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Visual Arts

Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
1907

With Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso offends the Paris art scene in 1907. Showing his eight-foot-square canvas to a group of painters, patrons, and art critics at his studio, Picasso meets with almost unanimous shock, distaste, and outrage. The painter Matisse is angered by the work, which he considers a hoax, an attempt to paint the fourth dimension. "It was the ugliness of the faces that froze with horror the half-converted," the critic Salmon writes later. The painter Derain comments wryly, "One day we shall find Pablo has hanged himself behind his great canvas."

In the months leading up to the painting's creation, Picasso struggles with the subject -- five women in a brothel. He creates more than 100 sketches and preliminary paintings, wrestling with the problem of depicting three-dimensional space in a two-dimensional picture plane. The original composition includes two men -- a patron surrounded by the women, and a medical student holding a skull, perhaps symbolizing that "the wages of sin are death." In the final composition, the patron is gone and the medical student -- who has been called a stand-in for the painter himself -- has become a fifth woman with a primitive mask, holding back the crimson curtain to reveal her "sisters." The painting is described as a battleground, with the remains of the battle left on the canvas. The Iberian women in the center of the canvas clash with the hideously masked creatures standing and squatting on the right.

In creating Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Picasso turns his back on middle-class society and the traditional values of the time, opting for the sexual freedom depicted in a brothel. He also rejects popular current movements in painting by choosing line drawing rather than the color- and light-defined forms of Impressionism and the Fauves. The painter's private demons take shape in the figures on the canvas. Picasso later calls Les Demoiselles d'Avignon "my first exorcism painting." He likens the act of painting to that of creating fetishes, or weapons: "If we give spirits a form, we become independent." The originality of Picasso's vision and execution in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon help plant the seeds for cubism, the widely acclaimed and revolutionary art movement that he and painter Georges Braque develop in years to come.

After its initial showing, the painting remains largely unseen for 39 years. It is shown at the Galerie d'Antin in Paris in 1916, then lies rolled up in Picasso's studio until it is bought in the early 1920s by Jacques Doucet, sight unseen. It is reproduced in the publication La Revolution Surrealiste in 1925, but remains relatively unknown until 1937, when it is shown at the Petit Palais in Paris. The Museum of Modern Art in New York buys it soon afterwards, and in later years it becomes a prized part of the collection.

The image is a photograph of a cubist painting showing five figures.
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Pablo Picasso,1907, painting, oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Photo © CORBIS / Burstein Collection, Painting © 2000 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


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