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Discusses "LES DEMOISELLES D'AVIGNON." Surveys scholarly notions regarding Picasso's sources and influences for this 1907 painting. Meanings attached to the picture. The developing iconography of the piece. The panting as a turning point in Picasso's art, and as an example of the proto-Cubist painting. Relevance of "Demoiselles" to Picasso's life.
Because Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) has come to be regarded by many as perhaps the major turning point in twentieth-century painting there are few modern pictures that have been subjected to such intense scrutiny or produced so many interpretations. The influences and sources, the iconography (both private and public), the relationship between the painter's life and his work, and all other aspects of the painting's meaning have been debated. Some explanations have been directly opposed to each other, but many others are complementary or, at least, not mutually exclusive. The richness of the picture, the number of witness statements, the painter's own conversation, and a perhaps unparalleled wealth of preliminary sketches have provided ample room for so much work. This essay surveys a number of the most important scholarly notions regarding
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There is a certain symmetry, therefore, to his turn to the work ofSpanish sources at the time--an influence that, as a Spaniard, was moreuniquely "his." Ignacio Zuloaga, a painter friend from Barcelona, livedaround the corner from Picasso's studio in the Bateau Lavoir and hadrecently acquired El Greco's painting of an Apocalyptic Vision (16 8-14).The writhing nudes of this work have often been cited as a possible sourceand, as Richardson noted, the accidental square shape of the damaged ElGreco canvas was probably instrumental in helping Picasso to solvedifficult problem of "giving an extended figure composition the tension andcompression it required" (17). This notion was central to the perception of theDemoiselles as a turning point in painting. But, even more importantly, Picasso's great painting reflects Baudelaire'sassessment of the 'important' subject of the prostitute in truly modernart. . Trans Olivia Emmet. The stout figures of this period represent, according toGedo, an attempt to integrate the two influences. There is no room in the 'room' of the bordello that Picasso paintedand even the figure on the left that lifts the curtain and displays theprostitutes barely escapes from this narrow, stage-like enclosure. The richness of the picture, the number of witnessstatements, the painter's own conversation, and a perhaps unparalleledwealth of preliminary sketches have provided ample room for so much work.This essay surveys a number of the most important scholarly notionsregarding Picasso's sources and influences (Iberian and African sculpture,El Greco, more recent French painting, and Baudelaire) as well as themeanings that attach to the picture. "Picasso and Appropriation." Art Bulletin, 73 (1991): 479-94.Chave, Anna C. Most of the sources of this astonishing painting are well known butthe relationship to Picasso's life was obscured (deliberately, some felt)by his lengthy retention of the preparatory drawings. In the summer of19 6 Picasso and Fernande Olivier spent a quiet time in Spain and duringthis high point in their relationship the art that followed the Rose period--classicized figures in serene settings and tender, intimate interactions--"reached its glowing climax" (Gedo 138). It was the ugliness of the faces that froze with horror the half-converted (quoted in Leighten 627).Matisse thought it mocked his own "more hedonistic modernism" and Braque,perhaps most perceptively, "likened the work to an anarchist bomb"(Leighten 627). There has been much scholarly debate,therefore, over the exact date at which he first visited the EthnographicalMuseum at the Trocadéro. The selection of the subject of prostitutes on display may also haveowed something to an important influence--Baudelaire's famous essay onConstantin Guys, called "The Painter of Modern Life," which had inspiredManet and many others. New York: Harper-Icon, 1993.Gedo, Mary Mathews. Inspired by the Iberian sculpture of the Roman period he went on topaint figures that Chave describes as "bloated, marmoreal, but stillclassicized" (6 1). .a contracting sheath heated by the massed human presence" (quoted in Chave6 4). This influence began to showitself at the time Picasso began work on the Demoiselles (though not in thesketches for that picture). Some scholars have inferred thatin the Demoiselles "it is Fernande whose image he was now destroying--Fernande, whom he painted so voluptuously in 19 6" (Daix 7 ). These works, Spain's only contribution to theclassical era, possess a "chunky primitivism--bulging eyes, mammoth ears,heavy jaws--[that] provided [Picasso] with an ethnic catalyst forexperimentation" (Richardson 23). The meanings inherent in the painting constitute an even more complexsubject than its sources. The African influence had also come to Picasso, however, through theeffect it had on the work of the Fauves. "New Encounters with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon: Gender, Race, and the Origins of Cubism." Art Bulletin 76 (1994): 597-61 .Daix, Pierre. It is noteworthy, for example, that during thepainting of the picture he was not only parting from Olivier but had alsoexperienced recent contact with his tyrannical mother. The most controversial and difficult of Picasso's influences at thetime was that of African sculpture which is, to most viewers, perfectlyevident in the mask-like faces of the two right-hand figures in theDemoiselles. