Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is one of the most important works in the genesis of modern art. The painting depicts five naked prostitutes in a brothel; two of them push aside curtains around the space where the other women strike seductive and erotic poses—but their figures are composed of flat, splintered planes rather than rounded volumes, their eyes are lopsided or staring or asymmetrical, and the two women at the right have threatening masks for heads. The space, too, which should recede, comes forward in jagged shards, like broken glass. In the still life at the bottom, a piece of melon slices the air like a scythe.
The faces of the figures at the right are influenced by African masks, which Picasso assumed had functioned as magical protectors against dangerous spirits: this work, he said later, was his "first exorcism painting." A specific danger he had in mind was life-threatening sexual disease, a source of considerable anxiety in Paris at the time; earlier sketches for the painting more clearly link sexual pleasure to mortality. In its brutal treatment of the body and its clashes of color and style (other sources for this work include ancient Iberian statuary and the work of Paul Cézanne), Les Demoiselles d'Avignon marks a radical break from traditional composition and perspective.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon marks a radical break from traditional composition and perspective in painting. It depicts five naked women with figures composed of flat, splintered planes and faces inspired by Iberian sculpture and African masks. The compressed space the figures inhabit appears to project forward in jagged shards; a fiercely pointed slice of melon in the still life of fruit at the bottom of the composition teeters on an impossibly upturned tabletop. These strategies would be significant in Picasso’s subsequent development of Cubism, charted in this gallery with a selection of the increasingly fragmented compositions he created in this period.
Picasso unveiled the monumental painting in his Paris studio after months of revision. The Avignon of the work’s title is a reference to a street in Barcelona famed for its brothel. In Picasso’s preparatory studies for the work, the figure at the left was a man, but the artist eliminated this anecdotal detail in the final painting.
Curator, Ann Temkin: This painting is titled, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, "The women of Avignon," and it's Avignon Street in the city of Barcelona where Picasso was a young artist. The demoiselles d'Avignon are actually five prostitutes, and these are five women—obviously naked—and they're looking at us as much as we're looking at them.
The very early studies show a sailor walking into this curtained room where the ladies stand and the woman on the far left now has the traces of having been that man entering the room, and you even feel a certain masculinity in the sort of sculptural carving of her body and the way that very large foot is stepping toward the others. It almost seems like its a build-up of geometric forms, and if you look at the chest of the woman at the very top right, you can see one of these cubes making up the space underneath her chin, thus the name Cubism.
One striking aspect of this painting is the way this stage on which these women are painted is almost looming out at the viewer. Rather than feeling like these women are nice and safely set back in some kind of room that you are peering into, I, at least, feel like the women are almost piled atop of each other and piled in such a way onto the canvas that they almost could step out of it at the viewer. It's part of the desire of the painting to confront you physically, psychologically, as well as intellectually, with everything that's going on in it.
Director, Glenn Lowry: This painting was restored in 2003 and 2004.
Conservator, Jim Coddington: Demoiselles d'Avignon has traveled around a bit, from studio to studio, while in Picasso's possession. There's a certain amount of wear and tear, and just the natural aging process.
The painting was first restored in the late 1940s. The varnish was put on in the 1950s to afford protection from dirt and grime. The reason it needed to be restored now is that the varnish had discolored and was muting the bright, vibrant palette of Picasso and was also diminishing the crispness and vitality of the brush strokes. And also some of the retouching that had happened over the years no longer matched the surrounding original paint. By retouching, I mean areas where original paint has been lost, and a restorer has simply retouched the lost areas. And over time, sometimes, those retouchings do not match any longer, and therefore throw off the balance of the painting as well.