Les Demoiselles d'Avignon: The Beginnings of Cubism

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Be different. Create something that no one has ever seen before. Start a movement. In a lot of ways, and for a lot of people, these are colossal goals that are only to be aspired to. But for Pablo Picasso, this was the plan. He was going to create a radical change, a change that eventually became known as the movement called cubism. Deliberate in its confrontational deconstructive style, Picasso’s movement began with an intentional piece called Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Now, if we were going to explore all the technicalities of the fully developed movement, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is not a fully realized cubist painting. This fact becomes apparent when looking at many of the later paintings of the movement. In fact, there are some that refute the piece’s importance on the timeline of cubism. As one critic said, “Long designated the first cubist painting—‘the signal for the cubist revolution’ in its full-fledged dismantling of representational conventions—the painting is now more loosely considered a curtain raiser or trigger to cubism.” But how can the first piece of a movement be all-encompassing of what would happen over its course? Surely that would indicate a lack of growth, change, and experimentation. A break from the norms of traditional styles this dramatic was not going to happen instantaneously or with a single painting.

What really sets Les Demoiselles d’Avignon apart isn’t its demonstration of the entire cubist aesthetic, it is an approach and technique that is different from everything that came before. Picasso explained his reasoning, “I saw that everything had been done. One had to break, to make one’s revolution and to start at zero.” It was a break that other modern artists picked up immediately, and quickly after, the likes of Marc Chagall, Juan Gris, and Marcel Duchamp were working in the style. Several strides were made as the years went on but Picasso was always the most central figure in the cubist movement. To follow the timeline to the beginning of the cubist movement will always lead you to Picasso. His work on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon truly set a precedent for what was to come. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is a painting created in 1907 by Pablo Picasso. The painting depicts five geometric, broad-featured prostitutes in a brothel in Avignon. Picasso created the piece over the course of nine months, using hundreds of preliminary sketches and iterations to prepare for the final work. In this painting, Picasso abandoned one-point perspective, pushed volume, and negated many existing rules of representation.

In service of cubism, Picasso broke the norm, “[He] violated pictorial convention in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon: by his idealization of the human form, his disuse of illusionistic space, and his deployment of a mixture of visual idioms.” He made a point to look outside the traditional styles, taking inspiration from a variety of art such as African masks, primitive art pieces, and Iberian bronze masks and statues. The product was an agglomeration of styles where you would normally expect stylistic coherence. This painting was created to be different. It was created to be confrontational. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was meant to be confrontational in several ways. First, is the way the figures were painted: very close to the viewer with limited depth of space. There is little visual space for the viewer to breathe. When viewing this painting, everything is very much in your face. Second, is this element of the male gaze. In the preliminary sketches, the painting also included two men: a sailor and a medical student holding a skull. Removing the men created more self-possessed women, who are no longer there solely for the male gaze. The women’s gaze is then turned back to the viewer, which further pushes the confrontation of the painting. But the true value of confrontation in this piece is beyond the subject matter. As one critic said, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is generally credited not only with a momentous act of destruction, but also with one of creation.” There are multiple records of conversations with Picasso wherein he planned out the entire span of cubism. As Diego Rivera once recounted, “We had dinner together and stayed up practically the whole night talking. Our thesis was cubism—what it was trying to accomplish, what it had already done, and what future it had as a new art form.” Picasso intended to use this painting to make a wave. He wanted to create a movement. Only something brash was going to do that.

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With a new movement comes a lot of changes. The biggest change that came with cubism was a radical break with typical conventions of representation dating back to the Renaissance. The cubist movement brought in a different way to render an object in space or even how to render the space itself. Abandoning in linear perspective and embracing the flatness of the canvas became increasingly important. Certain artists felt this more strongly than others. Georges Braque, one of the pioneers of the movement, once said, “Scientific perspective is nothing but eye-fooling illusionism. It is simply a trick—a bad trick—which makes it impossible for an artist to convey a full experience of space.” Braque felt that the conventional use of one-point perspective was detrimental for the viewer: forcing objects out of view rather than bringing them up close and personal.

