Wednesday, 2 June 2010


The five women stare at you, glare at you from the canvas. They are naked; all prostitutes from Avignon, a street in Barcelona famed for its brothel. Pablo Picasso painted this deconstruction of reality in 1909. The eight foot square painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon now hangs in New York's Museum of Modern Art.

When French writer Guillaume Apollonaire introduced Picasso to the French artist Georges Braque in 1907, little did he realize that he was uniting two people to give birth to one of the most revolutionary styles of art that came to be known as cubism. The French artist Paul Cezanne of the post-impressionist era was an inspiring influence on both Picasso and Braque in developing cubism. ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, the famous Picasso painting of 1907 was a prelude to the development of cubism.

But why cubism? It’s weird isn’t it? What’s it for? Picasso had the talent to paint beautifully; conventionally. What is the point of this disturbing picture? This fractured image of five ugly, naked women? Perhaps Picasso is delving for a greater truth, than had so far been expressed by Art. Life isn’t always pretty, especially when you bring sex into it. Those rough primal urges, that have nothing to do with making love, but everything to do with fucking.

In cubist artworks, objects are broken up, analysed, and re-assembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context. Often the surfaces intersect at seemingly random angles, removing a coherent sense of depth. The background and object planes interpenetrate one another to create the shallow ambiguous space, one of cubism's distinct characteristics. Picasso leaves only enough signs of the real world to supply a tension between the subject of the painting and the viewer. In this painting the figures are contorted by cubism. Cubism smashes through protocol, forcing the viewer to “look” in a different way.

But what then, does Picasso want the viewer to think about these five women? Is he saying something about women in general, or these women in particular?

In the preparatory studies, the figure at the left was a sailor entering a brothel. Picasso, wanting no anecdotal detail to interfere with the sheer impact of the work, decided to eliminate it in the final painting. The only remaining allusion to the brothel lies in the title.

Look directly at Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and speculate on its meaning. You can't. You never get as far as deciding it is a painting of five women, let alone concluding that they're prostitutes, or that it reflects male fears, or reach for any of the slick ways we customarily turn images into words. In order to interpret it, you must look away, or unfocus your eyes. Actually looking at the picture means moving constantly from one facet to another; it never lets you settle on one resolved perception. Most of all, this is a painting about looking. The five women look at you, with a fierce, antagonistic, demonic glare. They are difficult, scary, mad. Their glare is menacing; their bodies angular and disjointed. Picasso abandons perspective in favour of a flat, two-dimensional picture plane.

Five pink women are entangled in silver and blue draperies. Two of them stand with arms raised to flaunt their breasts, staring at you out of huge black eyes. The other three are masked: one in a fleshy brown wooden simulacrum of a face as she stands in profile at the left of the picture; the two at the right in African masks, one of them intruding from behind the jagged cloth while the other squats among fabric diamonds. On a plate, there is a collection of blatantly meaningful fruit: a scything blade of melon with testicular grapes, an apple and a pear. This is a painting of nudes in which there is scarcely a curve to be seen - elbows sharp as knives, hips and waists geometrical silhouettes, triangle breasts.

The painting is square to the eye (in reality there are a few centimetres more to its height than its width), which makes you to attend to space and symmetry. Or rather, the squareness puts you on your mettle, to look at this perpetual motion machine that never loses its vitality.

Picasso drew his first designs for what became Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in the winter of 1906-07. He developed his ideas intensively, in a programme of conscious planning that resembled the great academic projects of Leonardo or GĂ©ricault, before finally painting his 8ft square canvas in the early summer. With that painting, the nature of reality was altered as profoundly as it would be by the physics of Picasso's contemporary, Albert Einstein.

Culturally, the 20th century began in 1907. Consider the dates of other works of high modernism. In music, Schoenberg's Erwartung was composed in 1909 and Stravinsky began The Rite of Spring in 1910. James Joyce didn't get started on Ulysses until 1914, by which time Picasso was into the final stages of cubism

At the time of its first exhibition in 1916, the painting was deemed immoral. The art critic AndrĂ© Salmon (1881–1969) gave it its current name; Picasso had always referred to it as Le Bordel (The Brothel).

The women confront you, perhaps daring you to judge them. Maybe their unhinged anguish is resonant, with the first time you were caught looking at something that was deeply private.

I'm going to be posting this essay on M.Christian's excellent blog; Frequently Felt


  1. I do think the early 1900s, with the sudden development of abstract art, cubism, futurism, dada and surrealism, the musical experimentation that went on, the literary trends, the developments in film/cinema, etc etc was an exceptionally rich period. There was more intense development on a wider range of fronts than we've seen since.

    Postmodernity seems to have 'atomised' a lot of cultural production and while I can think of many current artists, musicians etc. whose works I find interesting, the idea of 'schools' or 'movements' seems much more difficult to apply now. I suspect artistic/cultural creatives don't selfconsciously identify with other creatives in this kind of way any more.

    I was going to try to make some insightful comment about the significance of this for erotica but I can't think of one off the top of my head!

    All the best

  2. you took the eight and ninth paragraphs from an article in the guardian?