Dreams of Desire 68 (Les Demoiselles d’Avignon)

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon-Picasso 1907
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon-Picasso 1907

The first truly Modernist painting (though change had been in the air for some time), the radical break constituted by Pablo Picasso 1907’s study of a Barcelona brothel, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, led to Cubism and sharply divided critics.

Never before or after did Picasso spend so long on one painting as Les Demoiselles, drawing hundreds of preparatory sketches over a period of nine months. The innovation doesn’t lie with the content; the courtesan had long been a covert subject of Western Art before being explicitly identified as a prostitute by Edouard Manet’s Olympia, to becoming somewhat of a Bohemian cliche by the time of  Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1890’s. Picasso’s claim to blazing, revolutionary originality lie in the form. First of all he throws  five hundred years of accepted practise out of the window by abolishing perspective, then instead of the traditional curves we have the harsh angular, geometric poses of the  women. Picasso signifies his reaching back in time and across continents with the Iberian mask (the figure on the far left) and the African masks (the two figures on the right) which lend a further disconcerting effect to an already confrontational, provocative painting. The bowl of fruit surrounded by the women seems ripe for Freudian interpretation, just one of many that the painting has been subjected to, including formal, feminist and esoteric.

Although at first Picasso only showed the painting to friends and fellow artists in his (quite extensive) immediate circle, it had a galvanising effect. George Braque further developed Cubism as a response to Les Demoiselles and it intensified the rivalry between Picasso and Matisse, who realised that the Spaniard had wrestled the crown of Modern Art from him with this incendiary work, never again to be relinquished. Andre Breton, who for all his flaws had a very keen eye for art (see my series The Surreal World for further information on his collection, Rapa NuiPapua New Guinea, Haiti and Mexico) recognised in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon the definitive Modernist masterpiece, a harbinger of the violent, revolutionary menace of the unconscious and he arranged for its first publication in Europe in La Révolution surréaliste.

29 thoughts on “Dreams of Desire 68 (Les Demoiselles d’Avignon)

  1. Yes, the avant-garde usually doesn’t has it easy. Trying out new things can be risky for one’s reputation. But items and streams now regarded as classic once had been flashy and new some day. Cubism, though, will always seem curious and strange to me. Unnatural and dissected.

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    1. I would agree to a large extant, Cubism would be one of my least favourite modern isms, too purely preoccupied with formal concerns, same reason why I am not fond of Cezanne. However I would make an exception for this bold and brilliant painting. Thank you for your comments.

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    1. Thank you Christine for the link, I haven’t seen the sculpture but it is excellent. Picasso’s view of women has always been a subject of controversy, splitting the ranks of feminist interpretations, though this part of a wider culture war. You have some for who Picasso is the representative of parochial chauvinism, an unstoppable womaniser who direct his male gaze and thereby adds to female objectification, a Dead White Male who needs to be purged from the canon. Other feminists including Germaine Greer and Annie Le Brun argue that this throwing the baby out with the bath water, its great art. These discussions are only gaining in relevancy. It is unarguably a provocative painting.

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      1. Oh no, they cannot purge him from the canon. That would be stupid. (As a Spaniard, technically I don’t think he is White, just sayin…) But regardless, he established an art that was all his own. My opinion, once they start deleting sections of history (which includes art movements) they are in big trouble.

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      2. Well I don’t think he should be either, it is that some people find his character problematic. I had forgotten that you classify Spaniards as non-white in America, in Europe that isn’t the case. Let settle for Dead European Male then. I think revisionism can be a dangerous thing as well, in certain cases. All about the nuance, something that is sadly lacking lately.

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      3. I am sure many artists have “problematic” characters — that is not a reason to try to delete or revise them! Scary stuff. We definitely need Picasso.

        Maybe in the US we are confused about race — if Spaniards consider themselves White Europeans, they should know better than us, haha! I guess it is all perception. (In reality I think what probably happened is the Hispanic race was created through Spain and Native Americans… so now we think of Spain as Hispanic. We could be wrong. ) Interesting ideas anyway!

