Text by Geoffrey Smith
Share this painting:Tweet
In the late autumn of 1907 Picasso unveiled a huge new painting at his studio in Montmartre, but only for the eyes of a few fellow artists, friends and patrons. According to the critic André Salmon, who was member of this charmed circle, ‘It was the ugliness of the faces that froze with horror the half-converted.’ Most, including Braque and Derain were appalled by what they saw. The painting remained in Picasso’s studio until 1916 when it was exhibited in a commercial gallery in Paris; it was at this time that André Salmon conceived the title by which it is still known, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – referring to a brothel in the Calle Avigno in Barcelona. It then disappeared back into Picasso’s studio until it was sold to a private buyer a few years later. The painting was not exhibited again for 21 years when it was shown at the Petit Palais in Paris in 1937.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is one of the most important and influential paintings of the 20th century so it is curious that it was not until just before the outbreak of the Second World War, when it was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, that it was at last put on permanent display. Its importance lies in its position as a watershed in the development of Picasso’s art, and in the birth of Cubism. Even now after 100 years, the violent clashing forms within the painting still have a visceral effect on the shocked viewer.
Five figures confront us, inhabiting a narrow space filled with jagged forms which may represent a backdrop or may, as the critic Robert Hughes suggests, denote a distortion of space itself. These angular, dysmorphic harpies are prostitutes who are displaying themselves in the parade – the moment when the visitor to a brothel makes his choice from a number of women. Picasso made a great many preparatory sketches for this composition and it is clear that initially he intended to include two men – a medical student and another figure which may have been a sailor. Their exclusion from the finished picture means that the (male) viewer now finds himself in the position which would have been occupied by the client. The hard, fixed stares of the central pair of women who glare directly out of the canvas convey the harsh reality of their situation and accentuates the tensions at play within the painting.
We know from the preparatory sketches that one of the two male figures which failed to make it into the final version was holding a skull. This link with the allegorical vanitas paintings of earlier centuries, in which the skull was an important motif reminding us of the transience of life, takes us to the core of the work. Because of this painting’s modernity we sometimes need to remind ourselves that Picasso was inhabiting the same city which had been portrayed not long before by Toulouse-Lautrec. It was the City of Light, the capital of hedonistic excess and Picasso’s studio in Montmartre was surrounded by the same brothels, bars and cafés, which Toulouse-Lautrec had delighted in patronising. The downside of this heady mix of available sex, alcohol and license was an enveloping sense of anxiety and doom caused by an epidemic of syphilis. In such an atmosphere fear stalked those who sated their sexual desires by making a choice at the parade.
The two women to the right of the composition are certainly a daunting sight – enough to make most men think again. They were repainted quite late in the gestation of the piece, after Picasso visited an exhibition of African art. He became fascinated with his discovery of the art of Africa and the faces of the two women owe their disturbing physiognomy to his new found enthusiasm for African masks. But the eclectic mix of influences to be found within the picture are many; top of the list is Paul Cézanne whose late series of compositions portraying monumental female bathers are obvious precursors. El Greco’s attenuated bodies and startling palette have also been seen as an influence as well as early Iberian and Cycladic sculpture. All these elements have been fused with Picasso’s genius to produce a disturbing, groundbreaking masterpiece.
1907 Henri Rousseau: The Snake Charmer, Paris, Musée d’Orsay