Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon:  Breaking with Tradition
Perhaps the most radical painting of the twentieth-century, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, hangs unobtrusively at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. This large canvas, measuring 96" x 92", was to revolutionize modern painting by charting a new way of depicting reality. In 1907 its painter, Pablo Picasso, broke all of the rules that the "artistically correct" learned at the art academies: he disposed of three-dimensional perspective, abandoned harmonious proportion, used distortion, and borrowed from the art of primitive cultures. In fact, the painting was such a revolutionary statement that when the painting was first viewed by some French critics, the painter Derain even suggested to Picasso that he would one day commit suicide for the shame that he had brought on the art establishment.
Originally Les Demoiselles was going to be an allegory of venereal disease entitled "The Wages of Sin." In the study for the painting, Picasso sketched a sailor carousing in a brothel amongst prostitutes and a young medical student holding a skull, a symbol for mortality. But the subsequent painting is quite different from the original sketch: only the women appear. And these women are not the traditional nudes that viewers had become so accustomed to in the 1880's when Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec had begun to capture them in the moment of the "parade," whereby prostitutes announced their wares and services to their clients. Nor are these women feminine and beautiful as Ingres’ Venus Anadyomene. Then who are these women in this brothel in Barcelona's Avignon Street and why do they appear the way they do? Perhaps the answers to these questions lie in Picasso's fear of women in general. Their flesh is not depicted as being soft and inviting but sharp and knifelike. In fact, their flesh suggests castration and fear of women. As Robert Hughes implies, "No painter put his anxiety about impotence and castration more plainly than Picasso did in Les Demoiselles, or projected it through a more violent dislocation of form. Even the melon, that sweet and pulpy fruit, looks like a weapon". But are there any other reasons why Picasso gives these women these shocking forms?

             Les Demoiselles d'Avignon                          Venus Anadyomene

As an artist living in Paris at the beginning of the new 20th century, Picasso wanted to find a new artistic language that could express the vitality of the new millennium. Although the world was rapidly changing, artists had not kept pace and were still wallowing in the aesthetic ideas of the nineteenth-century. The real world had radically changed, for it had become mechanized by technology. Moreover, philosophers such as Alfred Whitehead and F. H. Bradley and the physicist Alfred Einstein were altering the way modern man perceived reality: the world of old Newtonian values of absolute space and time was rapidly crumbling. Instead, modern man was being forced to live in a world where there are no simple locations and where all relations are plural. Picasso posed the problem to himself of how to capture this new acceleration of life and consequent plurality of points of view on a canvas. He proposed to solve this aesthetic problem by creating a new way of representing pictorial space.
Since the late 18th century, artists had been re-evaluating the Renaissance's concept of pictorial space, created through the means of linear and atmospheric perspective, whereby a fixed spectator observed a cube of space in which the sense of depth was created by a geometric diminution of objects in scale and in clarity as, apparently, they receded into the distance.. For Picasso, this rendering of space was no longer valid because the "fixed spectator" no longer existed. Now the modern spectator had been transformed into someone who was in constant movement, forced to look at objects from several points of view. Picasso became obsessed with what he regarded as the anachronistic artistic rules governing the representation of three-dimensional form on a flat surface and with reconciling them with the new modern acceleration. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon represents a working out of this reconciliation. His solution was to paint five nude contorted women.
Now let's examine why he would portray them in such a manner. If we examine the seated woman to our right, you'll notice that her face and arms are facing us but her torso, buttocks and extremities are turned away from us. In other words, Picasso lets us simultaneously glimpse at different aspects of this woman that a fixed viewer could not ordinarily do so. In other words, Picasso is trying to show us a composite of this woman from as many different points of view as possible so that we may experience her in her totality. Picasso does the very same thing to the woman standing to our left. If we examine her closely, we will notice that she is ambiguously portrayed. First of all, her face is depicted both laterally and frontally. She is posed like an ancient Egyptian form who looks to the side but whose eye looks directly to the front. Furthermore, if we inspect her body, we will discover something very odd. Her right side is depicted dorsally, whereas her left side is portrayed frontally. It's as if Picasso has twisted her body so that we may get a glimpse of as many aspects of her as possible. In other words, Picasso wants to show us this woman in her entirety.        
                                 Ancient Egyptian poses
In rendering the new reality, Picasso also abandons harmonious bodily proportions. This, of course, was done on purpose since Picasso had been trained at art school how to render the human figure through mathematical proportions. The woman located at the very center of the canvas is quite disproportionate, elongated as though she were a figure out of an El Greco painting. If we focus on her extremities, they seem to go on forever, as if her short-waisted torso was out of context with the rest of her body. And so it goes for the rest of the figures in the picture. Was there any precedent for doing such a thing? Picasso's Les Demoiselles is a homage to Paul Cézanne's The Bathers. Not only do both works echo Cezanne's dictum of "the cone, the cylinder, and the sphere," but both paintings distort the human body. However, whereas Cezanne distorts the women in The Bathers in order to bring the viewer into the pictorial plane and to balance the figures and structures within the painting, Picasso does so for a different purpose. Picasso distorts each of these women to show who is in power—that  he can take control and mangle them—and  that, in the final analysis, they still threaten him as human beings.


Paul Cézanne.  The Bathers (1904).  Oil on canvas.

But this distortion and use of pure geometrical shapes are not the only elements that Picasso borrows from Cezanne's work. Picasso limits his palette just as Cezanne does because both are concerned more with the rendering of form than with the use of color. To have used more colors than the blues, pinks, ochres, rusts, and grays that he employs would have been distracting. Furthermore, these colors are totally flat, as though to suggest that these women are linearly rendered, "constructed" rather than modeled.
Les Demoiselles is also disturbing in the ghastly and violent way that the women's faces are portrayed. Georges Braque went so far as to say that "Picasso was drinking turpentine and spitting fire". But these women appeared the way they do for very specific reasons. These women are, after all, prostitutes who are cold, calculating businesswomen who dabble in sex for a profit and who practice a "savage" profession. The three women on the left look as though they were made from stone, and, remember, the onlooker is a sexual voyeur who is experiencing sexual anxiety. There is nothing inviting about either of them. Their faces are derived from the pre-Roman Iberian bronzes that Picasso had seen in the Louvre and had been experimenting with since 1906. The two remaining women's faces are borrowed from African sculpture, a jarring juxtaposition. Perhaps one of the reasons why he did this is to suggest the dark, uncivilized nature of the "oldest" profession. Another reason is that these women represent a composite of the Spanish people, descended from native tribes the Iberian peninsula, north Africa, and middle-eastern Jews.  Furthermore, perhaps Picasso is even alluding to the final stages of syphilis, whereby the human face becomes a bulbous mask of thickened skin. But maybe Picasso’s interest in deforming their faces is purely a formal one, a means of negating realism and embracing abstraction and distortion. Nevertheless, this plundering of African art was revolutionary in that Picasso uses it to shock the viewer through brutality and savagery. Painting was never to be the same.

Last stages of a syphilitic patient

In the final analysis, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is the perfect example of how the worn, accepted traditions of art were questioned and transformed by an artist who was all too willing to be influenced by the intellectual and artistic environment of his times as well as by his own neurosis.