Painted when Pablo Picasso was 25 years old, the monumental canvas Les Demoiselles d’Avignon seems to have had no lesser goal than the complete reinvention of Western painting. In a composition that appears to be working itself out before our eyes, Picasso jettisoned idealized notions of beauty, banished conventions of perspective, and introduced forms inspired by African and Iberian art. The title, which alludes to the prostitutes of Barcelona’s red-light district, fuels the painting’s continued ability to shock.
Demoiselles has been traditionally presented as the beginning of Cubism—the art of splintered forms and shifting vantage points that revolutionized pictorial language in the years prior to World War I. But this work may also be understood in other ways and other contexts. Here, a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois and a painting by Faith Ringgold, both made decades later, enter into dialogue with Picasso’s psychologically charged scene, intensifying the questions that Demoiselles raises about representations of women, power, and cultural difference.