Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in a wider context.
Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907; 243.9 cm × 233.7 cm, MOMA, NY City.
Picasso – Modernism’s Little Red Riding Hood [Caperucita Roja]
- Picasso gulled the crowd, the Old Wolf in “modern” clothing.
- Iconic Les Demoiselles dressed as “modern” talks neo-primitive – timeless Old Values – on the role of women.
- Moreover it talks to “corrupt” women who exploit men’s weakness, “fallen” from the celebrated ideal role of mother and carer.
- Here is no hint of Modern Liberal Values [MLV}, liberating women from prescriptive traditional roles.
- Unlike Matisse et al, no neo-Golden Age for Picasso.
- Ironic therefore is that perhaps the single most famous work in modern art shouted Old Values.
- But “bad news” sells.
“Women are machines for suffering… For me there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats” [PP, 1943].
What fraction of the millions who troop by Les Demoiselles, in the flesh or online, actually look?
How many ask what it says?
The same with critics and scholars, quick to wax at length on a detailed inventory of the Spanish magpie’s references to other works and artifacts, recent and longer past.
But how many bother with what the image says? Means?
How many are lazy, or cowed by conventional wisdom or self-interest.
a/ Picasso and Modernity: the Old Wolf in “modern” clothing.
- Pablo Picasso [1881-1973], the triumphant long reigning king of the early/mid 20th C “modern” painters – who elbowed his way there like Alexander storming east to the Indus – saw himself as just that, a king.
- And it showed in many of his works, dressed in the “modern” but mostly talking Old Values, especially in broadcasting:
- timeless traditional identities / roles for women:
- not only the god woman, the ideal woman, as mother and carer, attendant on the male;
- but the “corrupt woman”, the wily femme fatale, the delinquent or lapsed woman, succumbing to the temptation of taking advantage of men’s weaknesses. This dark woman role has a long history in the West, including the Christian Biblical foundation story of Eve in Paradise Garden misleading the first man; also witches; and femme fatale figures like Salome and prostitutes.
- And, per contra, the traditional role of man as leader, creator, thinker.
- His old time values were evident not only in his mountain of works, but also starkly in his well publicized personal life.
b/ The point of Art: to say something.
- The main point about Les Demoiselles is what’s it saying, not how.
- In saying something Art can talk aesthetically, can soothe, relax, entertain. It can inform or communicate, didactically. And it can moralise, satirise, lecture, lambast.
- And Les Demoiselles is clearly saying something through its the reactionary message.
c/ Modernity a 5m year moment for humankind: Les Demoiselles in the full modern context.
- Modernity – the modern liberal order, modern liberal values [MLV] – is a 5 million year moment for the human species, humankind, most obvious in the historically unparalleled material / health / longevity bounty.
- It arrived emphatically post WW2, second half of the 20th C, after a long and painful gestation in Europe stretching back to the 15th
- The resistance by Old Identity Values was reflected in a protracted violent sequence, from the French Revolution through the US Civil War to WW1, Russian Revolution, Nazis, WW2 and the Maoist Revolution.
- It’s been driven by radical and ongoing technical change stemming from scientific breakthroughs but above all by conducive radical ideas and institutions, by harnessing individual freedom responsibly within the government supervised institutions of competitive markets, independent rule of law and full franchise liberal democracy.
- Secondly it entails a revolution in the traditional role of women – another 5m year moment – ie liberation from motherhood [and secondary duties in housekeeping and menial labour] as their sole approved role.
- Hence under MLV they suddenly have equal opportunity, a right to compete for careers across the board, a wrenching pervasive change from prevailing traditional circumstances, and problematic if not offensive to many, mostly men but including some women.
- It’s worth noting that although Modernity was born in the West [particularly Britain], the model is universally applicable and has spread to the non-West, especially in Asia.
- Indeed in most international fora today transparent rules-based democracy is as the ideal default system.
d/ 1907’s Les Demoiselles, Picasso and Modernity: the wolf in “modern” clothing.
- “.. the first, and greatest, masterpiece of modern art..”? [Jonathan Jones, 2007].
- Really? Just look at it. The fundamental point is what is says not just how it’s dressed.
- Picasso’s Les Demoiselles was a radical modern painting in 1907, large and in a novel proto-Cubist style, drawing on “primitive” heads; but with confronting content, 5 naked in your face whores in a Barcelona brothel.