During the period of transition into cubism, artists of the movement focused on pushing this principle. In order to do this, they looked to the approach that Picasso had begun with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. One art historian explained, “Picasso’s exploration of shifting perspectives, and his perfection of an elaborate technique of faceting, became an intellectual attempt to unite surface and volume through a new kind of disegno.” In his approach, the three-dimensional form was shattered and then placed back onto a two-dimensional surface. Each object was broken down, scrutinized, and then placed at such angles that they would not be cut off from view. Picasso utilized a level of this fracturing with the most central figure in the painting. Although she appears to be standing next to the women around her, she is posed with the sheets as if she is laying on the ground. We are both looking down upon her and directly at her. By faceting the image, Picasso is able to render more closely to real life. It captures the experience of a viewer and the quality of perspective changes as one moves and visually reorients themselves. The viewer is simultaneously able to look onto the scene of the brothel and down at the floor. The same technique is used for the woman in the bottom right. From the neck down, she appears to be sitting with her back to the viewer. However, her face has been rendered as if she was facing forwards. Anatomically, this is impossible. But the purpose was never to be accurate, it was to show the information that Pablo Picasso found important. He is able to do that by painting two separate moments. The first being one where she is facing towards the viewer and another where she is facing away.

Picasso would later push the style, “He was seeking the power of expression, but not necessarily in the subject matter, the theme or the object, but in the lines, colours, forms, strokes and brushwork taken in their own independent meaning, in the energy of the pictorial handwriting.” As his approach evolved, these facets became more abstract and the objects became harder to recognize. To combat this, he developed what he called ’attributes’, or visual triggers, to help viewers orient themselves to the subject matter. While not prevalent in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, attributes demonstrate the cubist focus on representation. Cubism was never an abstract conglomeration of shapes. It was, rather, this level of importance of form over the subject matter. While in the pursuit of ‘a full exploration of space,’ cubist artists began experimenting with the negation of natural form. This was the complete opposite of the classical style of painting. But, in true cubist form, expression was more important than accurate rendering. For Picasso, volume was more than just another method of moving into abstraction. As one author explains, “The emphasis on volumes led cubists away from the eye and visual appearances, to a tactile experience of reality.”

The beginnings of this principle begin to take shape in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The most obvious example presented in the curtains and table. Not only do they follow a fragmented perspective, but they are a clear departure from the natural form. The curtains are made up of harsh, geometric lines that bend in a manner that wouldn’t occur naturally. Throughout the rest of the painting, the push towards volume is executed more subtly. For example, most of the women’s forms are made up of rounded lines. But, in the top right woman, Picasso has rendered her body using geometric shapes and harder lines. This is further evidence of experimentation with volume in this piece. As the cubist style evolved, volume became a primary focus of the movement. The use of ‘Passage’ or “the merging of planes with space by leaving one edge unpainted or light in tone” became increasingly prevalent. Passage worked by creating visual depth within each of the planes and thus would work together to create volume. Unlike many other cubist works, this painting still utilizes the use of local color (painting objects in the color of which they would normally appear). But, in certain areas, Picasso also departed from using color exclusively for accurate rendering. Picasso felt that cubism was not restricted to perfectly rendering light or color. Instead, it should be used as it was needed and where it was needed.

Picasso departed from local color much less in this piece than he would in any of his future cubist works. However, the experimentation is still evident, as displayed in the top right woman. When compared to the women around her, she is the most stylistically different. She has the heaviest application of paint, the most cubist features (sharp angles, geometric shapes, and the use of multiple planes), and the most experimentation with color. On her face, Picasso has utilized color in order to separate planes and express volume. This technique, coupled with the use of passage, would expand ten-fold during the course of the cubist movement. None of these changes happened purely by accident. They were part of a plan for a movement that began with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Much of what was done on this piece was a break from the past: destroying old traditions and creating new ones. With this painting, Picasso set a precedent for the rest of the movement. He abandoned illusionist principles, pushed volume to a new level, and negated many existing rules of representation concerning form, color, and light. These principles, along with the implementation of tools such as passage, attributes, and faceting, would continue and take life in the works of other modern artists. The cubist movement would evolve and change, but at the heart of it, we will always find Picasso and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

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