Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
1907. Oil on canvas, 8' x 7' 8" (243.9 x 233.7 cm)
Pablo Picasso: Modern Artist, Master Innovator
Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), the Spanish-born, Paris-based painter, sculptor, draftsman, printmaker, decorative artist, and writer, influenced the course of 20th-century art with almost unmatched magnitude. His passionate and often provocative life, his unfettered embrace of experimentation, and his drive for re-invention fed into his prolific production of works, upending notions of what art was supposed to look like.
Picasso’s numerous inspirations ranged from history, politics, and current events to the work of fellow artists, to the world outside of his studio. In his dynamic body of work, such opposites as intellect and emotions, forms of classicism and expressionism, and the conscious and the unconscious simultaneously clashed and coalesced.
He was known for his fascination with so-called “Primitive” art, a term typically referring to African masks and statuary, which for Picasso also encompassed ancient carvings from the Iberian Peninsula, the landmass that eventually would be divided into present-day Spain, Andorra, and Portugal. The blocky, pared-down forms and forceful, angular planes of Primitive art ignited the artist’s imagination. Its striking shapes and contours made their way into his own compositions and contributed to his radical restructuring of the formal characteristics and visual impact of the work of art. Together with fellow artist Georges Braque, Picasso pioneered Cubism, a visual language of geometric planes and compressed space that splintered subjects—like the human figure, a landscape, or a still life scene—into multifaceted pieces, causing them to appear partially abstracted, flattened, and fragmented, as if reflected in a shattered mirror.
Picasso’s influence stretched well beyond Cubism. Over the course of his career, he produced works that significantly shaped Surrealism and Expressionism, not to mention the ongoing resonance of his legacy still felt by artists working today.
Of Primal Instincts and Formal Innovations: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
Among Picasso’s profuse output of more than 20,000 paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, ceramics, theater sets, and costume designs is Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). In this painting, he did away with pre-existing artistic conventions, like naturalism and perspective, hurling even the most forward-thinking viewers into a future they weren’t quite ready for.
Picasso was a 25-year-old Spanish immigrant to France when he painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, working in a cramped warren of studios on the Parisian hill of Montmartre. The story of its making begins with hundreds of preparatory paintings and drawings, which he generated over an intensive six-month period, working out his ideas. They reflected Picasso’s responses to Paul Cézanne’s structured, almost sculptural depiction of objects and figures and his prismatic structuring of space in his still lifes and scenes of bathers. They also reflected his fascination with the African, Iberian, and Oceanic masks and statuary populating France’s ethnographic museums, as well as the lusts and anxieties wrapped up in his own, complex relationships with women.
Out of this intellectual-emotional tumult came a painting in which form and content were equalized. Its title, which translates to “The Young Women of Avignon,” refers to Avignon Street in Barcelona, home to the prostitutes the artist frequented. The five women’s pinkish-peach-colored bodies, appearing larger than human-scale, fill the space of the painting, which is eight feet high by just over seven feet wide. The women’s shoulders, hips, and limbs are depicted with angular lines and flat, geometric planes. Cubic shapes or, in the case of the woman standing left of center, half-circles, form their breasts. Their faces, too, are sharp-edged and radically simplified, especially those of the two women at right, which he modeled directly after African masks.
As his preparatory studies reveal, Picasso initially conceived of the figure at the left of the painting as a male medical student, in the act of entering the brothel. Deciding that such a narrative detail would interfere with the work’s visual impact, he ultimately transformed the figure into a fifth prostitute. The women emerge from brown, white, and blue curtains that look like shattered glass, their bodies thrust forward toward the viewer by the scene’s lack of depth. Their eyes—enormous and almond-shaped, and inspired by African and Iberian carvings—are fixed daringly on the viewer. Near their feet sits a small arrangement of fruit, with a scythe-like sliver of melon set behind a bunch of grapes, an apple, and a pear, and which, like the women’s bodies, seems too sharp to touch.
One who produces a three-dimensional work of art using any of a variety of means, including carving wood, chiseling stone, casting or welding metal, molding clay or wax, or assembling materials.
One who applies paint to canvas, wood, paper, or another support to produce a picture.
A three-dimensional work of art made by a variety of means, including carving wood, chiseling stone, casting or welding metal, molding clay or wax, or assembling materials.
A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.
A term initially used to refer to the arts of all of Africa, Asia, and Pre-Columbian America, later used mostly to refer to art from Africa and the Pacific Islands. By the late 20th century the term, with its derogatory connotations, fell out of favor.
A flat or level surface.
A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).
A term referring to the islands of the southern, western, and central Pacific Ocean, including Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. The term is sometimes extended to encompass Australia, New Zealand, and the Malay Archipelago.
Faithful adherence to nature; factual or realistic representation.
The ability to learn, think, and reason; the capacity for knowledge and understanding.