- But while the angular fragmentary painting style was novel, “modern”, the subject was distinctly “unmodern”, neo-primitive, a reactionary, anachronistic, traditional comment on women’s place in the “tribe”, not the celebrated good woman but the dark woman, the wily “corrupt” woman, who exploits her appeal to weak concupiscent men.
- It’s unclear whether or not Picasso was conscious of this statement, and the irony.
- Thus tapping “primitive” art in the work [African masks and antique Iberian faces] to emphasize the timeless quasi-spiritual negative role was authentic not superficial, let alone making any comment on European colonisation.
- Picasso’s views were not misogynist in that only the aberrant cohort of dark women was being upbraided, not the mainstream, the “faithful mothers and carers”. Thus his views were widely shared.
- The time and effort in the painting was unusual for Picasso. He is known for his vast output across over 75 years, but most works were executed quickly. Les Demoiselles by contrast took over 6 months, of extensive preparation then careful execution. Though then it was barely seen in public until the NY show in 1939.
- Why the effort? The unusually laborious enterprise? 1906 was a pivotal year for the ambitious Picasso. He was at last gaining traction with customers for his art, and now he sought to capitalize on this momentum. So Les Demoiselles was deliberately radical, calculated to shock, attract attention,
e/ Picasso a “genius”? No, a clever and ambitious reactionary.
- Picasso was a “genius”? Not really. He was artistically talented, was busy, creative and prolific, and above all he was ambitious. But he was not a genius, creatively, in what he said and how.
- Picasso’s novel touch was to make Les Demoiselles big, and to push the angular shard like proto Cubist style, drawing especially on Cezanne, but also the stylized pared simplicity of “primitive” art, which he encountered from c1905.
- Inspiration from “primitive art” was already underway [cf Gauguin, Derain] and would have continued to infiltrate Western art.
- Picasso also keenly observed past Western art, in Spain and beyond, and also that of his proximate contemporaries, especially Gauguin, Matisse and Derain, and drew on aspects of all this in Les Demoiselles.
- Les Demoiselles is commonly celebrated as radical in its abandoning longstanding Western representational art.
- But cubism and abstraction would have arrived anyway, one way or another.
- It was George Braque [1882-1963, whom Picasso met cMay 1907] who really kick started Cubism – advanced the style from Picasso’s proto-Cubist start – with his important Estaque landscape paintings from autumn 1907 through early and mid 1908.
- As to flattening of perspective, abandoning realistic 3D representation of space this shift was well underway before Les Demoiselles, particularly by Andre Derain [[1880-1954, only a year older than Picasso] from 1904 in his early Fauvist landscapes [which really did stand out] and allegorical Arcadia paintings.
- Derain was joined in this by Matisse after the older painter visited Derain at Chatou early 1905.
- Derain was also quicker than Picasso and Matisse to notice the creative potential in “primitive” art.
And reactionary content…
- Near contemporary Albert Einstein [1879-1955] was certainly a genius through his breathtaking leaps in advancing humankind’s knowledge of physics, his major hypotheses not being validated until long after they were proposed.
- But it seems hard to accord Picasso “genius” status when all he did with modern art was advance the wardrobe, and when the message of his most famous work was Old Identity Values views on women, and a dark take at that.
- We see in Les Demoiselles an illiberal anti-modern mind-set. His attitudes to women were traditional rather than modern liberal and indeed very little of the subject matter in his large oeuvre is modern, in the sense of addressing modern life, didactically or polemically.
- Unlike Matisse [but like say J. Pollock], and notwithstanding his magpie interest in past and contemporary painting, it’s worth noting that Picasso was not much of a theorist, never put pen to paper to explain his approach or philosophy, painted more by instinct, and let his output speak for itself.
More irony: strong vested interests now guard conventional wisdom on Picasso…
- More irony.
- Ironically the material fecundity of modern “Western” liberal democracy – the huge growth in real per head national incomes – means that rational critical opinion on Picasso is now significantly obscured, compromised by the money a stake.
- The financial interests of the global art industry [museums and galleries and dealers] in promoting the careers and works of prominent pioneer figures like Picasso has grown hugely, in step with the relevant major economies.
f/ Matisse said more than Picasso?
