Picasso breaks with traditional representation in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon), painted by Pablo Picasso in his studio in the Bateau Lavoir in 1907, is a decisive break with the established realistic representative artistic tradition.
The radical style, scale and composition of the work means that it is widely recognised as modern art’s first painting. This section looks at the artists and particular paintings that were important in influencing its final form.
Picasso’s originality was that he was able to observe and transform recent and contemporary artistic developments. He then distilled these into a new powerful and direct but less realistic artistic vocabulary. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon can be seen as art’s response to the arrival of the twentieth century.
The infographic ‘Picasso’s vision’, (below), and the text which follows the diagram give a condensed general view of some of the artists and paintings influential in the conception of the work.
The diagram also draws attention to the existence of a series of small supporting networks (galleries, buyers, writers, critics) which allowed the work to emerge. These networks of influencers and amplifiers carried the torch for new art in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Artists, paintings, events and people that helped Picasso produce The Demoiselles d’Avignon
Specific artists and works that influenced Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
El Greco (1541 – 1614)
El Greco was a Greek painter who in his career had absorbed Venetian colour and Roman Mannerism. He eventually established himself in Toledo, an ancient city that had known Roman, Visigothic, Arab and Jewish culture. Toledo was the Spanish Empire’s capital and in El Greco’s time (late 16th early 17th century) became the spiritual and mystical heart of Catholic Spain.
El Greco’s paintings help recreate the visceral intensity and transformative effect of the mystical experience. He adapts religious ecstasy to Venetian colour and the technical virtuosity of Mannerism. The result is restless, flickering, twisting energy and lurid colour.
The transformative effect of the mystical experience: The Vision of St John
El Greco’s Vision of St. John (in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) is a late highly-charged work. Here the scene is from the book of Revelations in the Bible. It is the end of time when those who have died for the work of Christ will be given robes. The robes and the angels bearing them are tumbling from the sky.
St John and the other figures in the background who are also receiving robes, writhe, twist and coil in a typically Mannerist way. The figures stretch skywards. The clouds, hovering like ghosts, are lit up by electric pulses and darting flecks of light. The out of proportion St John dominates the left of the picture. The lithe and elongated participants seem in danger of being drawn away from earth towards a turbulent and sombre sky.
The Vision of St John does not portray a lifelike scene but searches to reveal a particular psychological states.
El Greco’s colours, in this painting, are vivid, lurid and unreal. St John’s body is impossibly elongated and only really hinted at behind the folds of the robes which seem to crackle with divine light. El Greco portrays an event from another dimension; in this mystical tornado human anatomy is stretched and transformed like plasticine and normal representative rules do not apply.
There is a claustrophobic intensity and immediacy to The Vision of St John. The emphasis on the psychological drama of revelation at the expense of traditional physical representation, perspective and landscape setting appears strikingly modern.
Picasso studies The Vision of St John in Paris
It was this astonishing picture that Picasso saw in Paris in the early years of the 20th century. The Spanish painter Ignacio Zuloaga had bought the painting in Spain and brought it to his studio in Paris. This gave Picasso the chance to study it in detail.
In an attempted ‘restoration’ of 1880 about 1.75 metres (almost 6 feet) of the upper part of the painting were cut off. What we see now are the figures from the lower portion of the painting.
Picasso would have no doubt noted the striking expressive possibilities of non-naturalistic twisting elongated figures. He would have seen how El Greco adapted scale and perspective to his own ends. He would have felt the intensity and claustrophobic framing of the picture.
He would also have seen how the nude almost monochromatic figures in the background, who are also straining to reach for their robes, complemented St John and help spread the energy of the moment right across the canvas. It is possible too that the robes in the Vision of St John and the play of light on them finds its echo in Picasso in the curtains against which the prostitutes in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon pose.
Edouard Manet was an important painter in the development of modern art and I deal with two of his paintings Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe and Olympia in the Salons page.
Paul Cézanne (1839 – 1906)
Cézanne, in his mature period, reduces the naturalism and materialism of what he represents to a set of interlocking often geometric forms. He addresses and reinterprets one of the artist’s main problems: how to represent what is perceived in three dimensions on a flat canvas with paint.
