Curator, Ann Temkin: This painting is the Demoiselles D’Avignon by Pablo Picasso.
Demoiselle means ‘women,’ and D’avignon is the red-light district in Barcelona. And what anybody at that time would have known is that the women of Avignon Street were prostitutes. They’re nude or almost nude, so one could see them as objects of male desire, but here are women looking out at the viewer in an extremely daring kind of confrontation. For me, I see the as forces of strength that’s pretty unusual for the depiction of female figures that time or even now.
It’s a painting that is combining different styles of representation without trying to reconcile them. You see the breakdown of form and the breakdown of a coherent structure in between the bodies. There are women who have faces that seem connected to their bodies, but then the two women on the right, have African masks plunked on top of their bodies. You don’t have the sense that these women are wearing these masks, you have this sense that these masks are their heads.
The inclusion of these masks reflect Picasso’s interest in getting away from Western art traditions by identifying with the art of other cultures. He and his peers would have seen masks like these in museums in Paris. These types of objects were interesting to them because of the supernatural powers they would have had as objects in the communities in which they were made.
This is the largest painting that Picasso had made at that point in his life. He was ambitious for how it was going to change the language of his painting and that of other artists. He kept it with him in his studio for nearly 20 years, almost as if he knew how radically ahead of its time it was.