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.Leighten, Patricia. Picasso: Life and Art. In hisgrowing disillusionment with Olivier and his intense jealousy a crisisdeveloped and the two separated at the time Picasso was most intenselyinvolved in the design of the painting. Looking at Art from the Inside Out: The Psychiconographic Approach to Modern Art. On being shown the unfinished pictureeven Picasso's closest friends did not know how to react. But the initialreaction was highly unfavorable. Art Bulletin 72 (199 ): 6 9-3 .Lomas, David. UnfortunatelyOlivier was the first of Picasso's lovers to undergo the process Gilotlater called "first the plinth, then the doormat" (Richardson 19). Not everyone agrees that savagery or anger is the tone of thepainting but, even though she disagrees with the conclusion, Chave hasnoted that there has been a widespread belief that, as Daniel Kahnweilerput it, the picture represented something "mad and monstrous"--mad in itsform and monstrous in its subjects (quoted in Chave 597). Richardson has shown that Picasso started and abandoned apicture on this subject at the same time that he worked on the Demoiselles. One of the most notable results of thisinfusion of the Iberian style was the final stage of his famous portrait ofGertrude Stein whose face was given a fixed, monumental and mask-like look. As he wrote, the whore was "a perfect image of savagery in the midstof civilization" and this attitude appears to be a key notion in theDemoiselles (quoted in Richardson 14). The influence of his personal life is almost universally accepted asextremely important at the time of painting the Demoiselles. The White Peril and L'Art negre: Picasso, Primitivism, and Anticolonialism. Despite its important reputation, however, the Demoiselles "remainedall but invisible to the public for three decades" and only achieved itsgreat fame when it was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York(Chave 597). Picasso's style had undergone yet another transition on the return toParis. The visit to the Trocadéro took place in time to producethe Africanized masks in the Demoiselles. 2 19 7-1917. But, at twenty-five, Picasso felt he "hadplaced himself at the same level of the avant-garde as Derain and Matisse"and was determined to surpass them (Daix 7 ). The Demoiselles is held to represent Picasso's"underlying hostility and resentment over [Olivier's] past promiscuity,"his feelings toward "a mother whom he perceived as a 'wild' woman," and, ofcourse, his own ambiguities about his view of women (Gedo 154, 157). And this "tribalization," asRichardson would have it, "the most striking, not to say shocking" featureof the picture, "owes everything" to what he saw at the museum--if not asspecific, traceable examples of African or Oceanic art, then as ageneralized recollection of the spirit of the things he'd seen there (26).The art of these societies may have had an even stronger influence and hisattempts to draw attention from it may be indicative of this since, asRichardson noted (in reference to Baudelaire's possible importance for thepainter), "the more crucial the source, the more determined he was todivert attention from it" (14). A Life of Picasso, Vol. As a result of thisexperiment (and, perhaps, as a result of his growing displeasure withOlivier) the painting of this period "became increasingly objective andabstract, and the sentimentality that had characterized the personae" ofhis early works disappeared (Gedo 14 ). As Lomas notes, the classical nude had long beenassociated in France with notions of national identity and rightistpoliticians had even "promulgated a return to classicism as the culturalcounterpart" of their notions of French nationhood (426). This is perhaps understandable since its historicalimportance could not have been seen by the first viewers. Thepainting is so rich, however, the information available so great, and thediscussions so complex that they can only be glanced at in a short essay. His friend Derain and Matisse(better characterized as a rival) had engaged in numerous forays into"primitivist exploration" and their experiences of African art and itspresumed violence was "transmitted by a brutality of distortion andsimplification in nudes and masks--harder than those achieved by Picasso--which took the place of faces" (Daix 7 ). On the matter of African influence Picasso was very cagey--sometimesdenying that it existed at all. "A Canon of Deformity: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and Physical Anthropology." Art History 16 (1993): 424-46.Richardson, John. As a turning point in Picasso's art it is hardly overstated to saythat it is the proto-Cubist painting "and stands as the ancestor" to thehundreds of Cubist works created by Picasso, Braque, Gris and othersbetween 19 9 and 1917 (Gedo 133). This confused Olivier but, as Picasso later told FrançoiseGilot, "he had