Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
- French art of the 20th century, prostitution in art and literature, Picasso's African Period, The Philosophical Brothel
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon in English) is a celebrated painting by Pablo Picasso that depicts five prostitutes in a brothel, in the Avignon Street of Barcelona. Picasso painted it in France, and completed it in the summer of 1907. The eye-catching painting is one of Picasso's most famous.
Picasso created over one hundred sketches and studies in preparation for this work, one of the most important in the early development of Cubism. Within the narrative of early modern art, it is widely held as a seminal work.
At the time of its first exhibition in 1916, the painting was deemed immoral. Most critics failed to see its resemblance to Cezanne's Les Grandes Baigneuses and El Greco's Opening of the Fifth Seal, two connections much discussed by later commentators. The painting now hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Analysis of figures
Picasso drew each of the figures differently. The woman pulling the curtain on the far right has heavy paint application throughout. Her head is the most cubist of all five, featuring sharp geometric shapes. The cubist head of the crouching figure underwent at least two revisions from an Iberian figure to its current state. The masked figure was derived from African tribal masks with green stripes and sharp edges. The two Iberian figures in the center were influenced by Iberian sculptures, and are characterized as such because of their prominent ears and wide, staring eyes; they are painted with similar features.
Much of the critical debate that has taken place over the years centers on attempting to account for this multiplicity of styles within the work. The dominant understanding for over five decades, espoused most notably by Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and organizer of major career retrospectives for the artist, has been that it can be interpreted as evidence of a transitional period in Picasso's art, an effort to connect his earlier work to Cubism, a style he would help invent and develop over the next five or six years.
In 1974, however, American art critic Leo Steinberg in his landmark essay "The Philosophical Brothel" posited a wholly different explanation for the wide range of stylistic attributes. Using the earlier sketches, which were completely ignored by most critics, he argues that, far from evidence of an artist undergoing a rapid stylistic metamorphosis, the variety of styles can be read as a deliberate attempt, a careful plan, to capture the gaze of the viewer. He notes that the five women all seem eerily disconnected, indeed wholly unaware of each other. Rather, they focus solely on the viewer, their divergent styles only furthering the intensity of their glare. A world of meanings then becomes possible, suggesting the work as a meditation on the danger of sex, the, to use a phrase of Rosalind Krauss's invention, "trauma of the gaze", and the threat of violence inherent in the scene and sexual relations at large.
The reversed gaze, that is, the fact that the figures look directly at the viewer, as well as the idea of the self-possessed woman, no longer there solely for the pleasure of the male gaze, may be traced to Manet's "Olympia" of 1863.