Pablo Picasso & Les Demoiselles d’Avignon: the painting that killed the 19th century

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Try to imagine, a bit like Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris: early 1900s, Paris. The ferment of a city where influences and cultural heritages from every part of the world melt together. The new century has just started, and with it the natural tendency of questioning what was artistically declared few years before. Impressionism still goes on, with its constant adoration of nature and outward reality seen through the human eye. It is 1907 and Pablo Picasso is working with a maniacal obsession on a work destined to change the history of art. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the painting that marked the birth of modern art.

Les_Demoiselles_d ' Avignon
Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’avignon, 1907

The effort that Picasso dedicated to this work, in terms of time and number of preliminary versions made, had no precedents, a sign that there was already a certain awareness about the revolution that this painting was supposed to bring. Nobody was speaking about Cubism yet. The term would have begun to spread the year after, with a negative connotation, to mark as “madness” the deconstructive tendency that meant to deny fidelity to realism. Up to that moment, nobody had ever seen abstract elements like that woman seated on the right, with the face warped into an early African mask, the eyes in front perspective next to a nose seen from a side view and a body painted from the back, so distant from any harmony of nature. And obviously nobody understood it. As Gertrude Stein told some time later: “I remember, [russian tea merchant] Tscoukine who had so much admired the painting of Picasso was at my house and he said almost in tears, what a loss for French art.”.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon were five prostitutes of a well-known brothel in the Carrer d’Avinyò, in Barcelona. The exposure of the bodies gets abstract and becomes a metaphor of the vision itself. The five figures pose for the spectator, they observe him, transmuting him in fact into one of their customers. The eroticism of the female figure is exposed in an impossible way and becomes a symbol of the penetration, contradicting in a single act the harmony of the feminine forms and the nobility of painting them. The bold edges, the colors free of nuances, represented for Picasso the only way to bring to the extreme consequences the subtle work of questioning the Expressionist principles, originally started by Cézanne. There were many, afterwards, praising the similarities with The Large Bathers, in which geometry was already substituting reality in the Impressionist evolution.

Paul Cézanne, The Large Bathers, 1906

The reactions of those who saw Les Demoiselles for the first time led Picasso to hide the work for years, leaving it to grow old in his studio. It was publicly displayed for the first time only in 1916, nine years later. Nine years in which, in the meantime, Stravinsky began his Rite Of Spring, James Joyce started to write Ulysses, Kandinsky debuted with his abstract phase and modernism of the twentieth century had finally exploded. It was only retrospectively that the critics agreed unanimously about the truth: the one who officially declared the nineteenth century dead, in 1907, was Picasso. Everything started from there: what later was named Cubism, its ability to represent the fourth dimension (already theorised in literature by Apollinaire and in science by Einstein), the other avant-garde movements and the escalation of provocations, straight to the World War and beyond. The art as we know it, today, was born in the rose colour of those damsels, so static and free of imperfections, in those inexpressive faces that would never return any meaning, except the same disorientation in which the observer reflects himself.