’ Western imagery of the classical nude” (Leighten, 2001,93). The setting of the brothel also highlights the prostitutes lack of freedom, they are commodities who are bought and sold, slaves. Painting prostitutes was not something that was new to Picasso, he and many other artists throughout history used whores as life models, presumably due to their lack of scruples about being painted in the nude. As well as the mask-like faces, what was so different about Les Demoiselles was the way in which the figures are painted, in which Picasso goes against previous conventions of depicting the female body. All of the figures appear deformed - their breasts are misshapen, and arms and legs look like flat planes. Eyewitnesses who saw the painting before it was finished attested to the wider art world their shock at “its willful travesty of acceptable canons of female beauty” (Lomas, 2001, 104).The women in the painting are not sensual, they are angular and are far from erotic, an anti-idealistic depiction of a far from ideal situation.

The crude sexuality of the prostitutes poses also contributed to the painting’s controversy. In previous paintings of nude figures there had been no overt intimation of sexuality, The figures were simply unclothed. But in Les Demoiselles, the figures were not pictured nude to prove how well Picasso could paint a woman’s body - they instead constituted an explicit sexual display. The two central demoiselles stand with blank, vacant faces, their arms bent behind their heads in a display of their wares, whilst the figure in the bottom right half of the canvas, the most distorted of the five, crudely squats in an improbable position, we see her body from the back but she is facing the viewer. This blatant depiction of sex workers displaying their goods was profoundly upsetting to a society used to viewing painting of exalted and idealized historical, mythological and religious subject matter.

The squatting prostitute remains the most enigmatic of the painting and its being may give us an insight into the private fears of Picasso himself. A major association with prostitutes at the time of Les Demoiselles was syphilis, which at the beginning of the twentieth century had no effective cure. It had been suggested by historians and from some of those who knew him that Picasso was a habitual user of prostitutes in his youth and may have contracted a venereal disease sometime between 1901 and 1902 (Picasso: Magic, Sex and Death) and as such the threat of syphilis, especially its nature of lying dormant in a victim in some cases, may have been a worry of the artist’s. He also visited the hospital prison of St-Lazare in 1901 presumably for inspiration, upon where he saw patients who were in the late stages of the disease, some of whose physical appearances had been horrifyingly distorted. Some people have looked away from the interpretation of Africanism in the “masked” face of the crouching figure and have suggested that Picasso’s imagination was fuelled by his fear of, and his memories of infected patients with, syphilis.

Looked at in this way, it could be said that Les Demoiselles carries a message of filth and disease through its representation of these prostitutes, the crouching figure the most so. It is as if Picasso has deliberately mutated the figures as a way to express the rising cultural awareness and effects of venereal disease, which had become a major threat to prostitutes’ and their clients lives and each prostitute in the painting depicts a stage in the effects of sexual disease and decay. The whole painting gives an impression of uneasiness, because it breaks all the traditional rules of Art and also because it shows a disturbing scene that offers no sensuous interpretation; the Demoiselles are not pretty, they look barely human and some even interpret their distorted faces as the signs of illness.

Tamar Gard in her essay To Kill the Nineteenth Century states that there is “universal agreement” that Les Demoiselles was intended to be viewed by men - virile, heterosexual men of European origin, not unlike the painter himself” (2001, 55). This leads onto the issue of how women viewed the painting. However, Gertrude Stein, whilst being an “extraordinary” and “unconventional” (Garb, 2001, 56) woman, was a woman none the less, and one of the first people to view the painting. She and her brother Leo had become friends with Picasso two years before he completed the picture, with the artist completing a portrait of Gertrude in 1906. She had only recently started to collect art when she met Picasso, and had become particularly fond of the work of Cezanne. Through her love of Cezanne’s compositional techniques Stein became more open to Picasso’s refusal of traditional modes of representation and was one of the first people to think Les Demoiselles the most important painting of he modernist era.

(Picasso’s portrait of Stein)

As a modernist writer, her investigation and exploration of language and grammar, which was rubbished by her brother, helped her to sympathise with Les Demoiselles, she could identify with the painting’s experimentation, its rejection of traditional artistic principles and realised that the work could not be understood within the sanctioned boundaries of beauty. In her eyes to talk of an artwork as “ugly” or “brutal” (words which greeted the painting initially from many people) was to praise its “innovative power” (Garb, 2001, 58), she saw a work’s “ugliness” as a direct correlation with its innovativeness. Through this opinion anything which was truly modern and forward-looking could not immediately register as “beautiful”, this would only happen when the thing in question eventually seeped over time into tradition and became familiar. To Stein, she and Picasso were intellectual birds of a feather, who were united in their struggle against the restrictive conventions of past art; two people who, to use the title of Tamar Garb’s essay, set out “to kill the nineteenth century”. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was the first major step in doing this within the medium of fine art.

