Why Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ still resonates today.

By Daniel Margrain

Commodification and objectification, concomitant to the growth of consumerism in modern society, is the fuel to the engine that drives capitalism on. As I explained in a previous post, the social pressures on young women to conform to certain media expectations that capitalism places upon them and from which these processes are manifested, is immense. As I will outline below, Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – arguably the greatest piece of art produced in the 20th century – challenged this manifestation of capitalism during the early stages of its development. I will show how the cultural significance of the painting still resonates today.

Les Demoiselles

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is the most famous examples of cubism. It is an oil painting on canvas begun by Picasso in late 1906 and completed in the summer of 1907. It is eight feet tall, seven feet eight inches wide, and has hung since 1937 in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907 by Pablo Picasso

In this painting, Picasso abandoned all known form and representation of traditional art. He used distortion of the female body and geometric forms in an innovative way, which challenge the expectation that paintings will offer idealized representations of female beauty. It also shows the influence of African art on Picasso and is said to be a reaction to Henri Matisse‘s Le bonheur de vivre and Blue Nude.

Its resemblance to The Large Bathers of Paul Cezanne, Statue Oviri of Gauguin and Opening of the Fifth Seal of El Greco has been broadly talked about by critics. When it first exhibited in 1916, the painting was regarded as immoral. According to art critic, Leo Steinberg, the reversed gaze, that is, the fact that the figures look directly at the viewer, as well as the idea of the self-possessed woman, no longer there solely for the pleasure of the male gaze, may be traced back to Olympia, 1863 of Manet.

The critic Jonathan Jones described the painting as “marking the birth of modern art” in the sense that it dispensed with the portrayal of the naturalistic or the ‘realism’ as developed during the Renaissance. Modern art either distorts physical appearances or abandons them altogether. This is not to say, of course, that it was possible for the Renaissance painters to ‘realistically’ depict things that do not in reality exist like angels.

The point is, depictions of say, breasts and faces in art during this epoch, were easily recognizable as faces and breasts. Picasso was the first to break from the Renaissance tradition in which a great deal of attention was paid to detail, craft and specific skills – factors which were widely regarded as the true sign of quality.

Although it could be said that impressionism marked a shift in the emphasis on the premium of these ideas as being the marker for great art, it was Les Demoiselles that provided the art world with its decisive break. In 1907 it would have looked like not just a move away from the traditional skills, but a full scale assault on them.

Up until the 19th century, harmony, form and certain subject matter were regarded as the aesthetic marker for beauty in art and anything that didn’t conform to this rationalization was deemed to be of a lower order. Think of A Rake’s Progress, a series of eight paintings by 18th-century English artist William Hogarth, as an for example of this.

In Les Demoiselles, not only does Picasso not attempt to make the women ‘beautiful’ but, by the conventional standards of the day, his use of the African masks, insists on their ugliness. Les Demoiselles was the painting that was the starting point for the development of the revolutionary art of the 20th century.

The significance of Picasso’s innovative painting should be viewed within the wider context of modernist culture as a whole, understood as the emergence of the technological innovations that typified the industrial revoultion, the artistic break from the aristocratic traditions that existed more or less until the early 20th century, and the social revolutions of the period that were linked to them.

Les Demoiselles fits neatly into this schema within the context in which the impressionists and the post-impressionists were all met with derision. The development, and first mass production of, the automobile happened during this time. The Wright Brothers and Santos-Dumont made a public flight in Paris. Marconi established the world’s first radio station in 1897 on the Isle of wight and opened the first wireless factory in Chelmsford in 1898.

All this happened during a period when Europe was pre-occupied by Revolution in Russia. Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird was composed in 1910, and The Rite of Spring between 1912 and 1913, while the Ballet Russes was formed 1909 and first performed L’Aprèsmidi d’un Faune in 1912. In literature Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu was begun in 1909, James Joyce’s Dubliners appeared in 1914, Franz Kafka’s In the Penal Colony in 1914 and his Metamorphosis in 1915. Les Demoiselles formal innovations that are indicative of modernism, preceded all of the formal innovative breaks with the past in the artistic fields described.

But the impact of the painting extends beyond the development of modern art in purely formal terms. Perhaps above all, it’s the contemporary relevance of the subject matter which resonates most powerfully today in a society where objectification and commodification inherent to capitalism increasingly permeates popular culture.

It’s perhaps tempting to ignore the fact that the picture is about prostitution let alone about being confronted up close and personal by five prostitutes. However, some journalists recoil from confronting the fact that the core subject is about looking at, and being looked at by, prostitutes and instead replace it with other evasive interpretations. But although the picture is ostensibly about prostitution, to me it’s saying something much deeper that goes beyond the critique of one particular social institution.

The central feature of Les Demoiselles is the confrontation between the artist/brothel client/viewer. As highlighted by the gaze of the central women (second and third from the left), they are one and the same. We are left with a feeling of being gazed at with contempt by the prostitutes which initiates in us a intense discomfort.

In turn, this mutual antagonism reflects a sense of estrangement that the institution of prostitution exemplifies within the formal structures of the state. In my view, the themes that Picasso explored in Les Demoiselles could only be expressed as part of the radical break he made with the traditional forms of naturalistic representation.

What Picasso achieved with his assault on conventional standards of beauty and the use of African masks, was the de-sentimentalization and de-glamorization that capitalism, through objectification, sentimentalizes and glamorizes.

Whether Picasso was intellectually conscious of all of this as he worked on the painting is questionable. The point though, is the picture which revolutionized art cannot plausibly be considered autonomous from the nature of a society from which its creator emerged.

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