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The Controversy Behind Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is a prime example of Pablo Picasso’s mastery of cubism. The artwork caused an uproar when it was exhibited, as it depicted nude females in a nontraditional manner. These females are angular, unfeminine, and unflinching in their nudity. With this piece, Picasso aimed to establish himself as one of the great painters of his time, and the enduring response to the work has proved that he achieved that goal. Singulart examines Picasso’s creation of the cubism movement, the composition of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and why it continues to inspire debates and reactions to this day.

Picasso’s ascension to cubism

While Picasso is most recognized for his cubist style, he began his artistic career painting in the style of art nouveau and symbolism. In Barcelona, he frequented the Els Quatre Gats café, meeting artists such as Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Edvard Munch. These artists, along with close friend Jaime Sabartés, introduced Picasso to a cultural avant-garde movement, which would greatly inspire his art.

The death of Picasso’s close friend in 1901 inspired his blue period, during which he produced pieces like The Old Guitarist. In 1904, he moved onto his rose period, using a brighter color palette and using predominantly red and pink hues. His rose period was well-received (particularly compared to his blue period, which did not attract many buyers) and he soon received patronship from a number of wealthy clients.

Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso

In 1907 after Picasso joined a gallery opened by art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, he began to experiment with African influences in his art. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was inspired by Iberian art, and the African influences can be seen in the mask-like visages of the figures on the right. Already Picasso was beginning to show the creation of the cubism movement through sharp, angular forms and monochromatic colors, and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is considered to be the pioneering piece of the cubism art form.

Picasso continued to experiment with cubism, alongside fellow cubist artist Georges Braques. Picasso described he and Braques as “two mountaineers, roped together,” at once both collaborators and competitors. Together they pioneered the analyst cubist technique, taking objects apart and analyzing the shapes. Cubism artists rejected perspective, and did not portray objects in a realistic way.

The movement was furthered when Picasso and Braques began introducing other elements into their work, in what became known as synthetic cubism. The artists would incorporate materials such as newspaper and wallpaper into the pieces, experimenting with papier-colle.

Although the cubism movement faded in 1918 due to the growing influence of the surrealist movement, it experienced a resurgence in the 1920s. The movement paved the way for other important movements such as art deco and minimalism. 

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon 

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907)
Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was inspired by Picasso’s intense desire to take Henri Matisse’s place as the painter at the center of modern art. When Matisse exhibited Bonheur de Vivre at the 1907 Cézanne retrospective, it was heralded as one of the masterpieces of modern art and quickly snapped up by avid collector Gertrude Stein. Picasso’s competitive nature inspired him to create Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which he hoped would inspire even more controversy than Bonheur de Vivre

Les Demoiselles seems in direct opposition to the languid, fluid shapes of Bonheur de Vivre. We can see five women, prostitutes from a brothel on Carrer d’Avinyó in Barcelona, aggressively staring down the viewer. Three of the women have distinctly human faces, while the two figures on the left appear to have faces inspired by African masks. 

The planes of Les Demoiselles are flattened, abandoning the Renaissance tradition of painting in a three-dimensional style. Picasso shattered this illusion quite literally as the women appear jagged and broken. For example, the woman on the left of the painting has a left leg that appears to have been painted as if viewed from many angles. Because the planes of the artwork are flattened, it is almost impossible to distinguish her leg from the background, blending the figures in with the colors surrounding them. 

Picasso has painted these women in an arresting fashion. Standing at seven feet tall, they stare unflinchingly at the viewer, unashamed of their nakedness. Originally, Picasso had painted the woman on the left as a male medical student entering the brothel, but instead chose to portray only women in the artwork. It is suggested that by removing a male presence from the artwork, the viewer becomes the ‘customer’ of these women; they are not confined to paying attention to a male within the artwork.

What makes Les Demoiselles d’Avignon so influential?

When Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was first exhibited in July 1916, it shocked and enraged audiences with its frank depiction of female nudity. A review published in Le Cri de Paris described as such: 

“The cubists are not waiting for the war to end to recommence hostilities against good sense. They are exhibiting at the Galerie Poiret naked women whose scattered parts are represented in all four corners of the canvas: here an eye, there an ear, over there a hand, a foot on top, a mouth below. M. Picasso, their leader, is possibly the least disheveled of the lot. He has painted, or rather daubed, five women who are, if the truth be told, all hacked up, and yet their limbs somehow manage to hold together. They have, moreover, piggish faces with eyes wandering negligently above their ears.”

As Picasso scholar Janie Cohen stated, “These women are looking right at us. And that was what was so outrageous about the painting. It frightened people. It made them angry.” Even in recent years the work has faced controversy for supposedly displaying Picasso’s misogyny, painting these women just to serve the purpose of the male gaze. 

 Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Pablo Picasso at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1939 © The Museum of MOdern Art  ©2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artist Rights Society (ARS)
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1939 © The Museum of MOdern Art ©2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artist Rights Society (ARS)

Painting ‘ladies of the night’ was already a taboo subject, but Picasso took it to the extreme with his unapologetically naked prostitutes. Even Picasso’s friends and fellow artists were perturbed by the piece; Matisse called it “hideous” and others assumed that it was a crude joke. However, Picasso’s art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweller was supportive, writing in 1920: 

“Early in 1907, Picasso began a large painting depicting women, fruit and drapery, which he left unfinished… The nudes, with large quiet eyes, stand rigid, like mannequins. Their stiff, round bodies are flesh-colored, black and white. That is the style of 1906. In the foreground, however, alien to the style of the rest of the painting, appear a crouching figure and a bowl of fruit. These forms are drawn angularly, not roundedly modeled in chiaroscuro. The colors are luscious blue, strident yellow, next to pure black and white. This is the beginning of Cubism, the first upsurge, a desperate titanic clash with all of the problems at once.”

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is still as shocking and confronting today as it was at its unveiling in 1916. As Jonathon Jones wrote for The Guardian, “Works of art settle down eventually, become respectable. But, 100 years on, Picasso’s is still so new, so troubling, it would be an insult to call it a masterpiece.”

Want to discover more works in the cubist style? Discover Singulart’s Inspired by Picasso Collection. And browse our website to discover the best of nude painting and oil painting.

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