There is no doubt today that Les Demoiselles style marked a dramatic break from the past in the linear history of art, and heralded a new twentieth century beginning. The way in which the painting places the onus on the relationship between it and the spectator and not the artist and the work of art was also a crucial shift, in the painting the cold, vacant stares of each prostitute invite the viewer into the scene that is taking place, making us, the work’s observers, the centre of attention. When viewing the work we are seated in front of the prostitutes and we have “become their clients” (Golding, 2001, 24) in the brothel. The work becomes less of a statement pertaining to Picasso as a challenge for the viewer to respond and by doing so to give the work meaning. This re-direction of artistic meaning was important in the whole of modernism and I will now discuss Les Demoiselles importance and relevance in influencing successive art movements, most crucially cubism.

It was in Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler’s 1920 book Der Weg zum Kubimus (the rise of cubism) that the two right-hand side Africanized prostitutes, especially the one squatting, are first called the “beginning of cubism” (Green, 2001, 134). The geometric elements are an indication of what was to come with the movement, but it is only in Spring 1908 that Cubism would really be born, as a “natural evolution of Primitivism” (Laurent, 2005), which as I have discussed was clearly present in Les Demoiselles. The containing of bold, brash diagonal lines and angular planes within the painting add a sense of violence to the composition, which add to the unsettling feeling that most spectators have when viewing the work and which were a major part of cubism. The prostitutes are shaded in a way that gives them a three dimensional quality but they are by no means ‘real’ either. In cubist artworks, objects are broken up, analysed, and re-assembled in an abstracted form; instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to present the piece in a greater context. In the figure of the squatting prostitute, her back and buttocks are facing the viewer, but we can still see her face/mask; her head is twisted round so that it stares out along side the two central figures in an impossible angle. Also there is no discernible foreground or background, with the surfaces intersecting at seemingly random angles, Picasso doing away with the concept of perspective and spatial depth. The background and object/figure space interpenetrate one another creating the ambiguous shallow space characteristic of cubism.

Of course, in the wake of Cubism came Surrealism, Futurism, Dadaism, Abstract art, Abstract Expressionism, and any other number of isms which have shaped the art world leading right up to the present day. The shock factor that Les Demoiselles had could also be said to be a predecessor to the contemporary art scene today, where it is undeniable that the “shockingness” of a work of art is almost a convention in itself. Les Demoiselles subject matter and unique, proto-cubist style shook up the French art community and divided peoples opinions over whether the work was any “good” or not; a common situation that arises in contemporary art. For example, one only has to think of the furore caused by each year’s Turner Prize awards, where there have been numerous examples of entries that have gained national news coverage due to their controversial nature.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is considered so important because it arguably marks the real beginning of Modern Art and the art world as we know it today. It is a confronting and unsettling piece, with Picasso breaking the rules of traditional representative art and ideas about the depiction of the female form. It was perhaps the first coming together of all of the bits and pieces which Picasso had began to use to challenge the general perception of what was considered fine art at the turn of the twentieth century. Picasso’s use of African “primitive” influences such as masks was something radically new at the time and could be seen to make comments on France’s colonial situation at the time. These masks have been seen by some critics to represent Picasso’s fear of syphilis, which means that Les Demoiselles gives us an insight into the mystery and personal life of the artist. The painting’s unconventionality paved the way for further experimentation, widening the berth for what could be considered fine art in the 20th century and from this defiance of the norms other important art movements have been created, most noticeably Cubism. The controversy which surrounded the work; its subject matter and style of depiction could also be said to be the fore-father to the “shock factor” of contemporary art. Perhaps the best way to describe the painting’s initial impact and subsequent influence is through a famous quote of Picasso’s: “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”


Bois, Yve-Alain - Painting as Trauma in Green, Christopher (ed) - Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 2001, Cambridge University Press

Garb, Tamar - “To Kill the Nineteenth Century”: Sex and Spectatorship with Gertrude and Pablo in Green, Christopher (ed) - Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 2001, Cambridge University Press

Golding, John - Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and the Exhibition of 1988 in Green, Christopher (ed) - Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 2001, Cambridge University Press

Green, Christopher (ed) - Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 2001, Cambridge University Press

Leighten, Patricia - Colonialism, l’art negre, and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, in Green, Christopher (ed) - Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 2001, Cambridge University Press

Stein, Gertrude - Picasso, 1938, Dover Publication Inc.


The Stash Dauber said...

i had a postcard of this painting on my wall for years. i'm gonna have to see if i can find it somewhere in the recesses of my closet.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic analysis. Very useful too. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Or perhaps the French hooker is donning the African mask BACKWARDS.


Did picasso ever use a foiled ba kround in one of his paintings because i have a large painting that i found and there are too many similaritys and im wanting to know if it IS a Pcasso....