A harmony parallel to nature
His answer is colour and symmetry of form. Cézanne said that “art is a harmony parallel to nature”. By this he surely meant that it was not enough to try to mirror nature as in the academic tradition. It was not enough to register in paint accurately what was seen. It was up to the artist to develop his own visual language. Cézanne did this by invoking the permanence and order of nature and landscape and also suggesting its constant mutation.
Reducing visual clutter, finding harmony
Cézanne attempts to bring order to his still life paintings and to his studies of nature by reducing unnecessary visual clutter and imposing equilibrium through complementary masses. Each element is balanced and introduced into a visually harmonious conversation.
Cézanne reduces visual objects to visual shapes. It is as though he has put a grid over the scene and imposed his schema and style on each element. He redefines each area with his representative style.
He will often integrate different viewpoints or perspectives into the finished work, as though searching for the right balance, his harmony.
Elements in his paintings will have a counterpoint or echo helping to set up hypnotic visual resonance.
The result is a decisive move away from imitation and naturalism towards a more schematic recreation of scene and colour.
This constructed artistic order contrasts sharply with the personal self-doubt, social insecurity, artistic rejection and restlessness that Cézanne felt for most of his life.
Cézanne’s spatial observations, the way he synthesises perspective and imposes order with complementing geometrical shapes means that he is considered the forerunner of Cubism. Picasso described Cézanne as “the father of us all”.
Cézanne’s bather figures and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Figures in Cézanne’s female bathers pictures, The Three Bathers in the Petit Palais in Paris and The Five Bathers picture in the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland find close echoes in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
From The Three Bathers painting very close similarities have been noted between the two sitting figures on the right of each painting.
From The Five Bathers painting two figures show similarities: the hefty figure who thunders in from the left has an echo in the first from left figure in the Picasso. The more demure figure drying herself in the background from Cézanne has similarities with the figure second from the left in the Picasso posing with a raised arm.
We may also note the quarrelsome and irritable attitude of some of the women in The Five Bathers and the more stated confrontational expression of some of the women portrayed in Picasso’s work.
Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903)
Paul Gauguin moved away from the realism and material representation of Impressionism towards the more subjective emotion and idea driven representations that became known as Symbolism.
Symbolism allowed the artist not to represent reality but to suggest more personal constructs of meaning and emotion. The colours and composition were supposed to help evoke similar feelings in the viewer.
Gauguin, who was impressed and influenced by the ‘primitive’ art brought back to Paris by colonial activity in Africa and Oceania, decided that his art would benefit if he experienced a less developed society.
He went to Tahiti to seek paradise and to be close to nature. Whilst Tahiti proved a good deal less untouched than he had thought because of French colonial influence, he still believed he could connect with people whose spirit and visual representations were untroubled by modern industrial society or its constraining institutions. He would thus be able to draw on primitive art at source whilst personally experiencing a new environment.
Gauguin’s work undoubtedly benefited from his period in Tahiti but his stay would have a negative impact there.
Gauguin’s representations of Tahitian women; beautiful, natural, available, helped to frame and fix a particular tantalising and unrealistic view, for the European imagination, of a kind of paradise. Images like these also helped to inform race and cultural theories developing at the time.
Gauguin worked in various mediums; his expressive highly coloured simplified ‘primitive’ style had an influence on later artists such as Picasso, Matisse and German Expressionism.
Courrières mining disaster and events of 1906 and 1907
The French economy, by comparison to other major European powers at the time such as the UK or Germany, was not highly industrially developed. The majority of the population of France lived in small towns and villages and in 1900 about 40% of the active population worked in agriculture. 50% of the developing industrial workforce worked in very small firms of 1 – 5 employees.
There were however exceptions such as steel making and mining which required a concentrated workforce. Here unions developed and the push for social justice often took the form of strike action.
There is little doubt that many bourgeois people viewed the growing industrial workforce with some alarm. The bloody insurrection of the Paris Commune was only one generation ago and now it seemed a new form of international socialism which looked to overthrow the traditional ‘natural’ hierarchies of civilised society was on the rise.
