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.
Gallery label from 2013
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.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 64