ART101: Art Appreciation
Instructor: Patricia Venecia-Tobin
October 8, 2012
Evaluate Pablo Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon. How did this work reshape the art of the early 20th century?
Pablo Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is a wonderful piece of art, and the style in which the picture is painted is very typical of Picasso. The artist completed the picture in the beginning of the previous century, in 1907, and used oil on canvas. Generally, Pablo Picasso is famous for unnaturally distorted figures in his paintings of that year, and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is a great example. The picture is now hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Pablo Picasso hated discussing his art, yet once he spoke frankly about "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," his greatest painting and a touchstone of 20th-century art that is 100 years old this summer. On this occasion, Picasso did not address the subjects that transfix art historians -- the origin of Cubism, the supplanting of old avant- gardes, and the impact of non-Western art. He cut through academic dissertations to offer one of his most heartfelt admissions about why he made art. He spoke of artworks as "weapons . . . against everything . . . against unknown, threatening spirits," and he affirmed that "'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' . . . was my first exorcism painting -- yes absolutely!"
His encounters also return us to the idea of art as "exorcism." When Picasso spoke about art being a weapon, he was specifically describing African "fetishes." He called them defensive weapons: "They're tools. If we give spirits a form, we become independent." In this sense, the splintered spaces and awesome creatures of "Les Demoiselles" vividly embody looming malevolent and seductive forces -- and stop them in their tracks. Picasso's painting pushes us to the edge of primal confrontation. It projects human savagery only to trap it in the painted crust.
[Jacques Doucet] failed to offer the painting to the Louvre, and a few years after his death the 10-year-old Museum of Modern Art acquired not only a masterpiece but international stature as the leading museum of contemporary art when it purchased the painting in 1939. Since that date, "Les Demoiselles" has been almost continuously on public view (a current exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, "Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon at 100," is up through Aug. 27 and displays the painting with 11 related works). Yet only in the past few years have we had the chance to see it almost as it looked when it left Picasso's studio in 1924. In 2003-04, MoMA undertook a full-scale conservation effort and stripped the picture of layers of varnish that someone other than Picasso had applied. For generations, the varnish masked the physical texture and mass of Picasso's brushwork under an anodyne sheen. Now we see the painting the way Picasso left it -- a raw, intensely fractured skin of ideas. ( Fitzgerald, M. (2007, Jul 21). PURSUITS; leisure & arts -- masterpiece: His unladylike young ladies; in 1907, picasso's 'les demoiselles' shattered convention. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/398999057?accountid=32521)
[Pablo Picasso] worked on Les Demoiselles d'Avignon as he had never worked on any painting before. One art historian has even claimed that the hundreds of paintings and drawings produced during its six- month gestation constitute "a quantity of preparatory work unique not only in Picasso's career, but without parallel, for a single picture, in the entire history of art". Certainly, it matches the work artists had traditionally put into history paintings and frescoes. Picasso knew he was doing something important, even revolutionary - but what?
What struck Picasso about African masks was the most obvious thing: that they disguise you, turn you into something else - an animal, a demon, a god. Modernism is an art that wears a mask. It...