- Arguably the dogged more cerebral Matisse in his work did achieve a more cohesive core message, and one more in step with the “modern”, the modern liberal order, and one which still resonates.
- Henri Matisse [1959-1954] is commonly regarded alongside the 12 years younger Picasso as a second founding giant of 20th C modern art. They met in 1906 and interacted importantly then, Matisse apparently helping to inspire Les Demoiselles.
- Picasso was busier and made more noise but Matisse ultimately said more through his work, cohesively and constructively, talking to his troubled early 20th C world.
- He first attracted attention for his bold colourful Fauve works in 1905 [though arguably Fauvism was really kick started creatively by the underestimated younger Andre Derain and Derain’s close friend Maurice Vlaminck]. But Matisse quickly moved on with a sequence of important images 1904-10 [Luxe et al, then Bonheur et al, and Dance] on the broad theme of the Good Life, the Golden Age, harmony among peoples.
- Derain also subscribed to these themes in his own relevant sequence of paintings.
- But there was nothing „Golden Age“ about Picasso’s work!
- Around this time and through WW1 Matisse delivered some perceptive indoor genre paintings, like the various goldfish works and also some bold portraits, especially like his son in the Piano Lesson [MOMA] from late summer 1916, also.
- Between the wars, now based south in Nice, he retreated to painting mainly decorative interiors, often featuring odalisques. Then coming out of WW2 and cornered by sudden illness which hampered his hand coordination, he signed off with his spare large quasi-abstract cut outs, culminating in his large valedictory The sorrow of the king (La tristesse du roi)[1952, Pompidou].
- Matisse’s signature works around the Good Life could be branded escapist and anachronistic and among the many women he painted [like Picasso he painted a lot] were also some of the „fallen“ [the odalisques], but overall he offers a constructive humanist take on Man’s wider collective purpose far beyond anything Picasso advocated and at a time [first half of 20th C] when society being reminded of it was not unhelpful.
- Thus at the risk of being labelled too innocent or starry-eyed Matisse reminded his troubled times not to lose sight of loftier ambitions for society, of harmonious co-existence and a healthy aesthetic purpose.
A/ The singular revolution that is Modernity.
The arrival of Modernity – what might be called the modern liberal order, or modern liberal values [MLV] – over approximately the past 150 years, expressed culturally through Modernism, is a 5 million year moment for the human species.
It is most obvious in its material expression, the eventual material and health bounty from the economic take-off, ie the Industrial Revolution and beyond, driven by radical technical change but especially by conducive ideas and institutions, by competition among private economic entities, within a framework of government supervised rule of law, enforcing property rights.
Secondly it entails a revolution in traditional power relations in society in two arenas, firstly in politics and the law and secondly, in the role of women.
Thus in the modern liberal order traditional rule by kings or emperors has been replaced by full franchise liberal representative democracy and the independent rule of law.
Secondly there has been a 5 million year revolutionary moment for the role of women.
Traditionally, forever and a day, women’s primary role was motherhood and child raising, period, allied with secondary roles in housekeeping, cooking and menial labouring jobs, indoors or outdoors.
Under MLV they suddenly have equal opportunity, in access to education and in careers, a wrenching pervasive change from prevailing traditional circumstances.
B/ Summary take on Les Demoiselles.
The work seemed to be provoked by Matisse’s success and in particular by his original, controversial Le Bonheur de Vivre [Joy of Life] revealed at April 1906 Salon des Independents, following his eye opening summer 1905 Fauvist creations from Collioure with Andre Derain.
Many think Bonheur challenged the ambitious Picasso into mounting a creative response, but given too the ambitious Picasso was now keen to build on traction he was getting with buyers.
A year later [April 1907} Matisse showed his bold sculptural Blue Nude [of Bistra] right when Picasso was executing Demoiselles, and this work may have fuelled Picasso’s mission.
Unlike most of Picasso’s works Demoiselles was a sustained major project, spread across approximately 7 months from late 1906, entailing a long period of preparatory sketches, and reflection, before the execution.
Then in undertaking the image he made at least one important change, simplifying the composition by removing two male figures, thus removing distractions from the viewer engaging with the phalanx of working ladies.
Unusual within context of his other work.
The size and complexity of the painting was unusual for Picasso, and the extended time to execute it.