Landmass in southwestern Europe divided into present-day Spain, Portugal, and Andorra. Its name derives from its ancient inhabitants, whom the Greeks called “Iberians.”
A representation of a human or animal form in a work of art.
The branch of anthropology that scientifically describes specific human cultures and societies.
A work of art made with a pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements, often consisting of lines and marks (noun); the act of producing a picture with pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements (verb, gerund).
Having the shape of a cube.
The outline of something.
The subject matter or significance of a work of art, especially as contrasted with its form.
In psychoanalysis, waking awareness; the activity of the mind directly perceptible to and under the control of a person.
An object, outline, or shape having sharp corners, or angles.
Objects, such as pots and vases, made of clay hardened by heat.
A term used to describe the design and aesthetics of functional objects with an emphasis on unique and hand-crafted forms often available in limited quantity.
A literary, intellectual, and artistic movement that began in Paris in 1924 and was active through World War II. Influenced by Sigmund Freud’s writings on psychology, Surrealists, led by André Breton, were interested in how the irrational, unconscious mind could move beyond the constraints of the rational world. Surrealism grew out of dissatisfaction with traditional social values and artistic practices after World War I.
The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.
In popular writing about psychology, the division of the mind containing the sum of all thoughts, memories, impulses, desires, feelings, etc., that are not subject to a person’s perception or control but that often affect conscious thoughts and behavior (noun). The Surrealists derived much inspiration from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s theories on dreams and the workings of the subconscious mind.
A representation of inanimate objects, as a painting of a bowl of fruit.
The form or condition in which an object exists or appears.
A term describing a wide variety of techniques used to produce multiple copies of an original design. Also, the resulting text or image made by applying inked characters, plates, blocks, or stamps to a support such as paper or fabric.
In art, a technique used to depict volumes and spatial relationships on a flat surface, as in a painted scene that appears to extend into the distance.
A spoken, written, or visual account of an event or a series of connected events.
A long mark or stroke.
The natural landforms of a region; also, an image that has natural scenery as its primary focus.
Resembling or using the simple rectilinear or curvilinear lines used in geometry.
Relating to the shape or structure of an object.
The shape or structure of an object.
An international artistic movement in art, architecture, literature, and performance that flourished between 1905 and 1920, especially in Germany and Austria, that favored the expression of subjective emotions and experience over depictions of objective reality. Conventions of Expressionist style include distortion, exaggeration, fantasy, and vivid, jarring, violent, or dynamic application of color.
A person who draws plans or designs, often of structures to be built; a person who draws skillfully, especially an artist.
An artistic movement begun in 1907, when artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque together developed a visual language whose geometric planes and compressed space challenged the conventions of representation in painting. Traditional subjects—nudes, landscapes, and still lifes—were reinvented as increasingly fragmented compositions. Its influence extended to an international network of artists working in Paris in those years and beyond.
What a figure is wearing.
The state of being pressed down under a weight or squeezed together.
The arrangement of the individual elements within a work of art so as to form a unified whole; also used to refer to a work of art, music, or literature, or its structure or organization.
The principles embodied in the styles, theories, or philosophies of the art of ancient Greece and Rome.
A term generally used to describe art that is not representational or based on external reality or nature.
Fire and Fourth Dimensions: Early Reactions to Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon made waves when it was first exhibited in 1916. Save for a handful of early supporters, Picasso’s friends, peers, and collectors were appalled. “What a loss to French art!” exclaimed collector Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin, an otherwise avid supporter of modern artists. Angered by the painting, artist Henri Matisse assumed that Picasso was ridiculing the modern movement; he thought Picasso might have been trying to wrest not a third, but a fourth dimension from the flat picture plane. He swore he would figure out how to “sink” Picasso and make him sorry for his audacious trick. Even his fellow founder of Cubism, Georges Braque, expressed dismay, claiming that Picasso must have drunk petroleum to spit fire onto the canvas.
A Painting on the Move
Paintings are subject to the wear and tear of life. Until its acquisition by The Museum of Modern Art, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon frequently traveled: Since its creation, it was moved no fewer than ten times between Picasso’s studios and various collections. This, combined with the fact that it is now more than 100 years old, means that the painting has needed periodic conservation, with the most recent effort completed in 2004.
Not a Masterpiece?
Artists making work ahead of its time often have to wait for society to catch up to their visions. So it was with Picasso and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Since it left his studio, the painting has provoked countless debates, studies, and articles, including one in 2007 by The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones. On the occasion of its 100th anniversary he wrote: “Works of art settle down eventually, become respectable. But, 100 years on, [Les Demoiselles d’Avignon] is still so new, so troubling, it would be an insult to call it a masterpiece.”1
AUDIO: Curator Ann Temkin on the how this painting’s subject matter was as shocking as its composition and style
AUDIO: Conservator James Coddington describes some of the conservation needs of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
AUDIO: Hear a visual description of the painting