Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907 by Pablo Picasso
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This large work, which took nine months to complete, exposes the true genius and novelty of Picasso's passion. Suddenly he found freedom of expression away from current and classical French influences and was able to carve his own path.
Picasso created hundreds of sketches and studies in preparation for the final work. It was painted in Paris
during the summer of 1907. Demoiselles was revolutionary and controversial, and led to anger and disagreement
amongst his closest associates and friends. Picasso long acknowledged the importance of Spanish art and
Iberian sculpture as influences on the painting. Demoiselles is believed by critics to be influenced by
African tribal masks and the art of Oceania, although Picasso denied the connection; many art historians
remain skeptical about his denials. Several experts maintain that, at the very least, Picasso visited the
Musee d'Ethnographie du Trocadero in the spring of 1907 where he saw and was unconsciously influenced
by African and Tribal art several months before completing Demoiselles. Some critics argue that the painting was a
reaction to Henri Matisse's Le bonheur de vivre and Blue Nude.
Its resemblance to Les Grandes Baigneuses of Paul Cezanne, Statue Oviri of Gauguin and Opening of the Fifth Seal of El Greco has been widely discussed by later critics. At the time of its first exhibition in 1916, the painting was deemed immoral. In the nine years after its creation, Picasso had always referred to it as Le Bordel d'Avignon, but art critic Andre Salmon, who managed its first exposition, retitled it Les Demoiselles d'Avignon to lessen its scandalous impact on the public. Picasso never liked Salmon's title, and as an edulcoration would have preferred las chicas de Avignon instead.
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In 1972, art critic Leo Steinberg in his essay The Philosophical Brothel posited a wholly different explanation for the wide range of stylistic attributes. Using the earlier sketches - which had been ignored by most critics -
he argued that far from evidence of an artist undergoing a rapid stylistic metamorphosis, the variety of styles can be read as a deliberate attempt, a careful plan, to capture the gaze of the viewer. He notes that the five women
all seem eerily disconnected, indeed wholly unaware of each other. Rather, they focus solely on the viewer, their divergent styles only furthering the intensity of their glare.
According to Steinberg, the reversed gaze, that is, the fact that the figures look directly at the viewer, as well as the idea of the self-possessed woman, no longer there solely for the pleasure of the male gaze, may be traced back to Olympia, 1863 of Manet.
Much of the critical debate that has taken place over the years centers on attempting to account for this multiplicity of styles within the work. The dominant understanding for over five decades, espoused most notably by Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and organizer of major career retrospectives for the artist, has been that it can be interpreted as evidence of a transitional period in Picasso's art, an effort to connect his earlier work to Cubism, the style he would help invent and develop over the next five or six years.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York City mounted an important Picasso exhibition on November 15, 1939 that remained on view until January 7, 1940. The exhibition entitled: Picasso:40 Years of His Art, was organized by Alfred H. Barr (1902 - 1981), in collaboration with the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition contained 344 works, including the major and then newly painted Guernica and its studies, as well as Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.