Compared to his work from 1905 and 1906 it came out of the blue, then although his approach continued to change creatively in 1908 and beyond – famously – he did not produce another comparable laboured large figurative group.
The meaning generally? Self evident: it’s a deliberate shocker.
Since when it finally became publicly accessible  Les Demoiselles has been the subject of keen analysis, reflection, debate and opinion, by many commentators, art critics and others.
Critics broadly agree on many specific sources for the detailed visual content of the work.
But debate on the meaning of Demoiselles – style and content – has delivered a range of opinions.
There is broad agreement on some self-evident aspects, especially that for 1907 the work was outspokenly radical, both in the proto-Cubist style and in the confronting content, the subject.
Thus the image is relatively large [2.4 x 2.3m], showing a concentrated group of 5 figures, all angular and to a degree distorted, all 5 faces stylised not representational.
Three draw on pre-Roman Iberian stone sculpture and, even bolder, two use “primitive” African masks, after Picasso had just been introduced to this material.
The figures are crammed into a small poorly defined basically flat, two-dimensional space.
So the style abandons realistic / representational depiction of subjects, including depth and perspective, and the distortion / fragmentation of the figures foreshadows Cubism which most regard as taking root in 1908.
Second, the content, the subject depicted is confronting.
Five naked women are selling sex in a brothel, to male customers symbolised by – reduced to – a single still life of fruit lower right as an unmistakeable visual metaphor, the scrotal grapes etc and the phallic slice of melon.
So there is general agreement the painting shocks in these two respects, and that it represents an important creative advance in modern art.
Most even see it as emphasizing a radical break in long [400 year] tradition in Western art, going back to the Renaissance, and logically back even to Classical art of Greece and Rome.
But thirdly it seems likely the image was intended to shock, deliberately.
Around 1906 in Paris the 25 year old ambitious and artistically talented Picasso was finally attracting meaningful custom for his work, from buyers like Steins [Leopold and Gertrude, who he met circa November 1905], dealers like Ambroise Vollard, who Picasso knew since 1901, on his first visit to Paris.
So the big effort on Les Demoiselles was likely intended to capitalise on this growing attention.
The meaning of the specific image? Bluntly “unmodern”: Picasso’s neo-primitive views on women.
Beyond general agreement the image shocks there is less agreement on the meaning of the specific image: the five ladies parading across the foreground [and the visually loaded bowl of fruit] in frank confrontation of viewers, not least males.
The obvious place to look for deeper meaning is in the author, the expat Spaniard.
First, although Picasso studied old art assiduously [aware of the rich Spanish tradition] and sought it out in the obvious museums in Spain and France, he was not then or later an organised art theorist, publishing reflections on art generally or on his work. So while he drew on specific observations in the work of past painters his own works till then did not obviously reveal any wider themes or purpose.
This is in revealing contrast with Matisse?
Second, Picasso in his life and works did comment importantly on women.
He painted a lot of them, including many nudes.
And he partnered with many [8 meaningful relationships?], but always on his terms, such that – unhappily – two committed suicide in the wake of termination of the relationship, and only one [Francoise Gilot] appeared to stand up to him, and depart on her terms.
In essence Picasso seemed to display a traditional attitude to women, at the heart of which was clearly separate roles, women having their place, the female generally subordinate to the male, so that women had their place, which precluded any modern liberal notion of equality.
Hence his resort to “primitive” art in Les Demoiselles – incorporating stylised “primitive” faces for the 5 ladies, specifically adapting pre-Roman Iberian female faces, then African masks – is not superficial but authentic, emphasizing that these roles are timelessly archetypal.
So it’s hard to disagree with the gist of argument from Carol Duncan [cf] that the imagery in Les Demoiselles reflects traditional view of women, and with a dark twist.
a/ The primary role of women in traditional societies is as the mother and child raiser, the reflecting the vital reproductive role, one often celebrated spiritually through variations on the “mother goddess”. The role is regarded as instinctive, even animalistic and not requiring much cerebral, creative activity.
b/ Men by contrast are the “civilised” doers and thinkers, the providers and builders, the leaders and creators.
c/ But some women go rogue, the Dark Women. Aware of their sexual attraction to men – and of the weakness of some men – some are tempted into exploitative roles, as the femme fatale, the alluring seductress, inclined to take advantage of men.
