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Pablo Picasso was born in Malaga, Spain in the 19th century but he owned the world of 20th century art. He was the single most important figure in Modern Art and his name is synonymous with the style. He was a child prodigy, recognized as such and allowed wide latitude in both school and art. Admirers love him and he is also reviled and treated with contempt by those who see him as a charlatan, perpetuating the supreme practical joke on the world of art.
It is told of him that he passed the entrance exam for the Barcelona School of Fine Arts when he was but 14, and that he was recognized immediately as a genius.
It is said of Picasso that his father was so awed by his son’s brilliance in the field of art that upon seeing Pablo’s work he gave the boy his palette and brushes and swore an oath never to paint again. In fairness to the record, this myth has also been told of Leonardo and others in the field of fine arts.
Picasso went through different periods in his artistic career, characterized by an obsession with one particular color or style. Early on he entered his Blue Period, and though painting in a masterful style, he colored all of his work with various shades of blue.
The people he painted during this particular period are all grim and thin to the point of emaciation. Still, the work is recognized as being from the hand of a master artist and serves to dispel later criticisms that he wasn’t very talented in the area of anatomy and was not a great draftsman.
This period lasted about four years, encompassing the years of 1900 to about 1904. During his Rose Period, which was of a shorter duration, lasting from 1905 to 1906, his canvases took on a pink tone which make his work of that period seem warm and friendlier to the eye of the art patron.
Many of his subjects from this period were circus performers and acrobats. Picasso relocated to Paris in 1904, believing the city to be the center of the art universe. It was there that he met such artists as Matisse, Miro and Braques and was inspired, it is said, by the works of Paul Cezanne. He was a prime mover and shaker, pioneering work in the field of Cubism, along with such masters as George Braques and Juan Gris. It was in the summer of 1906 that Picasso returned to his native Spain, visiting Gosol.
While there his work entered yet another phase, passing out of the short lived Rose Period but not fully into the world of cubism. The seminal work of this period, created upon his return to Paris in 1907, was his monumental Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which is considered a virtual aubade to the dawn of Cubism. The painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, translated to English as The Ladies of Avignon, is oil on canvas and measures roughly 8’ by 7’-8”. It turns one hundred this year and it shows some signs of wear and tear, but it is still stunning in its conception and execution.
MoMA , where the painting has hung since the early 20th century, has the responsibility of maintaining this world treasure. Their analysis has shown that the painting is stable at the present time after a 2004 restoration. This is one of several restorations that have been done over the course of the painting’s life. Naturally the exam did show that the natural accumulation of dust, coupled with the yellowing of waxes and varnishes that have been used over the past century have affected the colors dramatically. Progress reports, data, and photographs have been posted on this site (MoMA) to chart the restoration process [see: Conservator’s Update March 2004, June 2004,and January 20055]. MoMA is pleased to introduce visitors to this crucial aspect of museum work with clear explanations of the processes involved and definitions of the technology and materials used in conservation. The Avignon in this title is not a reference to the French town of Avignon. It rather refers to a well-known street in Barcelona’s brothel district.
The French writer and poet, Andre Breton, described the work as, “the core of Picasso’s laboratory. ” It was in his Montmartre studio, which was known as Bateau-Lavoir, that his work began to change dramatically. He was leaving the structural behind, those Cezanne-like pieces that made him one of the herd, breaking new ground with his ideas. His Two Nudes, of 1906 was exemplary of this earlier work. Picasso and George Braque were creating a new art form, in essence. It was a pictorial language by which the artist could communicate with the viewer.
A Picasso scholar, speaking of this painting, said that the work was a sign of his progression from, “outer presence to inner shape, from color to structure, and from modified romanticism to a deepening formalism. ” The general viewing public, those people who are not artists, scholars or critics, can readily see the influence of African tribal art on this work. The five life sized nude women are in a tight group around a foreground still life. The left half of the painting depicts three women in classical poses, though they are severely distorted. The remaining two figures are contorted and angular and virtually primitive.
Over the years of its existence it has been said that the table in foreground, which seems to project inward toward the women, is a phallic symbol and the half-moon shape of the melon in the still life is representative of a scimitar which symbolically is about to destroy the prostitutes. It seems more likely that these objects are simply a table and a slice of melon. Critics have said that this painting has the appearance of “a work in progress,” and it appears that Picasso cannot make up his mind exactly what he means to do on the canvas with his forms and composition.
The forms are distorted, apparently unfinished and the style of the work is inconsistent. Laymen complain that the painting looks raw, crude and even unfinished. This painting and its critiques are reminiscent of the Emperor’s new clothes, in that while it is considered a masterpiece by a master artist, the layman’s observations are valid. It has a barbaric quality to it. The painting is disturbing, the perspective, even for a cubist work is odd and singular, missing the dimensions of synthetic cubism which would emerge from this painting.
