Picasso Part One: Les Demoiselles D’Avignon

For my next art series, I am going to focus on one of my favourite artists, Pablo Picasso. Over three blog posts, I will be looking at a different Picasso painting and explore the stories within and behind the artwork.

The first piece is a true staple of art history; Les Demoiselles D’Avignon.

Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, painted by Pablo Picasso over a hundred years ago, is considered as the most important painting of the twentieth century. But what is Les Demoiselles D’Avginon about and why is this painting so important? Here are four essential facts to understanding this infamous artwork.

Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, Picasso, 1906-7 © Wikipedia

The beginning of Les Demoiselles D’Avignon

The painting was first exhibited at the Salon d’Antin in Paris in 1916 but was in fact painted ten years earlier between 1906-7. From the time of its creation to its exhibition, the painting was known as Le Bordel philosophique. The title was subsequently changed to Les Demoiselles D’Avignon by the art critic Andre Salmon who organised the Salon d’Antin exhibition where the painting was first shown.

What is the painting about?

The painting is set in a brothel and shows five naked prostitutes in various poses. The three female figures on the left side of the composition have quite brazen and unashamed stances; one of the figures on the right is holding open a curtain to enter the scene and the second figure is positioned in a squatting pose in the bottom right of the composition. Preliminary sketches show two men were originally included in the composition but were removed from the final version.The removal of the two men from the composition is important as it changes the scene and role of the viewer. Each of the women stares out of from the picture plane, involving the viewer.

Had the two men been left in the final version, the viewer of the painting would play the part of spectator, glimpsing at an encounter within the brothel. Now, the viewer is subjected to the confronting gaze of the women and has become their unseen client.

Why was Les Demoiselles D’Avignon so shocking?

Setting the scene of the painting within a brothel was not what made this painting shocking. In fact during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the female nude genre became an important theme for modernist painting and it was not uncommon for prostitutes to be depicted in art; for instance the Moulin Rouge paintings by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

It was their portrayal that was shocking. Picasso broke the rules of conventional painting through his depiction of the female figures and pictorial space. The figures are sharp and angular, their anatomies are unnatural and do not accurately represent the human form. Even their facial features are uncharacteristic of academic conventions of painting; the three figures on the left have overly large almond shaped eyes whilst the two on the right are twisted, distorted and out of proportion.

Why is Les Demoiselles D’Avignon so important?

In Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, Picasso overturned the mode of perspective in art which had been in place since the Renaissance. The scene is not shown from one single point perspective but from multiple viewpoints. Picasso broke away with single point perspective and depicted the scene and figures in different parts that are seen from multiple angles.

This stark move away from academic conventions became a defining moment in modern art. The multiple viewpoints in Les Demoiselles D’Avignon and manipulation of pictorial space had never been seen before in art and opened the door for Cubism and subsequent art movements.

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