The ladies in Demoiselles relate to the femme fatale, the notion of the wily seductress leading men astray, which has a long history in many cultures and religions, including in Christianity [notably in the foundation story of the Fall of Man in Paradise Garden, in which Eve – coaxed by the snake – encourages Adam to disobey God’s command and taste the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge].
It also reflects particularly in European experience with alleged witchcraft [causing c40-60k executions in early modern Europe?], which some Church figures encouraged.
These views on women are not misogynist. Misogyny means inherent dislike of all women, which is not the case here where it’s only the aberrant cohort cited for rebuke.
Richly ironic therefore is that the content of this iconic “modern” painting, from the canon of modern art, is distinctly and deliberately “unmodern”, is fundamentally neo-primitive, because Picasso’s theme – whether he was aware of it or not – is in reactionary defiance of the “modern”.
Some critics [cf Carol Duncan, William Rubin etc] recognise this thrust and address Picasso’s old fashioned take.
Independent critical opinion now compromised by self interest of the global art industry.
Detached rational critical opinion on Picasso is now obscured, compromised by money, drowned by the financial interests of the global art industry: the museums and galleries and dealers.
The money involved has grown hugely in recent decades, in step with dramatic growth in disposable income from the large modern global economy, now spread to Asia.
Picasso’s large output has compounded the problem.
One only has to read the florid hagiographical language in the self serving “Lot Essays” supporting items for auction by the major houses.
This phenomenon applies to a swag of well known artists – major pre-modern artists like Rembrandt and Rubens, the modern greats, and even some contemporary artists – but the marketing enthusiasm of the auction houses is perhaps most glaring for some well known painters of abstract works, artists like the major Abstract Expressionists [cf Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, Newman etc], also Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns
C/ Picasso’s immediate prior work
Picasso saw Matisse’s Le Bonheur at the April 1906 Salon des Independents, understood its impact, and [some suggest] it may have jolted him to make a radical statement of his own, like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Matisse’s Blue Nude, shown April 1907 may have been a further stimulus.
Picasso’s style shifted markedly in 1906 after his Blue Period from c1901, as he developed more stylised simplified faces, like his 1906 self portrait of that year, and his important portrait of Gertrude Stein.
Returning from Gosol August 1906 he finished The Peasants.
Matisse’s Blue Nude, shown at the April 1907 Salon was perhaps a further stimulus, right when his thoughts on Demoiselles were well underway.
D/ Execution, content
The painting shows 5 nude female prostitutes in a brothel on Carrer d’Avinyó (Avinyó / Avignon Street, ie the main road out north to France) in Barcelona.
Two on the right have faces transposed into African masks, and faces of the 3 on left are modelled on early BC pre-Roman Iberian busts Picasso knew from the Louvre.
He changed the work as he progressed. Initially there were 7 figures: 5 women plus a male medical student on the left [holding a notebook or a skull?] and a sailor [a textbook brothel customer], seated centre.
He erased the men. And he added the two African masks.
E/ Artistic sources for content.
The detailed content of Demoiselles, drew on a range of sources?
1/ His own works. Picasso’s style shifted abruptly in 1906 in his Rose Period after his Blue Period from c1901 to 1904, as he responded in particular to sculpted old [3rd and 4th C BC] Iberian stone heads, seen at an exhibition at the Louvre during winter 1905-06. Also by 1904 the Louvre held recently excavated Iberian reliefs from Osuna. Picasso adapted these “primitive” portraits in his faces in 1906, eg his 1906 self-portrait and his portrait of Gertrude Stein.
Then in summer of 1906 Picasso and Fernande Olivier stayed in the Catalan [Spain] city of Gósol. Here he began The Harem (1906), the composition of 5 figures which seems to anticipate les Demoiselles. And he probably saw more ancient Iberian sculpture, as well as a Romanesque Madonna and child [Virgin from Gósol], now in Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.
His group picture The Harvesters was painted by c July 1907, ie when completing Demoiselles, and bears similarities.
2/ Henri Matisse [1869-1954]. Matisse’s important, pioneering large [175 x 241cm] Le bonheur de vivre (Oct.1905 – March 1906) was his only painting shown at the (April) 1906 Salon des Independants, where it was generally greeted with reserve or scorn.
