I have a confession to make, and it’s a controversial one. Okay? Here we go: I’m not a big fan of Pablo Picasso. He’s a brute, and a misogynist, and I find it hard to fawn all over him from a personal perspective. That being said, I gotta hand it to him: he was a big deal in art history, and still is. Throughout his long life--he was 91 years old when he died-- it seemed like everything he touched turned to gold. He was considered a genius by many, and still is deemed as such today. Even though he was a wunderkind, he wasn’t without problems or controversy, though--and one of his biggest was the production of the painting that got him on the art-historical map in the first place.
Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Today, we are continuing our season of episodes dissecting single works of art that shook their contemporary worlds, covering another painting that causes waves, even today. In this episode, we’re looking at Picasso’s breakthrough masterpiece, his controversial Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. This is the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
Pablo Picasso is one of the biggest of the biggest in modern art history. Even if you’re an art newbie, you’re probably at least familiar with the name, and might even be able to say, “That crazy, bald Spanish guy who loved striped shirts and made paintings where people’s body parts are all mixed up. Oh yeah, I know who you are talking about.” We’ve covered a little bit of the life of Picasso before on the ArtCurious Podcast, back in episode #39 about his rivalry with Henri Matisse, but here’s a little bit of a refresher on who Picasso was, and how he got to be, the rule-breaker extraordinaire, the man who brought us Cubism.
Picasso was born in 1881, in the Spanish town of Málaga, to a father who was himself an artist-- so Picasso, of course, had a leg up in the art world. Early on, he was considered to be a child prodigy, whose art training naturally began as a child at the hands of his father. In 1895, the Picasso family moved to Barcelona largely to offer the teenage Pablo a better education and more opportunities for his budding art career. His father got a job at at the School of Fine Arts, and that connection allowed Picasso the chance to complete the entrance exam for enrollment. Normally such a process took students a month to complete, but Picasso took only 1 week to finish it, at the age of just 13. It should come as no surprise that he was quickly admitted to the school. By the age of 19, Picasso was proficiently copying the work of Spanish masters like Goya and El Greco in museums around the country, including the great Prado in Madrid. However, it wasn’t those artists of his home country who made the greatest impression on his burgeoning, unique style. The men who truly influenced him were Paul Cézanne, the great post-Impressionist, and Henri Rousseau, whose so called “primitive” painting style was like catnip to young Picasso. (Picasso, by the way, even got in on this whole “Father of Modernism” debate when he later said, quote, “My one and only master . . . Cézanne was like the father of us all.” Rule breakers themselves, Cézanne and Rousseau were headed, in their own ways, toward would become known as highlights of Cubism: the flattening of the picture plane, the abstraction of objects and individuals down to basic geometrical forms, and a fascinating, angular approach. But, like Rousseau and Cézanne before him, Picasso was finding it difficult, among the formal art settings of Barcelona, to have his work accepted and admired. And so he went to where his great heroes had lived and worked, and he traveled moved to Paris in 1900 to pursue a new path, which he made official when he permanently moved to the capital in 1904. There, he quickly set up camp, made important connections with as many creative types as possible-- writers, critics, other artists, collectors-- and got to work honing his craft and experimenting, always experimenting, always eager to push himself to the next level. And most art historians agree that he did this--really, really did this-- for the very first time with his 1907 breakthrough painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Let’s talk about the specifics of what’s going on inside Picasso's Les Demoiselles d’Avignon-- or at least let’s attempt to do so. Les Demoiselles features five female nudes, configured with three standing on the left side, and on the right side another woman stands while the fifth crouches in the lower right corner. Centered in front of the group is an incongruous still life of fruit. Everything is disjointed, lacking a clear sense of perspective, and things are obscured or just plain strange. Take, for example, the relationship between the figures and the background. The two central women interact with the background in such a way that it appears that it is overlaying their legs, like fabric--is it a backdrop pulled around and over them, like a blanket? The faces of these two women are so blank, and white, almost sculptural. And their bodies are so geometric--all pointy elbows and triangular torsos, and there’s nothing at all naturalistic about the scene. Nothing-- not in the unnatural pinkness of the women’s skin, ranging in tone from a light peach to a deep fuschia, and with the seemingly backwards-facing head of the crouching woman. How are we supposed to be seeing these women? From what direction, physically-speaking, and more importantly, just… how?
