Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon) is a large scale painting presenting French ladies of the night produced by Pablo Picasso in 1907. Five nude sex workers from a Barcelona brothel were depicted in an entirely new painterly manner; their figures resist the traditional representational cannons of the female nude meaning that the composition as a whole presented bold, innovative, and radical approach to painting.
Truth be told, even today the figures provoke the viewer with their distortive bodies and unusual gestures. Their frightening faces are reminiscent of facial features in the Iberian style typical for Picasso’s native Spain and the features of African masks. Aside from departing from the inherited painterly patterns, the artist’s intent was apparently subversive - he wished to tackle the taboo subjects of the early 20th century societies – primarily the issue of the explicit display of liberated female sexuality and, looking from a contemporary perspective, even the colonization issues; these and other aspects will be elaborated later in the text.
Long after Picasso showed Les Demoiselles d'Avignon for the first time, the painting was considered controversial and caused quite a social stir even among the painter’s closest peers. However, this masterpiece is the iconic work of Cubism and one of the most important masterpieces of modern art as well.
Pablo Picasso settled in Paris around 1904 and at that moment he already gained critical reception for his Blue period paintings which were socially engaged and focused on depictions of poverty and desperation (poor families, blind figures, and difficult experiences). The following phase is described by the scholars as his Rose period (devoted to various aspects of Parisian bohemian lifestyle) which lasted until 1907 meaning that it ended before the Les Demoiselles d'Avignon was produced.
Prior to the painting process of this masterpiece, Picasso made a great number of preparatory studies and sketches, and it took him nine months to finish it. The main inspiration source came from Spanish art e.g. Iberian sculpture; although the scholars insist that the painter was rather influenced by African tribal masks and the native art of Oceania, a presumption denied by Picasso. Furthermore, several experts suggest that during 1907 Picasso visited the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro where he saw African and Tribal art several months and was unconsciously influenced by it before completing Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries were marked by extensive colonization of Africa, as well as various anthropological and ethnographic expeditions of Oceania and Latin America meaning that during that time significant discoveries of art made by natives were made in those parts of the world. Outstanding, expressive and simplistic forms of ancient cultures impressed the Western artists such as Paul Gauguin who was among the pioneering artists embracing primitivism (by incorporating native Tahitian motifs).
In 1903 and slightly later in 1906, major posthumous retrospectives of Paul Gauguin were organized at the Salon d'Automne (as well as a retrospective of Paul Cézanne) which tremendously reflected on Picasso especially mostly on Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.
It is believed by later scholars that masterpieces such as Cézanne's The Bathers, Paul Gauguin's statue Oviri and El Greco's Opening of the Fifth Seal were important referential points for Picasso; however, a crucial inspiration came from mathematics as well. Namely, French mathematician Maurice Princet was closely related to Picasso, and was equally responsible for the birth of Cubism as Pablo Picasso himself; the notable scientist was even nicknamed the mathematician of cubism.
Picasso was well connected with other proponents of the art scene, and his career was moving forward. However, the rivalry with Henri Matisse triggered him very much, although the two artists became good friends in the years to come. Interestingly so, shortly after Picasso finished Les Demoiselles d'Avignon the painting caused such a controversy that Matisse and Fauvism became instantly irrelevant so the movement disintegrated the following year.
Namely, Matisse perceived the work as a bad joke, however, yet his 1908 painting Bathers with a Turtle is an indirect reaction to Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Picasso’s peer Georges Braque was not impressed by this work as well, but he studied it thoroughly which resulted in their collaboration and eventually inauguration of Cubism around 1909.
Although the depictions of nightlife and all of its charms were already exploited by the Impressionists (mostly Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec), this theme was still a taboo. However, what raged the people with this painting was a total disruption of representational order, perspective, and corporeality. The portrayed sex workers were not there to charm, attract or embarrass the viewer, they were there to deconstruct the (Westerner) gaze. As a matter of fact, it seems that the painting opened a debate of the notion of uncontrolled, wild and freed female body with the prefix of racial otherness.
After it was shown in public space at the 1916 edition of at the Salon d'Antin, it was immediately characterized as immoral. Initially, Picasso titled the painting Le Bordel d'Avignon (The Avignon Brothel), but the organizer of this exhibition, the poet André Salmon, thought the painting should have a less scandalous title, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Picasso was not satisfied with the softer version of the title and was prone using the original title or calling it mon bordel (my brothel).
The art world started showing interest in this early Cubist masterpiece after Andre Breton published the influential article (including the photograph of the work) titled The Wild Man of Pairs: Matisse, Picasso, and Le Fauves during the 1920s.
After seeing the painting at the mentioned exhibition, fashion designer and art collector Jacques Doucet decided to purchase Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Around the 1920s Picasso became one of the best selling artists and he sold the painting to Doucet for a lower sum because he promised the painter that the painting will be gifted to the Louver after his death. However, in 1929 the Parisian designer passed away and his entire collection was sold to other private collectors.
Almost ten years later New York-based gallery the Jacques Seligman & Co. organized an exhibition titled 20 Years in the Evolution of Picasso, 1903–1923 which included Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. The Museum of Modern Art acquired the painting and mounted it officially for the first time in 1939.
Throughout the decades the critical debate was taking place in order to determine the multiplicity of styles present within the work. The most dominant interpretation is that the painting made during the great painter’s stylistic transition, and is based on the connection of his earlier work with Cubism.
Famous American magazine Newsweek published in 2007 a two-page article about Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by underlining its iconic status of the most influential work of art of the last 100 years. In addition to this title is the statement of the art critic Holland Cotter who states that "Picasso changed history with this work. He'd replaced the benign ideal of the Classical nude with a new race of sexually armed and dangerous beings."
Even when observing Les Demoiselles d'Avignon from a contemporary stance, it is still clear how a single painting revolutionized the Western art paradigm. Although it was made more than a hundred years ago, the issues it attempts to explore are still relevant today in a global landscape saturated with misogyny and racism.
Editors’ Tip: Picasso's 'Les demoiselles d'Avignon' (Masterpieces of Western Painting)
Long recognized as one of the most significant paintings of the twentieth century, contributors to this volume consider Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon from a variety of methodological and topical perspectives, including psychoanalytical, feminist, historical, and postcolonial. Through these various analyzes, the contributors explore the power and significance of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, situating the work within twentieth century art history and debates over Primitivism, sexuality, and stylistic change.
Featured image: Pablo Picasso - Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907. Oil on canvas, 244 x 234 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest, New York City. All images creative commons.