Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon
In 1907, the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso finished his painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon) after months of preparation and hundreds of sketches. Originally titled The Brothel of Avignon (Avinyo Street in Barcelona) the painting propelled Picasso to the forefront of “Modern” Art. His painting was revolutionary in multiple ways; from the style he used to meaning of it all, and was very likely the first truly modern painting.
The style of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is completely different from much of the art of the time. At the turn of the century, the predominate style was the color and light defined forms of the impressionists and the Fauves (who were mainly led by Picasso’s friend and adversary Henri Matisse). Instead of using color and light, Picasso used line drawing to depict three dimensions. His style of line drawing helped establish cubism.
Another way his painting was revolutionary was the meaning behind it. The painting is of a brothel scene with five nude prostitutes, but there is more. Jonathan Jones offers a thought experiment on the painting, “Look directly at Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and speculate on its meaning. You can’t … actually looking at the picture means moving constantly from one facet to another; it never lets you settle on one resolved perception.” Put simply, this painting is about looking, looking at it and it looking at you. The figure in the center has huge, deep, black eyes that look back at you with such boldness. The painting, as a whole, seems to have contempt for whoever is looking at it.
The most important proof that this painting is, at the very least, among the first modern paintings is just how much it relates back to the modern world. Look at the women wearing masks; why are they wearing masks? The most obvious reason to wear a mask is to disguise yourself, and in the case of the African masks, to turn yourself into something else such as an animal or demon or a god. Modern art wears a mask, too. It does not say what it means; it is not a photographically perfect representation of a scene. Picasso picked nudes because of how popular they were at the time, how over done they were. He wanted to show that originality in art has next to nothing to do with narrative but instead, that originality had everything to do with invention. Modern art, at least for Picasso, meant a victory of form over content.