The Philosophical Brothel  

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"The Philosophical Brothel" is a 1974 essay by American art critic Leo Steinberg on Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, positing a wholly different explanation from Alfred Barr's for the wide range of stylistic attributes in the painting.

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.

The earliest sketches of the work actually feature two men inside the brothel, one a sailor and the other a medical student (often depicted holding either a book or a skull, causing Alfred Barr and others to read the painting as a memento mori, a reminder of death). A trace of their presence at a table in the center remains: the jutting edge of a table near the bottom of the canvas. The viewer, Steinberg argues, has come to replace the sitting men, forced to confront the gaze of prostitutes head on, invoking readings far more complex than a simple allegory or the autobiographical reading that attempts to understand the work in relation to Picasso's own history with women. 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.

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