The Courrières mining disaster
1906 was particularly turbulent. In March of that year a terrible mining disaster hit the town of Courrières in northern France. There was an explosion with catastrophic loss of life; 1099 men died making it the worst ever European mining accident.
The event set off a series of strikes and social unrest. On the 1st May 1906 George Clemenceau, who was the Minister of the Interior, fearing an uprising, sent 60 000 troops into Paris to keep order at the annual May Day workers demonstration.
Lithographic impressions of the disaster appeared immediately in the newspapers and later photographic postcards of the scene were widely circulated. The popular press had huge circulation at the time. Whether photographic in the form of postcards or lithographic artist’s impressions of the scene, the images of the disaster would have been omnipresent in 1906, just one year before the appearance of Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Did images from Courrières find echoes in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon?
One of the images shows wooden pit supports jaggedly hanging into the mine in the aftermath of the explosion. The sharp angles of the girls’ elbows in the painting and the orientation of their arms perhaps retrace the diagonals of the shattered pit props.
The curtains through which two of the women enter the scene and against which two others pose look a little like ice, earth or stone. In the painting the space is cramped (as in the confines of a mine) with no depth, there is little room for the figures; the proximity generates tension.
The face of the figure entering from the left is dark as though covered in coal dust whilst the rest of her body is pink.
Picasso was able to rapidly absorb and transform what he saw and felt, reinterpreting his experience in a new personal way of painting. From the numbers of preparatory sketches that survive we can see that Picasso thought long and hard about Les Demoiselles d’Avignon before fixing on its final form. He would have taken into account the strikes and social unrest of that year which continued into 1907.
Is it perhaps possible that he identified some points of correspondence between the fate of the men killed in the mine and the women trapped in prostitution? Just as workers were demonstrating and striking for basic work conditions and pay, so is it also possible that there may be the beginnings of an eventual way out for those women in the defiant and confrontational posture that some of them display?
Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954) I: Luxe, Calme et Volupté (Luxury Calm and Pleasure) 1904
One year before the famous 1905 Fauves exhibiton, Matisse had travelled to St Tropez to spend time painting and discussing with the Neo-Impressionist Paul Signac. St Tropez at that time was a quiet backwater not served by the railway.
Signac tried to instruct Matisse on the painstaking pointillist technique where the painting is built up from dots of paint. Whether through lack of patience or simply because he was not convinced by the theory, Matisse, whilst paying lip service to the divisionist theory, developed his own style.
He reacted to the intensity of the Mediterranean light and the unspoiled beauty of the Cote d’Azur with a classically timeless scene, painted in a startlingly energetic and modern way.
Matisse called his painting Luxe, Calme et Volupté (Luxury, Calm and Pleasure). It is a line taken from the poem ‘L’Invitation au Voyage’ by Charles Beaudelaire (‘Invitation to Travel’). In the poem the male narrator invites his lover to travel with him to an unspoiled paradise where they would enjoy a life of pleasure in an ideal climate whilst, presumably, remaining forever young. The poem evoked the Côte d’Azur for Matisse.
Matisse drawing attention to the excitement of primary colour
Instead of using dots (as in the pointillist technique) Matisse uses jabs or flecks of colour. These larger dashes mean that instead of blending into a recognisable and coherent form as in the Neo-Impressionist techniques of Seurat or Signac, now, our eye is actually drawn to the vivid saturated primary colours (oranges, reds, yellows, blues and purples). These colours congeal into areas of humming excitement as they settle on figures, the sea, the landscape, the tree, the boat and a cloud in the sky.
Making the composite elements of colour larger and bolder both draws attention to the process of creating an image and imparts something of the unique excitement of witnessing the beauty of the scene.
Matisse is inviting us to share his enthusiasm; it is expressed in these juxtaposed colours.
Luxe, Calme et Volupté is a picture whose subject is conventional: a reflection on the beauty of nature and the beauty of the nude female form within that setting. The technique however is very modern: the figures are merely suggested their almost abstract features are indicated by fluid sweeping lines. The restless dashes and jabs of paint suggest the scene and help us recreate it. The vibrant colour communicates the atmosphere and ‘invites us to travel’ forward, into the future of painting.
Luxe, Calme et Volupté can be seen in Paris in the Pompidou Centre.
