Les Demoiselles d’Avignon


Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (see appendix, figure1) was the prototype of the art movement ‘Cubism’. It was painted by the artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and its style resembled nothing within the antiquity of the Western world. Its intentions were of a revolutionary nature; and its achievements were nothing short of its expectations. As Cubism developed, its representation of the subject became increasingly void of naturalistic appearance, until it was bordering on pure non-objectivity. This direction that Cubism had embarked upon was due to Picasso’s suggestion that to accurately depict a three dimensional object within the confines of a two dimensional surface the traditional method of portraying an objects empirical image does not justify its form and volume. To overcome this fault in representation, Picasso envisaged the whole image in its most basic form and from this painted what he had now perceived as an accurate conversion of three dimensional reality to a two dimensional medium. Following this concept, artistic direction had forever been altered, and the 1910’s proved to be a turbulent time for a movement which without Cubism is unlikely to have existed. This was the Abstract.


No twentieth century painting has attracted more attention than Picasso’s great brothel composition Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of five confrontational whores posed theatrically on a stage (Richardson, 1996, p14). Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was begun by Picasso in 1906 and finished in 1907, and has been attributed as the first Cubist picture (Barr, 1936, p30). The figures on the left are still reminiscent of the ‘robust sculpturesque classical nudes which in 1906 followed the delicacy and sentiment of the artists ‘rose’ period’, and Barr continues in his description that the figures on the right, there angularity and grotesque masks with concave profiles and staring eyes draws influence heavily from non-Western negro sculpture (Barr, 1936, p30). This extreme fragmentation of form marked a fundamental break with existing modes of pictorial expression (Moszynska, 1990, p11). These five horrifying figures, prostitutes who repel rather than attract left his closest supporters and critics with sentiments of mixed reaction;


“It was the ugliness of faces” wrote Salmon “that froze with horror the half converted”; Guillaume Apollinaire murmured revolution; Leo Stein burst into embarrassed, uncomprehending laughter; Gertrude Stein lapsed into unaccustomed silence; Matisse swore revenge on this mockery of modern painting; and Derain expressed his wry concern that one day Picasso would be found hanging behind his big picture (Huffington, 1988, p93).


In his reply Picasso said to cause a reaction, it is not necessary to paint a man with a gun when an apple can be just as revolutionary (Huffington, 1988, p93). In saying this Picasso was not referring to the subject matter, but in the way the object was depicted. Braque, who met Picasso in the fall of 1907 when he first saw Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, knew immediately that nothing short of a revolution was intended. “It made me feel” said Braque in his reaction “as if someone was drinking gasoline and spitting fire” (Huffington, 1988, p93); he was shocked but also stirred as he’d never been before. Georges Braque was to become Picasso’s counterpart in the development of Cubism.


Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was Picasso’s assault on the problems he associated with the traditional methods of painting and their inability to overcome them. These problems were the basic tasks of painting, as Kahnweiler explains, these were to represent three dimensions and colour on a flat surface and to be able to comprehend them in the unity of that surface (McCully, 1981, p60). However, to represent and comprehend, he intended only in the strictest of sense. The simulation of form through chiaroscuro was too shallow; Picasso pursued the depiction of the three dimensional through the actual drawing on a flat surface. Not concerned with an aesthetically pleasant ‘composition’, but uncompromising, organically articulated structure. In addition there was the problem of colour, and the final and most difficult act of the amalgamation, the reconciliation of the whole upon the canvas (McCully, 1981, p60). Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was the beginning of Cubism, the first upsurge of a desperate clash with all of those problems attacked at once.


From Picasso’s belief and the creation of Cubism which followed, the 1910’s was a time of turbulence for artistic development as art suddenly became a socially and politically potent