Picasso's modernity through 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon'
Artist's take on the female nude and why it is important
Thinking back to the dear days of high school (sixth form) art history and the number of times my friend and I would make fun of Picasso and the modernists fills me with joy. That was the most fun we have had in a class during our 4 years at that school. Perhaps, our, at times, dismissive attitude towards serious subjects in art which were expressed in a different stylistic manner is reflective of a wider audience's reaction to such representations now. Even back in the 20th century Paris, Picasso did not reveal the painting above, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, multiple years later after its completion, even though he was one of the pioneers of the avant-garde and was much appreciated for the work he was doing for the art world.
So, what is it about Picasso that made him so cool back in his day and so 'uncool' to many viewers who are not familiar with the conceptual ideas behind modern art now? An easy answer would be his accelerating disintegration of traditional style towards a more primitive, unrealistic, and generally unconventional approach to his work. Even though he started as a fairly conventional painter and many of his early works do not cause such an outrage as many of the later ones do, it is important to note that Picasso's name is synonymous with the term 'modern artist' precisely for his dramatic transformation of style and the changes he was able to instill into society's approach to art.
Picasso was born in 1881 in Malaga, Spain. His father was also an artist, which is what lead Picasso to start painting early on in his life. He proved to be exceptionally good, and at the age of 16, he was already producing naturalistic works, delving into Symbolism. However, due to his outstanding achievement in the realm of realism, the influence of many artists from the early 19th century has started shaping a new vision for Picasso and his modernist style. He started shifting away from realism gradually simplifying the style in which he painted. From his Blue and Rose periods where he started to simplify figures, at times elongating them and focusing on the oeuvre of the works rather than on the precision of the representation of the subject, to the much more unconventional stylistic approaches in Cubism, Surrealism, and experiments with other mediums.
I'd like to focus on one painting in particular, which is quite a highlight of Picasso's 'controversies' (and it did not fail to cause a stir in my Art History class too). Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) (the cover photo for this story), as mentioned above, spent multiple years hidden in the artist's studio after its completion - Picasso himself realised, that the art world is not ready for such a radical change. We, as a 21st century audience, are used to the weird, deformed, abstracted stylistic choices that some artists make, but, it is only because Picasso was able to pave the way out for them. So, what was so scandalous about this particular painting? Well, firstly, the subject - five women in a brothel. Secondly, the fact that this painting does not show them conventionally beautiful. One other painting, completed not that long before Picasso's birth, by Manet titled Olympia (shown below) which is also showcasing a Parisian prostitute in a less flattering manner than the public would have liked, caused absolute outrage from critics of the time - one can just imagine what kind of reaction Demoiselles would have caused... (and it did years later).
The women are distorted, abstracted, with angled bodies - everything in their representation contradicts the traditional perception of the purpose of the female nude in art. Usually, it would be a celebration of the female body and, at times, showcasing the idea of inner beauty through outer perfection (notion especially characteristic of the Renaissance). However, here, Picasso uses this subject to highlight the issues that his contemporary society was neglecting. For example, the distortion of women's faces to the point where it looks like some of them are wearing masks (inspiration taken from actual African masks) represents the most common STD at the time - syphilis. Many sex workers contracted it and consequently died as the use of condoms was not widespread at the time. Picasso is highlighting various degrees of severity of syphilis in these women as some only have dark marks on their faces and some have their faces completely distorted. The inclusion of such detail in works of art is not a novel concept. Back in the 18th century, it was already appearing in some artworks. See the image below as an example - Hogarth's A Harlot's Progress (Plate 3), both women have black marks on their faces which showcase that they wave contracted that disease. However, this new level of symbolism combined with the stylistic changes and the potential social commentary really highlights the importance of Picasso's approach.
Furthermore, the denial in which the society of the early 20th century was about the need for truer representations of women (some would say the argument continues even today), called for a need to exercise the power of that subject. The shock value of the lack of charm and general sadness of the picture calls for a thorough formal analysis on the art historians' part and some reflecting on the audience's part - why did Picasso choose women to represent his dramatic change in style and the social commentary? Elaborating on the familiarity of the subject and the lack of appeal is what labeled this work a breaking point for the artist and the avant-garde.
Although the work did not see the light of day for almost 10 years after its creation (exceptions are only Picasso's close circle of friends), it was still a shock to the audience and the art world. The violent break of traditional style and conventions left the audience puzzled and even though the modernists were already emerging in the art scene with new takes on traditional styles, this proto-cubist work went above and beyond all expectations. Only after about 3 years, the audience started to soften up to the idea of such style after the image of Demoiselles was re-published in a journal by a well-regarded art critic at the time - Andre Breton.
Demoiselles d'Avignon is an important highlight of art history. Its importance is not limited to one of its aspects, but the all-encompassing revolutionary nature of its representation has opened a new door to the modernists (Picasso will continue to open even more doors after that too). The simplification of style which goes against the academic rules as well as the choice of the subject brought Picasso onto a new level of avant-garde expression which would not be surpassed for many years.
Thank you for reading this story! If you enjoyed it, please share and tip if you can. Stay tuned for more art writing! If you want to discuss anything mentioned above, do reach out on Twitter - I'll be happy to talk more art!