Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907  

Picasso: Demoiselles

What’s so great about Les Demoiselles d’Avignon? The dominant color is puke pink, the application is scribbly and looks uncontrolled. There are harsh angles and unfinished lines. The depiction of space is confusing. It’s hard to tell where forms begin or how they can fit into space allotted them. The table is tilted. It looks like the fruit will fall off. The two central figures have their noses pasted on sideways; the left figure, in profile, has her eye viewed frontally. You can’t tell if the figure in the lower right is sitting frontward or backward, her head is screwed on wrong. And why are the two figures on the right wearing masks anyway? The painting appears unfinished; it’s a hodgepodge of styles, and to top it off the painting depicts a bunch of whores. This is what we call art? Yes! Picasso gave birth to a new art era, cubism, and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was the seed. Birth is painful and not very pretty.

It is said that a genius is lucky to have one original idea in a lifetime, and spends the rest of their life refining that idea. Often brilliance comes from youth. Age and wisdom prevent experimentation. Picasso was twenty-six when he made Les Demoiselles, but he was no ignoramus. He dared to try anything and everything. He was weaned on art, the son of a painter and teacher at Barcelona’s Academy of Fine Arts. He studied at two of the finest academies in Spain. He had seen the other scandalous art changes: The Impressionists threw out three dimensional rendering of landscape; Cezanne, a post Impressionist, took impressionist concepts further and applied them to the figure and still-life, and the Fauves flip-flopped the color scales. But Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was too great a leap, even Picasso was uncomfortable with his results. He ‘closeted’ the painting, it was not exhibited for eighteen years after its completion.

What is cubism?

Simply put cubism tries to depict the fourth dimension: Time! The first motion pictures were developed in France in the 1880’s, and painters, sculptors and writers felt challenged to capture motion too. In Les Demoiselles, the three figures on the left are either moving their heads or Picasso is adjusting his own viewing point. The figure on the lower left is more radical. Picasso has painted the model to simultaneously face the viewer and put her back to the viewer. Picasso is trying to use a stagnant flat medium to describe action in space!

—Marjorie Masel
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