Happy 130th birthday to Pablo Picasso, who would be so glad we’re still talking about him. The size of Picasso’s talent was only marginally smaller than the size of his ego.
In honor of Picasso, I wanted to focus on one of his earliest masterpieces–and quite possibly one of the oddest works of Western art:
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Weird, huh? It’s a painting we know a great deal about, including all sorts of fascinating details about how the composition changed over time. Originally, this was to be a fairly stock scene of a client being show the female wares at a brothel. (I know, odd that this was a stock scene–odd even that you would do such a thing, picking out your sexual partner like a piece of fresh fruit.) Over time, Picasso simplified the composition, removed the man, and then got to really messing around with the bodies and faces.
Starting with the middle figure, she’s the most . . . normal? of the group. She’s got those trademark Picasso eyes. Her relationship with the background is hard to tease out. Picasso’s really playing with ideas of depth and flatness. She seems glued to whatever that whitish surface is supposed to be–a wall?
Now her companion to the side:
Picasso had become fascinated by Iberian sculpture and African masks, and this figure has the face of one of the masks. The famous oval Picasso eyes become blank holes, as does the mouth. Notice as well how her arms just end at the drapery to both sides. Her breast, that aggressive square, points directly to the development of Cubism in its angularity and the way the shading is reversed from what we would expect. Even the brownish-green coloring is Cubistic.
Another mask, and some weird treatment of the human body. Put your hand over her face–doesn’t it look like we’re seeing the woman from behind? There’s even a line hinting at her spine. It doesn’t seem physically possible for her to be facing forward, although it’s also not physically possible for her to rotate her head 180 degrees. Look at the space over her shoulder, how it’s all fractured–more proto-Cubism.
This woman is terrifying.
This figure is, to me, the most fascinating. She is in some ways the most naturalistic. At least her breasts are rounded, not jagged. But isn’t there something off about how she’s standing? With her weight on that back leg, wouldn’t she topple over?
Work with me here: doesn’t the pose make more sense if she’s actually lying down, resting her head on her arm?
And here is where Picasso’s genius really comes in, because with this one figure he’s evoking the entire legacy of Western art. Artists through the centuries have just LOVED painting nude women lying on one side. Let’s see, there’s Giorgione, way back in 1510:
There’s Giorgione’s student Titian, from 1538:
Everyone got into the reclining-nude business–Rubens, Velazquez, Goya. Generally the figure is associated with the goddess of love, Venus, either explicitly or implicitly. In the language of Kenneth Clark, the figure is not naked, she is nude, which is an entirely different matter. Nudes are idealized, the embodiment of beauty and grace.
Edouard Manet turns all these ideas on their heads in 1863 with his take on the theme:
His Olympia is most definitely naked. She’s a high-class prostitute greeting a new client in her bedroom.
And then we turn to Picasso’s woman, who confronts us as naked as naked could be.
So here we have in one work an homage–a shout-out–to one of the greatest Western artistic themes as well as reinvention of ancient African and Spanish traditions and wholly new experiments with space. What are we to make of it?
His friends at the time had no idea. His entourage of Georges Braque and Guillaume Apollinaire were bewildered. Leo and Gertrude Stein, then his most enthusiastic patrons, found it shocking; they declined to purchase it, even though they bought almost anything else Picasso offered them.
I think the best interpretation is that the work marks a transition, a turning point, not only in Picasso’s career but also in the history of art. On an individual level, Picasso is beginning the experimentation that would result in Cubism. Critic John Berger called it “the spontaneous and, as always, primitive insurrection out of which, for good historical reasons, the revolution of Cubism developed.” On a broader, cultural level, he’s taking these varied elements–the bits and bobs of cultural history–and bending them to his will. There’s a violence in it. Look at the image as if for the first time and you’re struck by how ugly it is. Art in the West had always been about beauty, even in scenes of war or despair. Picasso assaults beauty and rips it to shreds.
In the end, I’m reminded of that other modernist who also ripped apart tradition for his own ends: T.S. Eliot. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” he wrote at the end of The Waste Land. So, too, Picasso.
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