Les Demoiselles d’Avignon marks a radical break from traditional composition and perspective in painting. It depicts five naked women composed of flat, splintered planes whose faces were inspired by Iberian sculpture and African masks. The compressed space they inhabit appears to project forward in jagged shards, while a slice of melon in the still life at the bottom of the composition teeters on an upturned tabletop. 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 brothels.
Gallery label from 2019
This work is as uncomfortable to look at as it is impossible to look away from. No other painting in the history of Western art so boldly, and baldly, confronts the viewer. Three of the five naked protagonists stare outward, trapping us with their gazes, just as the picture’s complicated space, populated by bodies that simultaneously press against and recede from its surface, draws us in. Pictorial conventions are banished and idealized notions of beauty jettisoned. The two rightmost figures’ masklike features are often connected to Picasso’s visit, midway through his work on the painting, to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris—the city’s first anthropological museum. There he had an epiphanic encounter with African and Oceanic art, which influenced the work’s ferocious antinaturalism—the degree to which the depicted figures resist mimetic norms.
Picasso produced an unprecedented quantity of preparatory drawings and paintings for Demoiselles. They speak to his struggle to reinvent Western painting in his own stylistically disjunctive, spatially contradictory, aggressively confrontational terms. The title Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The women of Avignon) was given to the work around the time of its first public exhibition. It alludes to the prostitutes of Barcelona’s red-light district and foregrounds the psychosexual dimension and erotic content that conjoin with Demoiselles’s explosive form and fuel its continued ability to shock.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)