Did Picasso show the hollowness of the everyday objects in his world because he disbelieved them, even as he acknowledged their existence? Although Picasso’s “Demoiselles D’Avignon” is clearly about Picasso’s own desire it is also an expression of his fear?, a pinpoint of emotional statis between attraction and repulsion?…As Max Kosloff would say, “Modern art is the articulation of the human predicament or condition of mortality, from which there is no escape, … the Prime Motive for Modern Art is the Wish to Give Rise to Discussion.”…
That the picture has a pornographic dimension seems clear from the fact that it was originally titled The Philosophical Brothel, an allusion to the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795). This title was conferred by Apollinaire, who admired Sade, and who wrote pornography himself. Picasso in fact made a number of unphilosophical drawings of his early brothel experiences, the beginning of a lifelong series of Picasso erotica. It was given its present title by the poet André Salmon, on the occasion of its first public exhibition in July 1916. Picasso apparently thought the title somewhat puritan, and declared it nonsense. It was also nicknamed Les Filles de Avignon (The Girls of Avignon). “Fille de joie” is a French term for prostitute and “Avignon” is the name of a street in Barcelona on which there was a brothel that Picasso frequented. One wonders if Apollinaire and Picasso thought of sexual intercourse as sadistic rape — a common enough male fantasy — expressing indifference to the identity of the woman involved, and misogyny in general. One certainly doesn’t expect to have an intimate, personal — let alone durable — relationship with a prostitute. She is there to be used and disposed of. But those in Picasso’s pictures remain fixed in his memory, because of their menace.
I am suggesting that the distorted appearance of the women in Les Demoiselles — the famous formal innovations, which range from the flattening of their round breasts, the general schematic treatment of their bodies, reducing them to a kind of two-dimensional mannequin, and, most conspicuously, the transformation of their faces into static, affectless masks, climaxing in the bizarre appearance of the two women on the right, whose faces are no longer simply masklife but have become monstrous masks, barbarically expressive but nonetheless inhuman — expresses Picasso’s complex attitude toward women. It is a mix of desire and disillusionment, which ever after informs his attitude to life and art. Sometimes the desire is more aggressive and angry — hardhearted — as in Les Demoiselles, sometimes it is tender and caring, as in a softer Nude of 1905, but the disillusionment seems consistent, and, I will argue, informs Picasso’s greatest formal invention, Cubism. ( Kuspit )
Modern Art functions to transmit this anxiety to the spectator, so that the encounter with work is, at least while the work is new, a genuine existential predicament. Like Kierkegaard’s concept of God – the art is arbitrary, cruel, irrational, demanding of our faith, while making no promise of future rewards. The Spectator completes the work, experiencing the phenomenon of transmutation (“transubstantiation”). The role of the spectator is to determine the weight of the work on the aesthetic scale, bringing the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting the inner qualifications, and thus adds a contribution to the creative act. From a vantage point of over a century later, “Demoiselles” now more nearly aligns itself thematically with a more traditional genre painting, that of a “Memento mori,” a death’s head, a reminder of mortality and a nostalgic tribute to lost innocence, while still retaining its remarkable iconoclastic and graphically fresh cubistic style.
Picasso was fascinated with Cézanne’s Temptation of St. Anthony,with its perversely posturing nudes, and made numerous studies of Cézanne’s paintings of bathers, which influenced Les Demoiselles. But to think of this influence as purely formal is to miss its emotional underpinning, just as it is to reduce Picasso’s painting to an innovative rendering of a traditional harem, with the harem now a barren modern brothel for commoners rather than a luxurious preserve for aristocratic customers, and thus more sordid than exotic. Indeed, it is a mistake to separate form from emotion; all form is the symbolic expression of emotion, as the philosophers Ernst Cassirer and Susanne Langer argue. Picasso’s problem in Les Demoiselles was to find forms adequate to the intensity of his emotion — his sexual anxiety. He probably had doubts whether he could sexually perform with the prostitutes, now that he was aware that he could become sexually diseased — one can’t help wondering whether he began to think of all sexual desire as a disease — and perhaps die. What makes Les Demoiselles unique is that Picasso found new, convincing forms to express an old, deep emotion — indeed, an archetypal anxious response to woman, ultimately fear of symbiotic engulfment.