Truly, there’s a lot to unpack here, but the first step is to take the faces of the women as incredibly important to the interpretation of this painting. Looking closer at them, we can see that the three women on the left seem to have identifiable human faces, despite the oversimplification of facial features and their clear geometrization. On the right, though, the two women have drastically different faces. The standing woman has a very large sharp nose with deep black eyes, and her cheeks are defined in shades of blue, green, and brown in a distinct separation from the rest of her body. Similarly, the squatting woman sports an off-center nose, equally as long and sharp. Her features are outlined in a deep charcoal with a strong brow line and small mouth. Upon first glance, these women’s faces look like masks-- and the reason for that is, well, because they are meant to represent that they are wearing masks.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is an example of a popular trend in the early 20th century called primitivism. Primitivism is a mode of aesthetic idealization that either emulates or aspires to recreate a so-called "primitive" experience, and I’ve got primitive in air quotes here. In many cases, artists borrowed imagery or symbolism from non-western peoples perceived as quote “primitive”-- some examples are particular African tribes, or even, in Gauguin’s case, Tahitian women. This trend was brought on by the “Age of Discovery” when Eurocentric peoples were introduced to previously unknown cultures (unknown to them, that is) and were enthralled with how quote-unquote “natural” they were, how in tune with their environment and surroundings, how real these people were. in comparison to the Western World newly grasped by industrialism. To live a “primitive” lifestyle, then, was seen as inspiring, the new direction, THE thing. With the hindsight of over 100 years, we know that this is racially and culturally insensitive at best and flagrantly awful at worst, because stereotyping and abuse came with the trend. So-called “primitive” places were usurped through colonialism, oftentimes with violent consequences for people, fauna, and flora. But no one really talked about that at the time. What they talked about was how to best express this concept of natural-slash-primitive living in their homes, their lives, and their art, reflected in a perceived absence of linear perspective, simple outlines, cultural symbols, emotive distortions of figure, and repetitive ornamental patterns. In each of these small, individual ways, Les Demoiselles wasn’t shocking at all. It was cool, and hip.
What was surprising to the art world at the time was Picasso’s use of these elements in synchronicity to create an effect that was just unlike anything the world had yet seen. He begat Cubism, that iconic aesthetic style wherein single- viewpoint perspective was eschewed in favor of being able to see all the angles all at once, where simple geometric shapes took the place of all naturalism. It’s funny. The denial of naturalism here was deemed the best way to get to the primitive core of life, which was deemed most natural. Strange, right? For a good long while, this was all just too different for art critics and the general public alike. The multiple perspectives and lack of shading were confusing to the eye that was accustomed to the artistic traditions that had been celebrated for hundreds of years. It’s flat. It’s strange. It’s not recognisable as similar to anything that came before. And the disjointed bodies and distorted faces made the women seem menacing, not intriguing. These were women who weren’t being depicted as luscious beauties for the male gaze, but were for something else-- something darker. Something wild, fierce. Primitive.
And therein lies another problem. These women. They aren’t just any women. According to Picasso, the painting represents sex workers at a particular brothel in Paris, one that the artist himself visited quite often in Barcelona, located on a street called Avignon Street. The original title of the painting made this connection quite explicit, as Picasso previously called it “Le Bordel d’Avignon,” the brothel or bordello of Avignon. Picasso looked upon his groundbreaking work with an almost parental affection, referring to it as “my little brothel,” and showing it off to all who would stop by his Paris studio. But blatantly showing a painting of five sex workers from a noted brothel just…. wasn’t a thing in art. Sure, the naked woman was always, and is still, a sacred figure in art history, but they are usually these bare canvases (sometimes literally) onto which could be projected the fantasy of the pristine yet sexy goddess-- Venus herself. Remember how shocking and outraging it was when Manet painted Olympia? This had the possibility to be that, all over again. And so, an acquaintance of Picasso’s, a poet named Andre Salmon, bestowed it with the title Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which translates to “The Young Women of Avignon,” to lessen the controversy.
