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 Nui, Papua 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.
In the September 1937 issue the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar made history by featuring the model, Surrealist muse and Man Ray’s lover Adrienne (also known as Ady) Fidelin within its page. Ady Fidelin was the first black model to appear between the covers of a major fashion publication.
in 1936 Ady, a young dancer in her mid twenties from Guadalupe met the 46-year-old Surrealist photographer par excellence Man Ray and they quickly become lovers. He introduced her to his circle and Ady features in artistic studies by both Man Ray and Lee Miller and intimate holiday snaps with Paul Eluard and the glorious Nusch Eluard (pictured above and the subject of Dreams of Desire 14 (Nusch by Dora Maar) and Dreams of Desire 15 (Nusch by Man Ray),) Pablo Picasso, Dora Maar and Leonora Carrington. With the outbreak of WWII Man Ray returned to the States while Ady remained in Paris to care for her family. Unfortunately the ground-breaking and beautiful Ady disappears from view after this point.
Arguably the muse of the Surrealists, Nusch Eluard (Marie Benz) was the subject of works by Man Ray, Lee Miller, Dora Maar (see above and below) and Pablo Picasso. The poet Paul Eluard spotted her doing cartwheels down the street (she was an acrobat at the Grand Guignol theatre at the time) and was enchanted. They later married in 1934 and is the subject of his collection Facile illustrated with nude photographs of Nusch by Man Ray.
Nusch is the subject of several excellent photographs by Dora Maar, Picasso’s infamous weeping woman. It is rumoured that Nusch was also romantically involved with Picasso and that the relationship was sanctioned by Paul Eluard ; Eluard was no stranger to open relationships having previously been involved in a menage-a-trois with his first wife Gala Eluard (later Gala Dali) and Max Ernst (see A Week of Max Ernst: Wednesday).
During WWII Nusch worked for the French Resistance during the occupation. She died of a stroke at the age of 40; a tragically early death that left the Surrealists and other artists who knew her bereft.
One of the most important of the abstract Surrealist artists, Wolfgang Paalen invented the automatism technique of fumage, where impressions are made on paper or canvas by the smoke of a candle or a kerosene lamp.
Paalen was born of a wealthy Austrian Jewish family in 1905. He joined the Surrealists in 1935 . In 1936 he invented the fumage technique, the same year he discovered that his wife Alice Rahon was having an affair with Pablo Picasso, which resulted in the first of many depressive episodes. Like many of the Surrealists Paalen left Europe for Mexico during WWII, where he was to be at the centre of avant-garde activities with his art magazine DYN, which contained a critique of Surrealism that the even the autocratic Pope of Surrealism Andre Breton, not a man to take criticism lightly, took on board. Paalen would later reconcile with Breton and re-join the Surrealists on his return to Europe in 1951.
An archaeological expert on Pre-Columbian art and artefacts, particularly the Olmec civilisation on which he wrote a number of essays that radically challenged the prevailing orthodoxy, Paalen returned to Mexico in 1954. However his last years were dogged by debt, depression and his implication in the illegal sale of artefacts to the American market. In 1959 Paalen, like a number of Surrealists and two of his brothers, committed suicide.