exiled himself from Spain in order to escape his tyrannicalmother" and this return to his native country, like others during herlifetime, inevitably resulted in frustration and anger that drove him backto France (Gedo 138). But Picasso insisted on returningto Paris. The influences andsources, the iconography (both private and public), the relationshipbetween the painter's life and his work, and all other aspects of thepainting's meaning have been debated. Works CitedBurgard, Timothy Anglin. The painters, Picasso included, "self-consciously subverted colonialstereotypes, both of the right and the left" and while today theirappropriations are correctly seen as "implicated in the prejudices theysought to expose," their intentions were anti-racist at the time (Leighten6 9). These figures were, it should be noted, repainted so that theIberian placidity seen in the remaining figures was replaced by somethingmost critics have felt was deliberately more cruel and threatening.Picasso had planned to repaint all the figures but eventually abandoned thepicture, leaving the curious impression of a tension between its right andleft sides. But the work has an emotional intensitythat is a far cry from the almost classical coolness of the Cubist period.The style that preceded the Demoiselles was also "quite emotional," butthis work was "sentimental and poignant rather than vicious in tone" (Gedo133). Finally, Picasso's selection of the 'modern' subject of the brotheland his treatment of the women in the picture is widely believed to relateto his "ambivalence toward women," which, in this case, was given an angrydisplay (Gedo 154). It was not untilseveral years later, in fact, that André Salmon wrote about the picture andhis reaction reflected some of the bewilderment it generated: Nudes came into being, whose deformation caused little surprise-- we had been prepared for it by Picasso himself, by Matisse, Derain, Braque, Van Dongen, and even earlier by Cézanne and Gauguin. The discussion includes thedeveloping iconography of the piece--its public face and its relevance toPicasso's life and psyche. There are many dimensions to this andone of the most important is the rebellious, anarchist tendencies of manyof the young painters. Although it is not certain that Picasso had readthe essay at the time he was interested in Guys' art and two of theillustrator's principal subjects, discussed by Baudelaire, were brothelsand the parade of carriages of the upper middle class in the Bois duBoulogne. The painter and hisfriends Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob, "two fellow victims ofmaternal domination," had named the various figures for the women in theirlives they despised or feared and this seems relevant to the tone of thepainting (Gedo 154). But it was not until eightdecades later, with the initial exhibition of the preparatory work--"sixteen mostly unpublished sketchbooks and studies in assorted media,comprising in all some four or five hundred items"--that studies of thepicture proliferated at an incredible rate, as might be expected of anymajor work that suddenly provided such a trove of related material(Richardson 11). Some explanations have been directlyopposed to each other, but many others are complementary or, at least, notmutually exclusive. New York: Random House, 1996. African art, however, may have helpedconvince Picasso that "then meaning of an art work is not dependent uponconventional form or narrative" and it certainly furthered his tendencytoward the deconstruction of the traditional figure (Burgard 483). In her fascinating article Leighten also notes that contemporaryreadings of the African imagery would have included a sense of this defiantmood. Two of the most important, however, are theartist's attitude toward the 'primitive'--as indicated by his partial'Africanizing' of the work--and the attitude toward women that is ondisplay. Because Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (19 7) has come to beregarded by many as perhaps the major turning point in twentieth-centurypainting there are few modern pictures that have been subjected to suchintense scrutiny or produced so many interpretations. But, as Richardson has concluded, Picasso liedabout the influence for reasons related to the work he was doing at thetime of the lie. Both themes involve, in large part, the startling distortions ofthe body evident in the painting. Deviations fromthis norm were, therefore, seen as acts of defiance against theconservative position and, in a similar manner, the young painters alsoadopted the elements of African art visible in their work as "strategies ofprimitivism and spontaneity" that defied bourgeois standards (Leighten61 ). But it should also be noted that El Greco'snaked figures are placed against a curious background of cloth (perhaps thewinding clothes of the dead who are now arising from the grave) and thismight have suggested the elimination of perspectival space that is such astriking feature of the Demoiselles. But at the same time Picasso was also struggling to integrate theinfluence of Cézanne whose paintings had been shown in the Autumn Salons of19 5 and 19 6. As Leo Steinberg described it, thespace in Picasso's paining was "like the inside of a pleated bellows .
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