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Thursday, 16 March 2017

Painting of the Month (69) March 2017: Picasso

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Pablo Picasso, 1907
This is one of the most famous paintings ever made but, even now, a hundred years after it was first exhibited it tends to cause a strong reaction, often a negative one. I would like to try to show why it is such an important picture and to explain some of the pictorial elements and provide some contextual background. Pablo Picasso painted the picture in 1907 but did not show it until 1916, knowing the reception it was likely to receive. And the reaction was strong, even from his fellow artists. Matisse, in many ways the antithesis of Picasso and his rival to lead the avant-garde of modern painting, expressed his dislike as did Georges Braque. Braque eventually began to appreciate the work and he and Picasso went on to develop Cubism together.
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, (The Young Ladies of Avignon), is clearly in a proto-Cubist style. It ignored the then-current style of European painting; it was very two-dimensional lacking perspective and, although clearly representative, it is beginning to break up the picture surface into lines and angles. Picasso had recently seen an exhibition of African art and owned Fang masks similar to the one shown here. The two figures on the right of the picture clearly show this influence while the three on the left have typically Iberian faces.
The picture portrays five prostitutes in a brothel on the Carrer d'AvinyĆ³ (so: young ladies of Avignon Street, Barcelona, not of Avignon in south-east France). The ladies are not demure, staring out of the picture in a slightly aggressive or confrontational manner. It was meant to shock - and it did! The work was deemed to be immoral when first exhibited in public. Picasso originally called it Le Bordel d’Avignon but it was given it's famous title by a critic who probably helped prevent total public outrage. Picasso always disliked it's newer title and always preferred his original title. He always would refer to it as "my brothel".
Every new breakaway movement in art, however radical, owes much to what went before and below I have shown some works which are acknowledged to have been influential in the creation of this work.
El Greco, The Vision of St John, 1608. Often cited as an influence.
 Paul Cezanne, Four Bathers, 1890
Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863. Note the defiant stare.


bazza said...

I don't know why some of the text has appeared in different sizes here. It's not how I wrote it!

Hels said...

I knew that Modigliani collected and was greatly influenced by African masks, as we can see from both his painted portraits and his sculptures. But I had not known that Picasso saw an exhibition of African art and or that he owned masks himself. No wonder that early work was very representative, but at the same time clearly two-dimensional.

bazza said...

Hels: You know, I had never associated Modigliani with African influence but now it seems obvious! African culture was powerful at that time and critics have dubbed the years between Blue, Pink and then Cubism as Picasso's 'African Period'.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Bazza - it's good to see you back ... I have to say I don't understand Picasso ... but then I don't understand art - yet I live and learn ... which is the important bit. I hadn't heard of the eras Blue, Pink ... Cubism yes ... and nor the African influence. Fascinating post ... and a pity that the painting can't have its original title ... or is not often used.

Also enjoyed your commentary on the art work and Hels' note on Modigliani ..

If you have a chance please visit my Shrovetide post (28th Feb) ... re a Russian artist ... blues and pinks ...

Happy St Patrick's weekend ... cheers Hilary

bazza said...

Hilary: Picasso, and much of Modern Art, can be difficult to understand but I feel that it's very rewarding to get more out of a picture than what just a glance would reveal. Contemporary social and political history, as well as knowledge of movements in art, can be very revealing! As always, thank you for visiting.
By the way, I always read you posts even if I don't respond. I feel that unless I have something worthwhile to say I don't always bother!

David said...

Hi bazza,
Once again a fascinating insight into a famous painting. I too had not known about the African influence in Picasso's work, or that the original title of this painting had been altered.
I think that sometimes it is one of the jobs of art to shock and offend, and clearly Picasso's painting produced a strong response. Perhaps it is that any groundbreaking work will inevitably provoke some sort of outcry as they are often such a departure form what's gone before. For instance, wasn't Turner regarded as "mad" by some people? And my friend from the mental health group I attend, who is something of a music aficionado, tells me that at one of the first performances of Stravinsky's "Rites of Spring", half the audience walked out! This is not even to mention the many works of literature that have provoked a moral panic/outcry, perhaps Baudelaire's "The Flowers of Evil" springing immediately to mind.
All the best to you, bazza!
Very Best Wishes,
P.S. My favourite Picasso painting has to be "Guernica", a brilliant blend of political comment and great artistry.

bazza said...

Hi David. Sorry about the late reply - I've been a bit busy! It's true that he liked to shock but he was genuinely innovative and a real artist. Even to this day Cubism is often ridiculed.
Guernica is a true masterpiece and I will probably feature it one day! (Can't remember if I already did and can't be arsed to check!) Regards, Barry

Parnassus said...

Hello Bazza, I hadn't seen anything since the Agloe post--I tried resubscribing, and I hope that this will keep me up to date. Blogger is also a mystery in the way it rearranges fonts and sizes; I always wonder how my posts actually appear to readers.

It's good to know some of the background of this great painting--I think that the original title would better lead the viewer to sound lines of interpretation. It's perhaps too bad that we who now appreciate Picasso can never be shocked in the same way as the original audience.