“The most important painting of the twentieth century.” This was said of Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” before the century was even half over. It remains one of the most original and disturbing works in the history of art.
At eight feet high, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” is an intimidating presence. Reproductions in books shrink its power.
The painting was executed over three months in 1907 in Picasso’s jammed, squalid one-room studio apartment in bohemian Montmartre in Paris. Its fleshy pinks are a survival from the artist’s Rose Period but with a stunning change of tone. There is no longer any humor or pleasure. On the contrary, we seem to have wandered into a torture den. It’s the reception room of a brothel, where bored women lounge with their hair down as they wait for customers -- a scene frequently drawn by Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. Picasso had painted prostitutes in Paris cafés, where they were dancing or flirting with one another. In Les Demoiselles, however, each of the women seems locked in her own severe, remote consciousness. They are like Fates, frigid masters of man’s destiny.
When this painting finally became known to the world after its acquisition by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1939, commentary focused on its formal properties as a prefiguration of cubism, co-created by Picasso and Georges Braque before World War I. Because so many of Picasso’s preparatory sketches were preserved, studies of the painting’s genesis are extensive, but little or no attention has been paid to a variety of later details. Its demurely ambiguous title, “The Maidens of Avignon,” has proved an irritant: Picasso did not coin it, and he disliked it. He simply called the painting “mon bordel” (my brothel).
It is staged like a tableau vivant. The woman standing at left lifts a heavy curtain, while her opposite bursts like a wind into the tent-like space. On a stool at lower right, a nude sits with legs brazenly spread. The two apparently upright central figures are actually reclining with arms behind their heads, a white sheet draping their legs.
Picasso’s startling conflation of two points of view was revolutionary. Ever since the Renaissance, perspective had been based on the spectator’s fixed position, reproducing where the painter had set his easel. Here, however, we stand on the brothel floor and also hover near the ceiling -- a duality not seen since Byzantine art.
Multiple perspective, soon to be a hallmark of cubism, also applies to the spiderlike sitter: We view her legs and bare buttocks from behind, but her torso demonically twists to make her head and arms face forward. She rests her menacingly boomeranglike chin on her fist. The reclining ladies are also hybrid: Their eyes and faces are frontal, while their noses are profiled. Picasso’s disjunctive method is partly derived from Cézanne, whose sloping country tabletops are imitated here in the giddily angled coffee table.
But Picasso had also studied Egyptian art, with its anatomical contortions. His left-hand lady, hand clenched at her side and one foot forward, is based on pharaoh sculptures and the Greek athlete statues (kouroi) that they inspired. Furthermore, as the sole clothed (or semi-clothed) demoiselle, she evokes the Winged Victory of Samothrace, plastered with wet drapery as she lands on a ship’s prow, a monumental ancient sculpture that Picasso saw dominating the magnificent Daru Staircase at the Louvre.
Meanwhile, the reclining demoiselles allude to the Venetian tradition of lazy, opulent nudes, who reappeared as hookah-smoking Turkish or Algerian odalisques in nineteenth-century French paintings. Picasso based the two women’s domed heads and large ears on pre-Roman Iberian sculptures found near his hometown of Malaga in Andalusia. Their raised elbows come from a homoerotic statue that always fascinated him -- Michelangelo’s neoplatonic Dying Slave, a life-sized plaster copy of which can be seen in photographs of Picasso’s studio after his death.
Thus “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” densely embodies a procession of styles in Western art, read from left to right: antiquity through the Renaissance to modernity, which Picasso shows transformed by the abrupt arrival of non-Western cultures, represented by scarified tribal masks from Africa and Oceania.
Although he later tried to minimize it, Picasso also had an intense spiritual experience at the Trocadero ethnographic museum just as he was formulating “Les Demoiselles.” Sixteen years earlier, Gauguin had abandoned Paris for Tahiti. Picasso saw Gauguin’s South Seas paintings at two posthumous retrospectives; their influence can be detected in the dusky complexion of the left-hand demoiselle, who resembles Oceanic ancestor spirits like the stone sentinels of Easter Island.
But how tranquil Gauguin’s Tahitian pictures seem compared with Picasso’s visceral adaptation of what was then called “primitivism.” Picasso zeroes in on the violence of ancient nature cults, with their rituals of blood sacrifice. Sex as portrayed in “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” is a gateway to an impersonal world of pure biologic force where man is nothing and where woman, a mother goddess splitting into her weird sisters, is everything.
The little table has been seen as a phallically thrusting prow (in early sketches, a sailor sat at stage center). But it can also be viewed as a ruined altar laden with ashy forbidden fruits -- a melon slice resembling a scythe-like crescent moon, a mottled pear and apple looking like hacked meat.
Has castration already occurred? The meat motif is blatant in the left-hand figure, whose floor-length pink peignoir gives her a third leg, like a slab of well-marbled beef. French argot for a working-class brothel was “slaughterhouse” (maison d’abattage; compare “abattoir”). Yes, whores are meat on the rack. But the bladelike leg resting on the floor suggests it is the lady’s clients who have been butchered, their blood washing down onto her sturdy, mannish foot.
There are no welcoming smiles in this cabal of urban nymphs. Their snakelike lidless eyes are fixed and blank or at mismatched angles or missing altogether. They are sleepless watchmen of the heaven-hell of sex, where the price of momentary ecstasy may be disease or obliteration of identity. The jewellike, geometric facets of cubism are anticipated in Picasso’s transformation of round breasts into aggressive squares with razor points (combined with unsettlingly reversed underarm hair).
The colors of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” paint an elemental drama from earth brown to sky blue. These fierce women enact what the Bible credits to Jehovah -- the division of land from ocean and the creation of the firmament with sun and moon. The cosmic birth process is literalized in a splash of blood ringing the splayed demoiselle. Her squat stool is a bordello bidet but also a low birthing chair, basic to old rural societies all over the world. In Picasso’s first sketches, a male medical student or city health inspector holding a book locks eyes with the crouching demoiselle: The gruesome mystery of procreation can be observed but not explained by science.
Picasso called this work “my first exorcism painting.” It was an experiment in black magic. With its graceful, chalky outlines yet jagged fractures and distortions, it weds beauty to ugliness.
These statuesque demoiselles, crowding the flat picture plane, are Picasso’s carnal Muses, patrons of his genius and titanic productivity. (He left 50,000 works in a vast range of genres and materials.) In this, his greatest painting until his political protest mural, Guernica, 30 years later, he confronts the mothers of his creative vision. Mutating through many faces, they are the models for the restlessly mercurial styles of his long career. He cannot conquer them, but their intense gaze conveys that they are choosing him, and only him.
(Camille Paglia, university professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, is the author of “Sexual Personae,” “Sex, Art and American Culture” and “Vamps & Tramps,” among other books. This is the third in a series of four excerpts from her new book, “Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars,” which will be published by Pantheon Books on Oct. 16. The opinions expressed are her own. Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 4.)
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