There is a definite influence of antique Iberian sculptures that can be seen in the heads of the central figures. The corner pieces are comprised of larger planes and are a totally different style from the others. The faces themselves show the influence of African art and have an distinctly animalistic quality. One is baboon-like. Picasso’s use of African art is seen in his departure from the traditionally accepted anatomy and physical depictions of the human body, allowing Picasso to depart even from the rudiments of cubism and show an object’s dimensions from more than one perspective.
Picasso’s genius showed the world a new and stylized way of looking at three-dimensional form. Post impressionistic works show a compression of space on the surface of the canvas but Picasso took this compression to the extreme. The energy of this work is caused in part by the disjointed planes, the sweeping curves and the angular lines. Leo Steinberg said in his essays on the work, “the beholder, instead of observing a roomful of lazing whores, is targeted from all sides. So far from suppressing the subject, the mode of organization heightens its flagrant eroticism.
Picasso valued the urgency he found in primitive art and sought a way to convey it to his canvas. In this work he succeeded admirably. Like most master artists, Picasso began his studies in the traditional manner and paid his dues by learning the techniques and compositions of the old masters. In Les Demoiselles his homage to tradition can clearly be seen. The subject, and even the composition of the work is steeped in traditions of formality. The composition of five female nudes grouped around a still life owes a debt to the artists of the Renaissance.
Botticelli’s Rite of Spring comes to mind. Still, the structure is much like that of Cezanne’s best work. His Bathers is a composition of bodies arranged in a tightly defined structure. It treats the form as a volume. Such did not originate with Cezanne, but rather goes back to cave drawings and man’s early attempts to record and communicate with other humans. It is rudimentary and crude in execution but it is effective as a method of communicating. Cezanne taught Picasso to outline landscapes and the form of the human body and then break them up.
Picasso learned that different facets of perspective objects can be pictured in this manner. The coloring of this painting is harsh though the figures themselves are primarily a buff color, relaxing to the eye, giving the viewer’s eye a place to rest. There are jagged black and white contours while one is a reddish hue, almost the color of the background. There is a patch of brilliant blue appearing to represent the sky behind one of the figures on the right side of the canvas.
The complementary colors an artist would normally place side by side are not seen in this painting, presumably to keep the color from competing with the actual design, which is the true subject of this work. Leo Steinberg believes that the painting has been misinterpreted for almost a century and should be taken at face value. In essence he says that critics and artists have been looking at the painting as a cubist decorative work of sterile colors and designs when in reality it is just what it appears to be. It is five nude prostitutes beckoning to the viewer, a potential customer, to come in and taste the wares, so to speak.
Before Steinberg dared to point out the obvious the entire art world had considered this work as the pivotal breakthrough, allowing form to be all and end all in modern art. After Steinberg the painting is seen as a new kind of engagement with human sexuality and “one whose immediacy was unprecedented in the history of painting. ” Picasso did not discover prostitution and is not the first artist to depict it. Still this work, with its raw power and immediacy is more compelling that works of other masters on this particular subject. As Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
It seems specious to attach Christian interpretation to all art and ridiculous to believe that one can know an artist’s motives by simply viewing his work. The debate rages on as to whether or not Picasso is depicting his loathing of women. He was blatantly heterosexual but that in itself would not preclude him from hating women, as he has been so often accused. He is certainly brutal in his depiction of them in this work. The Feminist Movement was underway in the Paris of Picasso’s early days, and one of his patrons was Gertrude Stein a champion of women’s rights and suffrage.
Picasso has demonstrated his propensity for slumming with his Blue Period and it appears that his desire to depict prostitutes in a brothel was another attempt to shock the world by saying that not only do prostitutes exist, but they are accepted members of society. From the poverty and depravation he painted in his Blue Period, irrespective of his brief swing into the pink glow of his Rose, Picasso took another detour in his attempt to show the art world his grand vision of society’s underbelly.
Les D’emoiselles d’Avignon, Leo Steinberg said, were ‘painted more brutally than any woman had been painted since the eleventh or twelfth century, since that time when woman was seen as a symbol of the flesh, of the physical purgatory in which man was condemned to suffer until he died. It was meant to shock. ” Picasso was not attacking sexual immorality. He was raging against life as he saw it. He was protesting the “waste, the disease, the ugliness and the ruthlessness of it. ” As to how this art work relates to my class studies there is more than one answer.
Though the techniques Picasso employed are not particularly revolutionary, even for the time in which he painted the work, his concept of colors are still relevant in the 21st century. I can see how Picasso has managed to subjugate the subject matter to the overall pattern upon which he wanted the viewer to focus. The theory of cubism and synthetic cubism is relevant to much of the artwork created in this decade. The idea that an object can be broken down into its basic planes and then rendered in two dimensions to give the illusion of there being three is germane to virtually all art.
Obviously computers can show the third dimension with photo reality but it is important for the human brain to know the mechanics of how it is done. I must admit this work speaks to me and inspires me to create. I look at this painting and feel the urge to apply medium to support. I want to be Pablo Picasso for a moment. And when that feeling passes I am left with the warm glow of confidence in my ability to do something creative. In short, this masterpiece is inspirational to me.
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