Not that it helped much. When the painting was first exhibited at the Salon d’Antin in 1916, almost a full TEN years after Picasso began the work of art, the name itself was the least of the criticism lobbed in his direction. The critics flatly hated the work. A review of the Salon’s exhibition was published in Le Cri de Paris, a French magazine with political leanings, stating, quote:
“The Cubists are not waiting for the war to end to recommence hostilities against good sense. They are exhibiting...naked women whose scattered parts are represented in all four corners of the canvas: here an eye, there an ear, over there a hand, a foot on top, a mouth below. M. Picasso, their leader, is possibly the least disheveled of the lot. He has painted, or rather daubed, five women who are, if the truth be told, all hacked up, and yet their limbs somehow manage to hold together. They have, moreover, piggish faces with eyes wandering negligently above their ears. An enthusiastic art-lover offered the artist 20,000 francs for this masterpiece. M. Picasso wanted more. The art-lover did not insist.”
Did Picasso’s masterpiece fare any better with those who knew him best? We’ll see-- and that’s coming up next, right after this break.
Welcome back to ArtCurious.
Picasso’s pals, even those in-the-know, who had seen Les Demoiselles in Picasso’s Paris studio for years, weren’t all sold on it. Take, for example, Picasso’s own rival. When Henri Matisse first saw the painting, he apparently thought the whole thing was a bad joke--not a monumental new step towards modernism, but a hoax, a way to razz Picasso’s own pals. Even George Braque, who would himself become closely aligned with Picasso as one of the formative proponents of Cubism, initially hated the painting. All that being said, no one could deny that something had shifted. Picasso was doing something different, and different was exciting. After a few years, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was still an assault to the senses, but one that was met with more and more understanding or perspective, or at least more familiarity and Picasso and his cohort produced more works in the Cubist style.
All this is not to say that the shock fact of the work has died down over the past hundred years. In fact, towards the end of the 20th century, the famous painting became controversial again when seen in a feminist context. Specifically, art historians have critiqued that same non-traditional depiction of women as a representation of Picasso’s misogyny, which played out viciously and obviously in the artist’s own life. As we mentioned earlier, Picasso frequented the brothel on Barcelona’s Avignon Street, so much so that he is said to have declared that he was able to really know these women intimately after weekly visits over a number of years. Later, he joked that he painted these sex workers because he thought they were ugly-- and that their ugliness was the whole point of this work of art. Such phrases are obviously demeaning, especially considering that these women were offering a service that Picasso was paying them to provide. But to call them ugly is just one aspect of it. Think, instead, of their faces. Picasso used the concept of primitivism, of the visual simplification, of literally masking these women, to hide these figures, to obscure their humanity. With that, and the geometric breaking-down of their bodies, he has relegated them to creatures, not people.
And he did this on purpose. One of the theories as to why Picasso treated women as such is in regard to an event that occurred the same year he painted Les Demoiselles. During that time, Picasso was diagnosed with a venereal disease-- both not surprising and also, truly common, considering the lack of protection available at the time and the fact that Picasso so plainly stated his predilection for sex workers. But all of this was not to diminish the fact that, for many, such sexually-transmitted diseases were huge problems with serious side effects, so Picasso had the right to be concerned. After his diagnosis, though, he felt enraged and did what many misogynists are wont to do-- to blame the women in their lives. Picasso blamed the ladies at the brothel on Avignon Street for his illness, and purportedly told a confidant that Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was his first, quote, “exorcism-painting” started by the artist as a way to seek his revenge upon the woman, or women, whom he believed inflicted him. Given this, as well as the current climate towards women within America and indeed, many other countries in the world, you can see that this work of art-- and this type of interpretation of this work of art-- is still problematic. It’s still controversial.
This season we’ve covered seven works of art and have discussed why and how they are controversial, or how they were problematic or shocking in their own day. But we are not done with these fascinating stories! This is the end of our fourth season of the ArtCurious Podcast, but we will be back in a couple of months with MORE of shock art in art history. So stay subscribed, and stay tuned for announcements of the release date of our new season, coming soon.
Thank you for listening to the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal, with additional writing and research help by Kelsey Breen. Our theme music is by Alex Davis at alexdavismusic.com, our logo is by Dave Rainey at daveraineydesign.com, and social media help is by Emily Crockett. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at kaboonki.com.
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Check back in two weeks as we continue to explore the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in the shocking works of art history.