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.
One of the most famous portrayals of the female nude in Western Art, Diego Velázquez’s Venus at her Mirror, more commonly known as the Rokeby Venus, (so-called because it hung in the 19th Century at Rokeby Park, Yorkshire before becoming part of the National Gallery in London permanent collection), is a landmark of erotic art.
As Titian and Rubens were both connected to the Spanish court, it is likely that Velázquez would have been familiar with both Titian’s Venus of Urbino, and Rubens Venus in Front of the Mirror, which are cited as possible sources for the Rokeby Venus, however Velázquez was working in the severely censorious and repressive atmosphere of the Spanish Golden Age, where the Spanish Inquisition monitored art for immorality. Several Spanish Cardinals had called for the destruction of any artwork featuring nudity, but some Spanish courtiers and nobility held private collections of such work. Velázquez position as court painter to King Philip IV enabled him to become the first Spaniard to feature female nudity; it would be 150 years before another Spanish artist, Goya, would again take the risk, in his incomparable La Maja Desnuda.
As in Titian’s painting, Venus is shorn of her traditional mythological trappings, the only indicator that this is a mythological painting is the winged presence of her son, Cupid, who holds the mirror for her rapt self-appraisal. In a departure from previous representations of the Goddess, Venus is a brunette and is noticeably more slender than the fully figured versions of Titian and Rubens (especially Rubens). One of the most controversial features of the painting is the blurred face in the mirror in contrast to the precisely delineated derriere that is the focal point of the composition.
Outside of Spain, Velázquez wasn’t well known until the mid 19th Century, when he was discovered however he would have an important influence upon Modern Art. Manet, Picasso and Bacon are among those who have acknowledged their indebtedness.
The King of Kink, Helmut Newton (see Dreams of Desire 55 (Helmut Newton) knowingly references and updates the Rokeby Venus in one of his coolly fetishistic photographs from the late 70’s/early 80’s.