“Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.”
This is a famous quote by Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, who always sought to look at art through a different lens. He painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, not knowing it would forever change the course of the art world. The painting, which is 8 feet long and 7 feet wide, depicts five naked women created from flat, jagged planes, their faces inspired by African masks and Iberian sculpture. This masterpiece gave birth to modern art and was the precursor to the style that became known as ‘Cubism’. The painting currently hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, New York City and has an estimated worth of about $1.2 billion. What is the significance of this artwork and why was it so controversial in its time?
The story behind the art
Before Picasso started working on this grand masterpiece, he was going through what art critics now call the ‘blue period’. The term refers to the period when Picasso only used the colour blue in various shades to paint anything and everything. His agent struggled to sell his paintings but Picasso refused to touch any other colour between 1901 and 1904. When he did decide to finally look at other colours on a palette, he wanted to change the face of Western art. He started working on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and this was a signal to the world that Cubism is coming and will be here to stay. He drew the first designs for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in the winter of 1906-1907. The earliest sketches of this painting featured two men inside the brothel — a sailor and a medical student. It took Picasso hundreds of sketches and nine months to complete the painting on the canvas.
Originally titled The Brothel of Avignon, this painting refers to a street in Barcelona called Carrer d’Avinyó, which was famous for its many brothels. Picasso looked at the notion of beauty unconventionally. He chose to not showcase the beauty of a woman as traditional European paintings did. The five figures shown in the painting are prostitutes who boldly stare back at the viewer. Their faces are painted using sharp geometric shapes and they appear slightly menacing along with their disjointed body shapes. The woman on the left has an Egyptian-style dress and facial features. Picasso was highly influenced by African art and masks and thus, used that as a reference.
Controversy and impact
The world was not ready for Picasso’s new masterpiece. When the artist unveiled the painting in his studio, it remained there for quite some time and it was not well-liked. Only his intimate circle of friends, artists and dealers were allowed to see it. Matisse considered the work to be a ‘bad joke’. He believed Les Demoiselles d’Avignon undermined and mocked modern art. Despite his criticism, he borrowed aspects of this painting for his famous work Bathers with a Turtle. Most of Picasso’s friends were shocked by the obscenity of the painting. Undeterred by the reaction of his peers, he exhibited the painting for the first time in 1916 at the Salon d’Antin. The public deemed it to be immoral and the title of the painting had to be changed to Les Demoiselles d’Avignon from The Brothel of Avignon.
Picasso never liked this title and often referred to the painting as ‘My Brothel’. Despite the widespread anger towards the painting, some art lovers did offer to buy it, but Picasso refused. He kept the painting with him till 1924 until his friends urged him to sell it to the designer Jacques Doucet for around 25,000 francs. Picasso however, did not need to sell anything by that time. He, after all, was one of the most famous artists at the time and could easily sell anything for a much higher price. The reason why he sold the painting for a lower price to Doucet was because Doucet promised he would hang the painting in the Louvre Museum, Paris. Before dying, however, Doucet never mentioned it in his will and chose to sell the painting to private collectors. In 1937, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art bought it for $24,000.
Just like any change, this painting, too, took time to warm up to art lovers across the world. The art world did not begin to embrace the painting until early in the 1920s, when Andre Breton republished the photo in an article entitled, ‘The Wild Men of Paris: Matisse, Picasso and Les Fauves.’ Picasso would have never thought many would start studying this masterpiece to learn about the development of the Cubism movement and how modern art can depict a scene in several ways. He showcases how to grab the attention of the viewers and force them to look at the woman and their intense gazes. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is an important piece of artwork in the history of Western Art. Pablo Picasso, along with Georges Braque, greatly shifted the way art had been moving and progressing, to new and interesting forms.
Picasso opened the doors for artists to explore different styles to express themselves, and this alone is the biggest gift for any artist.
Next Up in Behind the Art: Why is Portrait of Dr Gachet considered one of Van Gogh’s best works? Does it hold the answer to why he died by suicide a short time after painting it?