What I should like to bring home to you is the incredible heroism
of a man such as Picasso whose moral isolation at that period
was something frightful, for none of his painter friends had followed him.
Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884 – 1979)
In 1907 a work that revolutionised artistic conventions, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, was conceived by the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). It has only been since his estate was left to the state of France in 1987 that it has been possible to trace the progressive thoughts and ideas that evolved to become this monumental landmark painting. After examining the origins of Picasso, this essay will endeavour to reveal the major influences, features and reactions to a work of art that has become the cornerstone of modern art.
Picasso was one of the first artists to challenge artistic convention and move into the realm of abstraction. This artist, whose contributions into new ways of representing the world made him one of the most important in art history, prolifically explored almost every artistic medium in his long life. By the time he had entered the Barcelona Academy of Fine Arts at age fourteen, he had already mastered the 19th century Realist technique, thanks to early tuition from his father who was a drawing teacher. Through a deep curiosity and capacity for assimilation, his determined spirit shook off all family and social restraints and, after settling inParis in 1904, began an enduring experiment with innovation.
Picasso was in constant dialogue with all the art he had ever seen; the European tradition, Spanish history, other civilizations, as well as his contemporaries. In her article on Picasso’s influences, Miriam Cosic informs that Picasso’s Spanish roots were with Velaquez, El Greco and Goya, whom he would have studied as a student. The masters of his immediate past were Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin, as well as the Paris-centred modernism of contemporaries such as Matisse and Braque. Anne Baldassari, the director of the Musee Picasso inParis, says that maybe the real idea for Picasso was to grab the essential, ‘art could never be decorative or symbolic for him.’(Cosic, 2008, p.4). He cross-examined works intensely, searching for the key idea or the ‘revolutionary aspect that bestows power and longevity’(ibid. p.5). Cosic also reveals that Picasso greatly admired Cezanne, whose method taught him that ‘painting has intrinsic value, independent of the realistic representation of the objects portrayed and inherent in the spatial construction and brushwork. Archaic Iberian sculpture and masks from the Ivory Coastwere also to hold a fascination for him and it was the examination of this art that would influence further breakthroughs in 1906.
There was widespread interest at the time in ‘primitive art’ which was thought to articulate a primal force of human expression. Picasso came into contact with this art for the first time when he was shown a small wooden statue in the studio of Henri Matisse (1869-1954). The art historian Lorraine Levy informs that it was said that Picasso was overwhelmed by it and held it in his hands all night (Levy, 1990, p.48). With a simple language of two holes for eyes, a triangle for the mouth, the geometry of such statues transfigured reality. Picasso realised that one should not ‘seek to paint what one saw, but what one felt, even if it meant deforming the subject in order to arrive at its essence’ (ibid. p.48).
However, it was in 1905 that modern art’s truly new idiom began. Developing backwards, Picasso made a well-considered and multi-layered engagement with tradition. He cut back his deployment of colour, reinforced his forms by simplifying them to a concentrated essential. 1905 was also the year that the Fauves provoked controversy with their revolutionary use of autonomous colour at the autumn Salon in Paris. That Salon also had an Ingres retrospective and a small showing of Cezanne’s paintings. From Cezanne, Picasso took his laws of rendering form and colour, whereas from Ingres he took the academic draughtsman’s perfection of form. By the summer of 1906, after a trip to Gosol in the Spanish Pyrenees, a rudimentary simplicity appeared in Picasso’s work. He had begun depicting human form in terms of its plastic volume, simplifying it to a few blocks and therefore something much less naturalistic. Picasso biographer, Ingo Walther, declares that the two portraits in 1906 were precursors to this new idiom; Self Portrait with Palette and Portrait of Gertrude Stein. The principles upon which Picasso was working were seen as beginning in these two works. He ignored perspective and the logic of natural appearance in Gertrude Steins’ portrait, giving her a head that is an irregular block with asymmetrical eyes and nose. In his self portrait, a professional technique is ignored altogether with colour being rawly applied, making no illusions but merely establishing a form (Walther, 1992, p.14).
