Perhaps more than any other artist, Pablo Picasso depicted the dark side; the Darth Vader of the human psyche, as well as the positive and the beautiful…This departure by Picasso from the so-called “civilized” and classical influences of Western art demonstrates his daring and his genius,as well as exposing his personal demons and vulnerabilities. It had wide repercussions throughout the history of Modern art from that time on, far beyond the focus of then contemporary concerns and that mystique, or Pandora’s box of issues continues to the present day.
“My own explanation of Picasso’s hostile confrontation with Ingres, however, has turned on the Freudian concept of reaction-formation—the name the psycho-analyst gave to neurotically compulsive behavior meant to mask forbidden inclinations.” (Rosalind Krauss)
The painting, Demoiselles D’Avignon dates to the Spring of 1907. According to John Berger in Success/Failure of Picasso, this picture went through many changes and remains unfinished. Originally, the composition included two men, a sailor and another man (…a medical student?), entering the setting (ostensibly, a room in a brothel) carrying a skull, which may have been a private reference to venereal disease (and Picasso’s own recent fears of having contracted what was, at that time, a life-long, agonizing and crippling illness), which would have brought the total number of figures depicted to seven. But, this is background information and not what is given, what is seen. 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.”
Let me begin by stating categorically that the five figures in the painting are NOT representations of women; at best, they are “caricatures” of women, at worse, they’re drag queens. If we are to accept that this painting is set in a bordello: then we must entertain the thought that these figures could easily be sailors and customers or actual female and male whores in “deshabille” costume, in various stages of disrobement; I take particular exception in categorizing or ascribing them to either gender; these contorted figures are NOT representations of women or men. They are NOT seductive. They are that OTHER entity that results from the meeting of SUBJECT and OBJECT, in this case, customer and whore, each borrowing aspects from one another and then represented as a third “object entity,” a symbol. ( Tony Grillo )
But, even gender issues play a minimal role in what is depicted here by the artist; rather, it is the drawing of the human figure in a new way, attenuating, foreshortening, twisting front, back and side views, in the manner that later became known as “cubism,” whose underpinnings can be traced to the tectonic qualities that are present in the African tradition of tribal mask making “without having followed a specific African model, transposing sculptural stylizations into flat fields.” (Leo Steinberg) And, through this painting, Picasso provoked Cubism, prompting Braque to begin painting at the end of this same year his own formal answer to it; Picasso drew from his cultural traditions, steeped in the Spanish Roman Catholic ethic, when he painted this violent “mise en scene” or tableau, “a raging, frontal attack, not against sexual immorality, but against life as Picasso found it – the waste, the disease, the ugliness, and the ruthlessness of it.” (Berger.)
In fact Les Demoiselles threaten to overwhelm the male spectator – implicitly the missing sailor -- absorbing him into their brothel space, making him a slave to his desires, all the more so when they are perverse: there is always the danger that one may not be able to leave — certainly not unscathed — the sexual hell one dared enter. The prostitutes are in fact ritualistically arranged, as though preparing to sacrifice the male victim in their center on the small table on which the still life rests. Indeed, the drapery the second figure on the left holds in her left hand ends in the sharp point of a knife. It touches the altar-like table — the fruit on it can in fact be regarded as a kind of offering — its menace amplified by the scimitar-like wedge of melon. Thus the prostitutes haughtily lure Picasso with his own desire, and he had to break the hold of their siren song by making their bodies ugly and unsavory, thus exorcising them.
In the 1930s, reflecting on the tribal masks he first saw in the Trocadéro Ethnographical Museum in 1907, Picasso stated:
The masks weren’t just like any other pieces of sculpture. Not at all. There were magic things. . . . The Negro pieces were intercesseurs, mediators. . . . They were against everything — against unknown, threatening spirits. . . . I understood; I too am against everything. I too believe that everything is unknown, that everything is an enemy! . . . They were weapons. To help people avoid comi
nder the influence of spirits again, to help them become independent. Spirits, the unconscious (people still weren’t talking about that very much) emotion — they’re all the same thing. . . . Les Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that very day, but not because of the forms; because it was my first exorcism painting — yes absolutely!
