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)
Pablo Picasso: Modern Artist, Master Innovator
Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), the Spanish-born, Paris-based painter, sculptor, draftsman, printmaker, decorative artist, and writer, influenced the course of 20th-century art with almost unmatched magnitude. His passionate and often provocative life, his unfettered embrace of experimentation, and his drive for re-invention fed into his prolific production of works, upending notions of what art was supposed to look like.
Picasso’s numerous inspirations ranged from history, politics, and current events to the work of fellow artists, to the world outside of his studio. In his dynamic body of work, such opposites as intellect and emotions, forms of classicism and expressionism, and the conscious and the unconscious simultaneously clashed and coalesced.
He was known for his fascination with so-called “Primitive” art, a term typically referring to African masks and statuary, which for Picasso also encompassed ancient carvings from the Iberian Peninsula, the landmass that eventually would be divided into present-day Spain, Andorra, and Portugal. The blocky, pared-down forms and forceful, angular planes of Primitive art ignited the artist’s imagination. Its striking shapes and contours made their way into his own compositions and contributed to his radical restructuring of the formal characteristics and visual impact of the work of art. Together with fellow artist Georges Braque, Picasso pioneered Cubism, a visual language of geometric planes and compressed space that splintered subjects—like the human figure, a landscape, or a still life scene—into multifaceted pieces, causing them to appear partially abstracted, flattened, and fragmented, as if reflected in a shattered mirror.
Picasso’s influence stretched well beyond Cubism. Over the course of his career, he produced works that significantly shaped Surrealism and Expressionism, not to mention the ongoing resonance of his legacy still felt by artists working today.
Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
Among Picasso’s profuse output of more than 20,000 paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, ceramics, theater sets, and costume designs is Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). In this painting, he did away with pre-existing artistic conventions, like naturalism and perspective, hurling even the most forward-thinking viewers into a future they weren’t quite ready for.
Picasso was a 25-year-old Spanish immigrant to France when he painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, working in a cramped warren of studios on the Parisian hill of Montmartre. The story of its making begins with hundreds of preparatory paintings and drawings, which he generated over an intensive six-month period, working out his ideas. They reflected Picasso’s responses to Paul Cézanne’s structured, almost sculptural depiction of objects and figures and his prismatic structuring of space in his still lifes and scenes of bathers. They also reflected his fascination with the African, Iberian, and Oceanic masks and statuary populating France’s ethnographic museums, as well as the lusts and anxieties wrapped up in his own, complex relationships with women.
Out of this intellectual-emotional tumult came a painting in which form and content were equalized. Its title, which translates to “The Young Women of Avignon,” refers to Avignon Street in Barcelona, home to the prostitutes the artist frequented. The five women’s pinkish-peach-colored bodies, appearing larger than human-scale, fill the space of the painting, which is eight feet high by just over seven feet wide. The women’s shoulders, hips, and limbs are depicted with angular lines and flat, geometric planes. Cubic shapes or, in the case of the woman standing left of center, half-circles, form their breasts. Their faces, too, are sharp-edged and radically simplified, especially those of the two women at right, which he modeled directly after African masks.
As his preparatory studies reveal, Picasso initially conceived of the figure at the left of the painting as a male medical student, in the act of entering the brothel. Deciding that such a narrative detail would interfere with the work’s visual impact, he ultimately transformed the figure into a fifth prostitute. The women emerge from brown, white, and blue curtains that look like shattered glass, their bodies thrust forward toward the viewer by the scene’s lack of depth. Their eyes—enormous and almond-shaped, and inspired by African and Iberian carvings—are fixed daringly on the viewer. Near their feet sits a small arrangement of fruit, with a scythe-like sliver of melon set behind a bunch of grapes, an apple, and a pear, and which, like the women’s bodies, seems too sharp to touch.