Matisse II: Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life) 1906
Matisse’s Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life) is his next great leap forward. In this painting he revisits themes he had explored in Luxe, Calme et Volupté. This time he figures are set in a polychrome Fauvist landscape. Art historians point to Ingres’ The Turkish Bath (in the Louvre Museum) as an influence.
Similarities exist between individual figures in the Ingres and the Matisse paintings however in the Matisse the mood is quite different. Instead of Ingres’ overcrowded canvas full of theatrically writhing, fleshy female nudes, here, with Matisse, even the reclining figures project twisting, lithe, natural, healthy energy.
The figures are free and joyous
In the Ingres Turkish Bath the women seem imprisoned and aimless. In the Matisse the figures have a sense of purpose: they pose, dance, embrace, play music and pick flowers in an idealised outdoor setting. They seem free. Even the trees take part as they sway and swoon and echo the dark outlining of the two amazon-like figures in the centre of the painting.
The scene is not realistic. Traditional perspective between figures is not respected; we seem to be seeing the figures from different viewpoints at the same time, almost as though we too are walking around this enchanted forest. The canvas bathes in thrilling Fauvist colour. All details: figures, trees, horizon are schematised, made more simple; form is smoothed out in the service of line.
Matisse was interested in the expressive possibilities of non-naturalistic ‘primitive’ art. The nudes are reduced to a series of flowing lines with little modelling on the body whilst the faces and expressions are suggested by some simple lines. The scene is stripped down to an explosion of joyful, pure, intense colour. Whatever narrative thread there is is lost as the eye is overwhelmed by the whole picture.
This is a 20th century vision of paradise with allusions to a classical or Golden Age past. It also incorporates primitivist notions of living in harmony with nature and connecting with its energy. The vivid pools of colour convey excitement which energise the viewer.
Those colours remind us of the exhilaration of the conscious experience of being in the world.
The Bonheur de Vivre (Joy of Life) is in The Barnes Foundation in Phladelphia.
Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon)
The Demoiselles d’Avignon, produced in 1907, is often seen by historians of art as pivotal for the development of modern art. This monumental work measures 244 cm x 234 cm or 8’ x 7’8”.
The painting fast tracks all of the innovations that had been slowly developing, pushing them onto a crowded, cramped surface. In a sweeping blow Les Demoiselles d’Avignon resumes, synthesises and severs connections with recent 19th and early 20th century artistic explorations and decisively projects painting towards non-naturalistic modern art.
Picasso’s new representational framework
Picasso’s subject is five prostitutes. They pose on front of some curtains.
He uses flat angular shapes to indicate the women’s bodies. There is little depth or volume in the picture; neither in the bodies of the women or in any indication of space behind the figures.
There seems little sense of foreground or background. The women’s presence is brilliantly suggested but they are not represented in any, conventional or established way. They are portrayed with approximate skin colour of pinks, oranges and purples, angular geometric forms are used to depict their bodies.
There appears to be discord among the girls whilst a mixture of resentment, confrontation and blank resignation are directed towards the viewer by the figures. The women’s direct stare, whilst more confrontational, recalls Manet’s Olympia.
The girls almost spill into the viewer’s space
The painting’s space is cramped. The girls pose and bicker on front of some curtains that recall the robes from El Greco’s Vision of St John.
Two of the figures to the right are portrayed with primitive mask like features and the figure entering from the left has an eye as though seen facing us whilst her head is in fact in profile.
There is no depth behind the girls because Picasso has purposefully abandoned perspective, meaning that the only space for the girls appears to be somewhere between where they are posing and out of the frame into the viewers space. They stare out at the viewer and almost push us back.
The dynamism of primitive art
Primitive art forms, especially sculptures and masks and the angular style that many of the unknown craftsmen and artists chose for their works, had a huge influence on painters like Matisse and Picasso. They immediately recognised a dynamism and power which was expressed in a visual language that had nothing to do with the refined and rule bound Western European artistic tradition.
The human form was often schematised to a block and the face represented by a series of simple often expressionless lines.
Taking away classical representation and replacing it with streamlined, anthropomorphic representation, seemed to concentrate the coherence and force of expression of the work of art.