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      4. Spain’s colonial history, and the pattern which was markedly different from the British colonisation of North America, certainly confuses the matter. Spain itself original inhabitants were Iberian Celts, however it was an Very point of multi-cultural Imperial Rome, then invaded by the Visigoths (Western Goths from Sweden) who ruled for about 300-400 years, then the Moors, who founded the Kingdom of Al-Andalus, which was home to most of Europe’s Jews until the Reconquista in 1492, by Ferdinand and Isabella… who united the Iberian Penisula, kicked out the Muslims and Jews, oh and financed a certain Genoese traveller called Christopher Columbus. Big year in Spain 1492. So the matter is confusing and quite fraught.

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      5. I am impressed, Cake! You know a lot of this history. I can see how it does get confusing, and I am no racial expert. However, you have given me food for
        thought (yet again!) Columbus Day is still a big deal here in the US, it is a government holiday, complete with parades and time off work for many of us. Yet aside from his accidental “discovery” of the New World, we are given very little education about the history of his expedition.

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      6. Karl Marx said that the meeting between Cortes and Montezuma was the most important point in history. With the Spanish conquest of the Aztec and later Inca empires led, for the first time, to the opening up of entire globe to commerce, which led to Colonialism, Imperialism, Slavery (slavery was unknown in Western Europe from around the 11th Century onwards, it was only with the discovery of the New World and its need for a cheap labour that led to its re-introduction, on the racist premises that black people weren’t fully people) and Capitalism. At one point New Spain, one of the seven colonies (I think it is seven) comprised of Mexico, all of Central America, the Southwestern States of the US (California, New Mexico etc) and the Phillipines. It was the success of Spain’s colonial adventures that led to Dr John Dee, the occultist and Queen Elizabeth I astrologer to suggest the founding of a ‘British Empire’, advice that she acted on. All the gold and the profits that flooded into Spain (if you ever have the chance visit the Canaries Islands, even in the smallest church, everything, and I mean everything, is gold) corrupted the Spanish state into decadence and decline after a mere fifty years of its ‘Golden Age’. Thus the sun set on the first Empire were the sun never set. A lesson for all potential Empire States, it always seems like it will last for ever but time and tide does its work.
        As for history, it is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake from, but as it always recurs, first as a tragedy then as a farce we will probably be asleep for a good long while yet. Sorry went a bit off track there.

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      7. Very interesting! We could all do to learn a bit from history — humankind does seem to keep repeating the same mistakes.

        I know a lot about Elizabeth and John Dee, but never knew about this decision to follow Spain’s lead to the empire. Of course, they were always at war with Spain, and the US had many run ins with Spain as well.

        Seems it will always be that absolute power corrupts absolutely. I have never been to the Canary Islands. (I have been to Spain, which I recall had a lot of gold and good prices on gold at the time…) But Spain definitely went downhill as a world superpower.

        Slavery is another story altogether. Whenever there is work to be done, and profits to be made a slave class is created, even in this present day, which is sad.

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      8. John Dee was the one who coined the phrase British Empire. Very interesting man, I have mentioned him on a post on magic before. Yes Spain’s heyday was brief, though crucial in the development of the modern world.

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  2. I love individual paintings by Picasso but not all of his work. That being said, I have a true appreciation for the skill and talent it takes to ‘see’ things the way he does and then reproduce that vision on canvas. It is interesting to read that he planned so extensively for this piece – fascinating! And truly an exceptional result. Marvelous post!

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    1. Thank you I would be the same with Picasso, he was very prolific and technically proficient so some are arresting and others not so much. He was in a bit of a competition with Matisse at the time so I think this focused his mind, he was competitive and he wanted to be the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of Modern Art. The confidence to display that loose handling in the background in such a painstakingly prepared painting is breathtaking. Matisse pretty much had to concede. As for Breton he tried hard to win over Picasso to Surrealism but Picasso was already famous and he had a massive ego, but he was always on friendly terms and would contribute paintings to exhibitions and drawings to magazines.

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      1. He definitely is the man you associate with modern art. Even someone who knows nothing about art, knows Picasso is that man. I feel the same way about Matisse – like some pieces but not all.

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      2. Well Matisse certainly had joie De vivre, hence why he probably couldn’t be a destroyer and innovator like Picasso…Too behold to want Duchamp called retinal art. Modernity demanded more.


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