The Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907, Museum of Modern Art, New York), is an oil on canvas painting by Pablo Picasso. This is an image of five nudes grouped around a still life. Of the five figures, four of the figures are facing the viewer. There is a disjunction in the fifth figure as she is crouched on the floor, her back away from the viewer, while her face, or mask, addresses the viewer. This vertically aligned painting measures 8’x7’8″ and was painted after the Blue and Rose periods. The Dance (First Version, 1909, Museum of Modern Art, New York), is an oil on canvas painting by Henri Matisse. This is an image of five nude women linking arms in an oval. This horizontally aligned painting measures 8’6″x12’9″. This painting lacks detail and complexity. The artist has used four colors throughout the painting. These colors are green, pink, black and blue.
Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon after a notorious place of prostitution. The viewer is both attracted to the advances of the demoiselles, yet at the same time, recoiled with the horror of these prostitutes. This art belongs to a style of art known as Cubism. The savage, inhuman heads of the figures are the direct result of Picasso’s recent exposure Iberian art from the sub-Saharan, Western African region. The emphasis on abstraction, flatness and angularity prevalent in the painting are attributes of Iberian art. Through this painting Picasso has lost the interest of naturalistic curves of the anatomy and has chosen to create planes. The figures seem flat, two-dimensional and weightless. We can divide the painting into portions, i.e., the three-fifths on the left and the two-fifths on the right.
The left hand portion relates to the colors of the Rose period, while the shift in colors towards blue on the right is reminiscent of the Blue period. The primary difference between the left and the right sides however lies in the heads of the two figures. The figures on the right are missing ears, their mouths are oval, their chins pointed and their nose oddly shaped. The ears, eyes, nose and mouth seem to be disjuncted and perhaps even dislocated for these two figures. Their shapes when compared to those of the left are grotesque. The excessive use of shadowing adds to the exaggeration of the African-like faces. Another example of disjunction within the painting is the right leg of the women in the far left seems to morph in a block.
In the Dance the viewer is no longer addressed by the gazes of the women. There is no audience-artwork participation. The women are no longer concerned with the audience. The dance seems to originate with the figure in the foreground, following a clockwise rotation. The painting offers soft linear contours that is pleasing to the viewers eyes. There is a disjunction which appears when the women in the foreground is unable to clasp the hand of the figure to her left. This is where the tension arises.
This break in unity shows that the circle is not complete. It shows the that the dance cannot continue eternally. The fact that one link in the chain is missing causes an unbalance. This unbalance is captured in the figure to the right of the figure in the foreground. It seems that since the figure in the foreground hastens her movement in order to clasp her hand with the figure on the left. This sudden movement throws the figure on her right off balance. The five figures in the Dance are portrayed as caricatures rather than as real women.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is radically different in style to any of the paintings we have examined up till now in class. The simplicity of the painting may suggest that it was intended to be a rudimentary experiment in form. It is almost as if the painting is layered with broken glass, and the viewer is expected to view this new, distorted image. In the painting, spatial depth and symmetry are destroyed. The space in which figures stand almost seems sculpted rather than painted. By observing the women on the far right, between the curtain, we notice how planar her body really is. Through the painting Picasso has distorted the ideal form of the female nude, which he has reconstructed into harsh, angular shapes.
Within the painting are several sexual references. The pointed edge of the table in the foreground can be seen as a representation of penetration. From the posture of the second women from the left we can view her as either standing up or lying down. Though in the painting, the figure is painted standing vertically, the posture indicates that the position is more suited for a horizontal position as though she was on a bed. This dual pose can be read perhaps as the rhythmical oscillation of a sexual act. The watermelon placed at the edge of the table can be considered a phallic symbol. The way the watermelon slice extends beyond the table and towards the women can also be seen as another reference to penetration. Picasso has approached the theme of eroticism in a less conventional manner.
In the Dance the viewer is no longer involved in the painting. One cannot read the painting on a higher level. Unlike Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. There are no phallic symbolism. There is no eroticism expressed within this painting. It is the simplicity of the painting the audience appreciates. Matisse has gone back to the very fundamentals; creating a painting of minimum detail and a very simple background. He has used blue in the background to represent the sky while using green to represent the grass. I am not suggesting that his painting was too simple to be considered a masterpiece. The simplicity is the beauty of it.
Both the paintings consist of five nude women, whose identities are unknown. Each artist has painted the basic forms of women, leaving out genitalia to illustrate that they were concerned with only the forms of the figures. Both paintings offer an aura of high energy. The energy derived from the Dance is a result of the urgency the dancers have in forming the perfect circle and their inability to do so. In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon the energy originates from the savage power these women possess. The fear deriving from barbaric intensity of these two figures on the right dispel the alluring qualities the three figures on the left portray. In the Dance the artist has created the painting out of contours while in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso has firmly defined planes with minimum of contours.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon illustrates Picasso’s intense fear of women, his need to dominate and distort them. Even today when we are confronted with this painting, it is hard to restrain a momentary fear. The Dance captures the beauty of women and dance through the traditional beauties of art. Picasso no longer considers the themes of traditional beauty of art nor the realistic portrayal of his subject. The Les Demoiselles d’Avignon stands as a cruel representation to the delight of the senses that Matisse’s the Dance exalts.