This statement was made under the influence of Freud-inspired Surrealism, but it nonetheless conveys a disturbed attitude to woman, perhaps informed by a wish for perverse, experimental practices — the illicit, “irrational,” “irresponsible” sex symbolized by the prostitutes. In fact, the mouth on the mask of the lower right hand woman has been interpreted as an anus or vagina, so that her merger with the woman above her implies anal intercourse or fellatio. Picasso apparently owned 40 postcards of African women made by the photographer Edmond Fortier, suggesting his erotic fantasies of what has been euphemistically called primitive sex — certainly his interest in having “different” sexual adventures. My point is that Les Demoiselles conveys Picasso’s interest in “alternative,” “liberated” sexuality, in which woman is an instrument of desire — a sexual machine, an idea which re-appears, with a vengeance, in Dadaism and Surrealism. Picasso’s Demoiselles in fact have a brittle mechanical look, their bodily parts awkwardly synchronized to form a primitive machine, made to carry out primitive functions.
When Braque said that he wanted to “translate [the] emotion” that woman aroused in him “in terms of volume, of line, of mass, of weight,” he was rationalizing in formal terms what in Picasso was stark irrationality, showing that he understood next to nothing about Picasso’s true feelings and expressive power. Les Demoiselles made a strong impression on Braque, but it was the wrong one — he experienced it as “anti-aesthetic,” rather than anti-woman. He did not understand the intensity and depth of Picasso’s response to woman — his raw sexual hunger — or else had a more shallow, everyday response to her, as suggested by his appreciation of her “natural loveliness.” Certainly this is a long way from the evil spirit Picasso experienced her to be in Les Demoiselles. “Woman is the most powerful instrument of pain that is given to us,” wrote J. K. Huysmans, the author of A Rebours (Against Nature), the quintessential decadent work of the fin de siècle. Picasso agrees; Les Demoiselles is decadent in spirit, however much its primitivizing style represents an ironic new birth for Western art, even as it suggests the decadent sexuality of the brothel. In fact, Braque was unconsciously trying to repress and contain Picasso’s decadent irrationality — sexual madness and terror — by theorizing it away in a rationalistic French manner, without realizing that no amount of pseudo-enlightened formal analysis could ever make rational sense of it.
This African influence is shown in the faces of the figures that are typically Iberian, and look like masks. They show the savage directness of hatched straight lines. With the angular geometrication of facial features, especially their noses, it creates a sense of aggressiveness and a confrontational atmosphere. Again, implying Picasso’s knowledge and awareness of the tensions of the times. As shown with the growth of the French Empire there was massive colonial expansion in the beginning of the 1900′s, and as a result there was now no more world to claim or discover, accept in the case of war. These connotations to death were also backed up by the intensifying anonymity of death warranted by the use of the electric chair which was introduced in 1890. These insinuations to death are clearly reflected in Picasso’s first compositional version of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which I believe was inspired by Picasso observing the iconoclasm of the Futurists and Fauvists. …
…However, we now enter and the women are staring at us, they are moving to welcome us. This creates a dynamic relationship between the viewer and the women, and removes all implications of vice so it is transformed into a purely formal figurative composition. A fifth girl from the back even moves the curtain to inspect us as the viewer. I believe this makes the painting very intrusive as we are now a voyeur and the stare of the women is concentrated on us looking at them. This makes the viewer feel completely engulfed in the scene. The feeling I personally felt when standing in front of this 2.43 x 2.33 meter painting in the Museum of Modern Art, New York City is it that of paranoia and nervousness because I felt I was being studied. The fact that the figures are all naked made me feel even more uncomfortable. Because they seem to know I was looking at them and so parade their nakedness. This shows the possible real subject of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, sexual anxiety. A Freudian analysis of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon may even say the painting is about Picassos own fear of castration or apprehension of women. Maybe this is because the image shows all the tensions inherent in a group of women who are for hire, and therefore who compete for their clients. Sternberg describes the paintings as “ought to be seen as it was painted – hung low in a narrow room, so that is spills over into it” (Diax, P 1979). This jumping into the room effect is created by Picasso’s use of light and dark flat planes of colour, and striated brush strokes which create depth and volume. Even though Picasso removes all perspective in its second composition and eliminates the vanishing point by bringing the curtain forward distance in the scene is still created. ( Laura Ball)