Picasso’s style and subject matter was influenced by African masks.
He also had the occasion to study closely, in his studio, two antique stone statue heads from the Iberian peninsula dating from the period before the Roman invasion.
The encounter with the compacted, contained, latent energy of primitive art by artists ready to explore and develop different modes of expression in painting is critical for the development of modern art.
Interpretations of the Demoiselles d’Avignon
Critics and art historians have tended to see the aggressive attitude of the prostitutes in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as being linked to Picasso’s fear of catching syphilis when he visited prostitutes in Paris. There was no known cure for Syphilis in 1907; it remained a debilitating and sometimes fatal disease.
Picasso, the argument goes, was said to be indifferent to the condition of the prostitutes. The aggressive attitudes of the women is a reflection of his conflicted attitude of desire and misogyny.
France was one of a number of European countries developing their colonial empires at this time. Whilst the European colonial project was quick to brand the artistic and religious artefacts it came into contact with as primitive, strange and barbaric, Picasso depicts some of the darker currents running under the surface of modern ‘civilised’ society.
He chooses to show the face of prostitution and the socially accepted subject of female sexual slavery by abandoning the classical language of painting. Picasso has chosen to portray the oldest profession in a raw and powerful new way.
The prostitutes blank and aggressive expressions should prompt us to look at our expectations too. Are not obscure and primitive forces also present in our own modern society?
The masks can be seen as a symbol of the objectification that the girls have been victim of. They have become dehumanised; sex objects available for a price.
More optimistically, the masks could be interpreted as their device for self-preservation; to distance the real self from the role they play in society and perhaps to harness primitive power and escape their condition.
The painting stayed in the Bateau Lavoir studio for many years from where a shock wave slowly resonated out to the art world.
The point of departure for Cubism
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is also often associated with Cubism. The geometric forms of the picture open the door to Cubism but this, in fact, was a slightly later development whose abstract form and content Picasso developed whilst working in close partnership with the French artist Georges Braque. I’ll have some more to say about Cubism in the lower Montmartre – Pigalle walk.
As a response to Matisse’s Bonheur de Vivre (Joy of Life)
Critics have suggested that the revolutionary final form of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon owes much to the feel-good factor associated with Matisse’s Bonheur de Vivre (Joy of Life) which appeared in 1906.
The Steins bought Matisse’s painting and hung it in their apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus near the Luxembourg Gardens. The evenings hosted by the Steins became the meeting point for many contemporary artists. Picasso was by this time friendly with Gertrude Stein. He had painted her portrait in the Bateau Lavoir in 1906 after many sittings. It was in Rue de Fleurus that Picasso first saw Matisse’s Bonheur de Vivre hanging on the apartment wall beside Picasso’s own portrait of his enlightened patron.
Because Picasso was highly competitive and he and Matisse were vying to become the most recognised and original modern artist of their day, critics have seen the radical departure of the visual language of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as an antithetical reaction to Matisse’s sensual and optimistic masterpiece. Here, in conclusion, are some of the principal differences in terms of representation, subject matter and impression.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon: Picasso’s grounded and groundbreaking reply to Matisse’s idealised Bonheur de Vivre.
Picasso: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon):
- Five jagged, elongated, female figures in a closed, cramped interior space
- Terrifying, primitive mask faces, flat bodies, with angular indications of form
- One dimensional figures with limited perspective drawing attention to the flatness of the canvas. There is no suggestion of depth behind the figures and the viewer is pushed back
- Confrontational, sexualised, aggressive. The figures are depicted in monotone grades of pink struggling in a claustrophobic environment and almost bursting out of the frame.
Matisse: Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life):
- Groups of beautiful fluid female nude figures in an open idyllic Golden Age garden
- Simplified beautiful faces inspired by masks, reclining nude bodies in the classical tradition. The figures are schematised and simplified and outlined in effortless flowing lines
- Abstraction, simplification but in the service of beauty. Multi-perspective invites the viewer to look further and to venture into the garden
- Sensual and relaxed, the beautiful mostly female figures dance, exercise, pose and love in a cloudburst of joyful colour.
For wheelchair route users return to point 9 Bateau Lavoir.