Then his submission to the (November) 1906 Salon d’Automne was unremarkable, 5 paintings (Marguerite reading (1906) and 3 still lives, but not either of the Young sailor.
But at the (April) 1907 Salon des Independants he shocked again – for third time, counting the late 1905 “Fauves” burst at Salon d’Automne – by showing his Blue Nude (of Biskra), triggering more controversy. The a muscular Rubenesque reclining nude referred to the Biskra oasis in Algeria [which he visited early 1906] and also to recently encountered “Primitive” African art.
Specifically the pose of the central lady, arms behind the head, clearly references a lady on the far left side, in the middle ground, of Matisse’s 1906 Bonheur.
3/ African art. It seems Matisse kick started Picasso’s interest in African art, in the “primitive”. Matisse in autumn 1906 bought in Paris a small African wood sculpture from the DR Congo’s Vili people. (seen in Paris). Soon after he showed it to Picasso. Also Picasso visited the Trocadero ethnographic museum June 1907, with Andre Malraux. And other times? Dealer D-H Kahnweiler reported seeing “African sculptures” in Picasso’s studio in July 1907, on his first visit.
4/ Nudes from earlier Western art.
Titian [Tiziano Vecelli, c1489 -1576] depicted Venus in his c1534 Venus of Urbino, which drew on Giorgione’s [Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco; c. 1477–1510] Dresden Venus of c1510.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ 1814 Grande Odalisque drew direct from Titian’s work, upset the Salon crowd.
Édouard Manet’s famous Olympia of 1863 drew from the same Ttian work, with Venus now a prostitute, and also shocked the Salon in 1865.
In the Louvre Picasso would have seen both Ingres and Manet.
4/ Sleeping Ariadne [2nd C BC, Hellenistic, sculpture, Vatican]. Famous antique statue discovered in Renaissance Italy.
The arms cocked behind the head – the “Ariadne pose” – appear in Matisse’s Bonheur, and in Demoiselles..
4/ Paul Cezanne [1839 – Oct 1906]. Like many others Picasso clearly also drew on Cezanne.
Some of his works were shown at the 1904 and 1906 Salons d’Autumne, including his large [210 x 251cm] 1906 Les Grandes Baigneuses [now at Phil. Museum of Art] shown at the 1906 Salon.
Also Picasso would have seen Matisse’s own smaller Bathers by Cezanne [now owned by the Barnes Foundation] in Matisse’s studio. Interesting is how the lady squatting lower right in the Cezanne image resembles Picasso’ lady, lower right.
Cezanne’s death in October 1906 attracted attention to the artist, then a major retrospective was held at the 1907 Salon d’Autmne, ie after Demoiselles’ completion.
5/ Paul Gauguin [1848-1903]. Gauguin died May 1903 and the 1903 Salon d’Automne included some works as homage. Then the 1906 Salon included a major retrospective [227 works].
Picasso first encountered Gauguin works from c1902 when in Paris he met, became acquainted with, expatriate Spanish sculptor and ceramist Paco Durrio (1875–1940), who was a friend of Gauguin’s and an unpaid agent, “tried to help his poverty-stricken friend in Tahiti by promoting his oeuvre in Paris”. So Picasso saw some of Gauguin’s stoneware, was given “a first La Plume edition of Noa Noa: The Tahiti Journal of Paul Gauguin.”.
Picasso was struck by Gauguin’s expressive large [75cm high] 1894 sculpture Oviri (literally meaning ‘savage’), first seen at the 1906 retrospective, a gruesome phallic representation of the Tahitian goddess of life and death intended for Gauguin’s grave. Relevant too was the 1893 painting, The Moon and the Earth.
John Richardson notes [making some sense], 1/ how the big 1906 show made a strong impact; 2/ Picasso would have noticed how Gauguin in one image drew on a range of disparate Western and “primitive” sources; 3/ these sources included “primitive” religious notions, human relation to gods / spirits; 4/ and the nostalgic Spaniard was even conscious of Gauguin’s Spanish ancestry, via his Peruvian grandmother.
6/ Andre Derain. After a spell in the army Derain returned to the French art scene late 1904 like a box of fireworks, was the creative heart of the Fauves in 1905 – not Matisse – along with good friend Maurice Vlaminck. Thus Derain was clearly painting Fauvist images late 1904 / early 1905 while living at Chatou. The older Matisse [by 11 years] visited Derain and Vlaminck there, recognised Derain’s innovation and thus later invited him down to Collioure that summer of 1905.
