After the first World War, Andre Breton came to Picasso’s studio…..
saw Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and recognised it as the definitive modern masterpiece. Breton, the leader of the surrealists, saw in it a painting about the revolutionary menace of the unconscious, and he was right. What differentiated this picture was the way its distortion challenged the most basic assumptions about the pictorial depiction of figures and of space, and the sheer immediacy of its confrontation with so brazen a subject.
The force of those differences was enhanced by the openness with which it alluded to painting from the European past: to post Renaissance figure painting from Titian and El Greco to Ingres. It was enhanced by the equal openness with which the picture alluded to a non-European present, what then were called the “primitive” cultures of Africa and Oceana, the “Demoiselles” simultaneously invoked and demolished the canon celebrated by the great museums where Picasso had trained his eye, the Prado and Louvre.
In the mythology of modernist and post-modern art history, the status of Picasso’s “Demoiselles” as a painting that marks a dramatic break from the past and a new twentieth century beginning is now unquestioned. Its immediacy, the directness with which the stares of each individual prostitute invite the spectator in, underlines its role in one of the central developments of art in the twentieth century: the empowering of the spectator. We, the work’s spectators, are made the center of attention. The work becomes not so much Picasso’s statement as a challenge to us to respond and, by responding, to give it meaning.
Even in a world that no longer worships painting, this painting is unsurpassed. It anticipates the end of painting, gladly contemplates the cultural destructions Picasso was to step back from. There’s something anarchist and ruthless about it that contains Dada and Marcel Duchamp and a precursor to punk. In general, works of art settle down eventually,and become respectable. But, over one hundred years on, Picasso’s is still so new, so troubling, it would almost be an insult to call it a masterpiece.
…Les Demoiselles d’Avignon could not be more earthily, pungently affective - it is, after all, full of sex. It’s a sexuality that bears no resemblance to that of, say, Klimt. Although it emerges from the same decadent milieu, it does things no artist of the fin-de-siècle had contemplated. In this painting Picasso anticipates the discoveries he made explicit in his cubist pictures: he all but obliterates the 500-year-old western tradition of perspective by flattening his flesh silhouettes in a space that goes nowhere. It’s this visual violence that liberates his eroticism, because it erases any meaning or narrative. Such a tremendous unbinding of desire was unprecedented in art, not to mention Christian culture.
Picasso was also influenced by Cezanne. He begun to cut up his figures into geometric shapes, cones, spheres, cylinders and in clearly defined planes just like Cezanne used to do. In the painting, Picasso over highlighted the cutting up of the shapes with brightly colored lines that remind tribal scars on the faces of some African tribesmen (Boudaille, 36). Indeed, the figures’ shapes in Picasso’s painting show the influence of three major styles: on the left, the flattening of the woman’s torso reminds Egyptian art; the noses of the two central figures are seen in profile whereas the rest of the facial characteristics are face on, something which reminds Iberian art and finally, the features of the woman in the right are reminiscent of masks of the Negro art.
Tony Grillo: This was no mere genre painting of a particular group of people; these five figures, four standing and one seated (along with seemingly “awkwardly” painted fruit in the foreground, resting on the tip of a table whose main body must be presumed to continue beyond the frame, from the picture out to the observer), are MORE than just a portrait. I would suggest that the number of figures (5) is very significant. Consider the notion that this painting was produced at the time that Freudian methods of psychoanalysis were first being applied by artists to their method of producing work (which later became known as “dada/Surrealism”) and,by not too far a stretch, we come to the “association” of the number five as suggesting the five senses, i.e, touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight. There already was entrenched a literary tradition in France, namely the “Symbolistes,” [represented
audelaire, Mallarme, Rimbaud, Verlaine, etc.] that experimented with the combination of these our senses, seeking a new synthesis; a young Picasso, as a member of the avant-garde in Paris, caught up in the milieu and angst of his times, would have also subscribed to this very same cultural ethos and would naturally attempt his own version, in pictorial terms.