In the summer of 1907, these experiments culminated in the major work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, recognised as a key work in modern art. For decades little was known how this work came to be painted- therefore vague opinions were formed to fill the gaps of knowledge. The painting was begun in the autumn of 1906 upon Picasso’s return fromSpain. After doing sketches all winter, the first composition was ready in March 1907, which shows seven people in a brothel. Picasso then altered the form and composition considerably by cutting the number of figures to five, and it was this version which he transferred to canvas. He did not stop sketching further ideas but by July 1907 had painted the final work after a staggering 809 preliminary sketches. Walther contests that the sheer rigorousness of Picasso’s application shows that this work was executed in a rational and consistent manner (Walther, 1992, p.155).
Each part of the picture has a fundamental importance, beginning with the size of the canvas, which looks like a square, but is not. It is a difference that creates an impression of irresolution. ‘Everything in this picture teaches us of the inadequacy and randomness of customary concepts in visual representation’ (Walther, 1992, p.153). The colour scheme is both monochromatic and contrastive with the figures coloured from whitish yellow to brown, contrasting with the blue that divides the right group from the left. The blue tonal differences weaken the shock of the transition, and are modified again by being placed casually with the classical golden section. The illuminating effect of light is abandoned with light and dark areas merely used to point out the drama of the figures. ‘Empty space disappears- this is the greatest organisational innovation- and a spiky design jerks across the surface and shatters spatial continuity (Haftmann, 1965, p.70)
An irregular tripartite scheme is given with the triangular table that points upwards as the centre axis. The axis is also occupied by the middle figure whose arms restate the axis by inverting the triangle. This is a classical symmetrical composition of an ideal yet austere kind. In contrast, classical perspective has been obliterated with the only spatial depth in the work being held by the overlapping of figures. Picasso has also painted contradicting viewpoints, with the lower half of the painting looking up to the subjects, while the upper section is indefinite. The bodies are seen at once from the front and the side, lines and blocks of colour being used to make de-formations in parts of the figures. The painting is ‘a meticulously considered, scrupulously calculated visual experience without equal’ (Walther, 1992, p. 160).
The picture that he had painted seemed to all of them something crazy
or monstrous. Braque…declared that it seemed to him that it was as if
someone had drunk paraffin in order to spit out flames, and Derain told
me to my face that one day Picasso would be found hanging
behind this big picture of his, so desperate did the enterprise seem.
For weeks Picasso had not allowed anyone to look at what he was working on, and when he finally showed his contemporaries the work ‘he was completely and unanimously disowned’ (Levy 1990, p.52). The collector,Leo Stein, asked facetiously if Picasso was trying to paint the fourth dimension, whereas Matisse was furious and mystified. Only Kahnweiler, who was later to become Picasso’s art dealer, understood the genius that was Demoiselles d’Avignon. Picasso turned the painting to face the wall and did not show it again for another twenty years. However, the effect on his contemporaries was profound and the painting is seen to be the beginning of Analytical Cubism.
Contemporary analysis of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and of its preliminary studies, show that the painting was truly radical. Walther asserts that Picasso had reconceived European art tradition in its entirety and used its elements to create a new visual language. He had not intended to break with tradition but he did want to disrupt, perhaps destroy convention. ‘This painting, more than any other work of European Modernism, is a wholly achieved analysis of the art of painting and of the nature of beauty in art’ (Walther, 1992, p.163).
It is recognised that Les Demoiselles d’Avignon not only broke with tradition but destroyed the whole concept of beauty in Western art. Cubism and modernist doctrines were derived from it. Hidden from view for such a substantial amount of time, the effects of the painting continued to reverberate through the minds of the artists who reacted so violently to it. The painting continued to influence its effect exponentially through their work and, even today, retains its ability to disturb and shock.
Cosic, M., Cezanne’s Grandson, May 24-25, 2008, Weekend Australian, News Limited, Sydney
Haftmann, W., Painting In The Twentieth Century, 1965,Lund Humphries,Munich
Ed. Kleiner & Mamiya, Art Through The Ages, 2005, ThompsonWadsworth,Los Angeles
Levy, L., Picasso, 1990,Konecky&Konecky,New York
Ed. Richet, M. The Musee Picasso, Paris II, 1988, Thames andHudson,London
Walther, I.F., 1992, Picasso I, Benedikt Tasken Verlag ,Cologne