By 1906 Derain was close to Picasso, and better known publicly following the Fauves debut at the 1905 Salon d’Automne.
Picasso would have seen Derain’s important large [175 x 225cm] Dance of 1906 at the Salon d’Autumne, Fauvist colour now working with the exotic tropical and primitive after Derain was struck by the summer 1906 Colonial Exhibition in Marseilles, where he saw dancers from the court of Cambodia’s King Sissowath.
Picasso he may responded also to Derain’s a/ sandstone Nude sculpture of 1907 and b/ his Cezanne refering Bathers of 1907 [3 figures, 132.1 x 195 cm, MOMA], both shown early 1907 at the Salon des Independants.
6/ also on El Greco, especially his Opening on the Fifth Seal. Picasso’s Spanish friend Ignacio Zuloaga acquired the painting in 1897 for 1000 pesetas and Picasso saw it repeatedly at Zuloaga’s home in Paris 1907, was influenced by the size and figural subject / composition.
7/ Photos. Picasso worked from ethnographic photos, naked tribal women, Africa, cf large no of photos archived at Musee Picasso, reported by Anne Baldassari [book 1999].
“…she found a series of postcards in the museum archive that date from 1906 and carry photographs of African women by François-Edmond Fortier….. Do the “primitive” poses of Picasso’s wild women mirror Fortier’s photographs? Are these pictures the surprisingly simple – and colonial – source of the 20th century’s first great artistic earthquake?”
F/ Display and sale
Oddly for a painting now so famous it was barely seen for 30 years after its completion.
Picasso seemed aware of the painting’s radical stance but was coy in publicizing it.
So oddly for a painting now so famous it was barely seen for over 30 years after its completion. It stayed with Picasso near 10 years till shown for 2 weeks in Paris in July 1916, then was rolled up for another 8 years till sold in 1924, then again in 1929. It’s first major showing after 1916 was winter 1939 at MOMA in NY City.
The painting was not seen publicly until 16-31 July 1916, at a Parisian gallery, Salon d’Antin, in an exhibition entitled “L’Art Moderne en France”, organised by critic Andre Salmon?
Picasso had titled it Le Bordel d’Avignon but Salmon changed it to the humorously euphemistic ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon‘.
Encouraged by writer Andre Breton fashion designed Jacques Doucet bought the work direct from Picasso in 1924, having seen the d’Antin show, seems to have paid 30,000F, in instalments. It was sold on his death in 1929.
Nov 1937 a NY gallery held an exhibition “20 Years in the Evolution of Picasso, 1903–1923” that included Les Demoiselles.
MOMA immediately acquired the painting [for $24,000] then mounted a Picasso exhibition November 15, 1939 till January 7, 1940, “Picasso: 40 Years of His Art“, in collaboration with the Art Institute of Chicago, 344 works, including Guernica and Les Demoiselles.
Demoiselles was a shock. It was very big (2.4 x 2.3 metres), the style new and the subject confronting, even brutal.
Braque and Derain were initially puzzled, then supportive.
The dealer D-H Kahnweiler was also impressed.
Matisse was unimpressed, was “fighting mad” at Picasso’s “hideous whores”, and also annoyed at losing the limelight to Picasso? Who then charged on by 1908 into (with Braque) full blown Cubism, and beyond.
Critic and friend of Picasso, André Salmon, was “enthusiastic”, wrote “at some length in his La Jeune Peinture française, which appeared in the autumn of 1912”, discussing its new style and its treatment of women.
Some past views by subsequent critics?
Critic John Berger. The painting helped “provoke” Cubism?
Leo Steinberg? Based on review of preparatory sketches, he claims it’s about relations between the women and [male] viewers. [But precisely what relations?]. Later he emphasized how it upended “the contrived coherences of representational art..”.
John Richardson [in Vol. 1 of his “Life of Picasso”] more or less agreed?
Carol Duncan [“Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Vanguard Painting“, 1973] brought a feminist view, saw Picasso in this image wrestling with the power of the traditional, “primitive” woman, the “femme fatale”.
In 1994 William Rubin [MOMA] / Helene Seckel / Judith Cousins – akin to Duncan – saw in it Picasso’s conflicted views on women. Rubin wrote of Picasso’s “..deep-seated fear and loathing of the female body, which existed side by side with his craving for and ecstatic idealization of it..”, unfettered desire.
A/ Traditional roles of women
This account is adapted from Carol Duncan key ideas 
a/ The primary role of women in traditional societies is as the mother, the child rearer, reflecting the biologically ordained reproductive role, a role obviously vital for society’s survival and therefore one often celebrated spiritually through variations on the “mother goddess”, going far back to the paleolithic “Venuses” of last ice age.
The role is regarded largely as instintive, even animalistic and one not requiring cerebral, creative activity.
b/ Men by contrast are the “civilised” doers and thinkers, the providers and builders, the leaders and creators, the explorers and trailblazers.
c/ But some women go rogue, the Dark Women. Aware of their sexual attraction to men – and of the vulnerability, weakness of some men – some are tempted into abusive, exploitative roles, as the femme fatale, the alluring seductress, inclined to take advantage of men.
Examples of this dark sided woman include 1/ prostitutes; 2/ witches; 3/ and Eve in the Garden of Paradise.
Traditional stylisation of this role include the Gorgon in Greek mythology, and African masks.
At MOMA Willem De Kooning’s Woman I and Picasso’s Demoiselles are examples of Dark Women.
Woman I recalls “big bad mama… burlesque queen”, akin to the Gorgon, slain by Perseus.
And in Demoiselles the women are not just prostitutes in Barcelona but archetypal, in timeless traditional roles, hence importing Iberian and African faces was not as an “homage” but as the real thing.
The men were removed from the image to highlight the message, so the idealised Dark Women are engaging all men out there in viewing land.
“.. figure on the lower right… [could be] inspired by some primitive or archaic deity.. [thus is] prominent –she is the nearest and largest of all the figures. “
d/ Man’s waiting obstacle course.
All men must navigate through, negotiate the waiting wiles of the Dark Women in their vital mundane tasks of provision and also their quest for the “higher realms”, enlightenment.
This traditional “ideology” is reflected in displays in conventional museums, which are. “not neutral… [rather are] sites for rituals of male transcendence ..”
f/ An implication here is that the role of women as creators in art inherently problematic. Women are not recognised as “creators” therefore not as authentic artists.
Note 1. Carol Duncan, Art Journal, Vol. 48, No. 2, Images of Rule: Issues of Interpretation (Summer, 1989), pp. 171-178, “The MoMA’s Hot Mamas”
B/ Evolution of Picasso’s art, 1905-09.
The Rose Period.
Many figure paintings, more or less realistic faces.
Some group scenes, eg Acrobat family. Family of Saltimbanques.
A lot of figures.
Faces often using simplified Iberian mask look. Like his well known Self portrait, also Gertrude Stein.
Some “sculptural” nudes [eg 2 x Two naked women”, Reclining nude}, after Cezanne.
Only a small no of figure groups, eg The Harem, Horses bath, [both Rose Period].
An emphatic breakthrough year.
Strong emphasis on figures, especially women.
Famous large Demoiselles.
Bold quasi-abstract / proto-Cubist The Dance of the Veils.
Other groups of women, eg 2 x Five women, Three women under a tree.
Many single figures.
Most faces stylised, angular or pared, drawing on Iberian faces or African masks
Occasional still lives.
Full early Cubism, in wake of G Braque’s pioneering late 1907 works.
Lot of figures, faces.
Some figure groups. Some like Three women near full abstract, a tangle of curved lines.
A lot more still lifes.
Many fragmented, chiselled crystalline faces and figures, landscapes, still lives
Near full colourful abstraction, cf Woman sitting in an armchair. Colorful flat geometric shapes, mostly variations on rectangles, some with depth.
Man head also near full abstraction. Like a painted collage.
C/ Picasso works – by categories
a/ Paintings 4530
b/ Drawings, engravings, watercolors etc 19,390
Drawings 12,936 Engravings 3194
Lithographs 992 Gouaches 864
Pastels 365 Watercolors 1039
c/ Collages, sculptures, ceramics, photos etc 4845
Collages 333 Ceramics 1685
Sculptures 843 Photographs 324
d/ Total 28,765
Source: National Geographic, May 2018