Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) by Pablo Picasso
Meaning and Interpretation of Early Cubist Painting

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Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
(Detail of centre section)
By Pablo Picasso.
Regarded as one of the
greatest 20th century paintings.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907)


Development and Sale
Explanation of Other Paintings by Picasso


Name: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907)
Artist: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Genre painting
Movement/Style: Early Cubist painting
Location: Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) New York

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Two Nudes (1906)
By Pablo Picasso.
Possibly a study for
Les Demoiselles .

For an explanation of
abstract paintings by
artists like Picasso, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Picasso

Picasso - often bracketed with Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and Matisse (1869-1954), as one of the most influential modern artists - was a restless innovator whose greatest achievement was the co-invention (together with Georges Braque) of "Cubism" - a revolutionary way of representing reality in a painting. In devising this new "Cubist" idiom, Picasso rejected the traditional method of painting which involved creating the illusion of a three-dimensional image. Instead he emphasized the flat, two-dimensional nature of the picture, and avoided the use of traditional techniques - like linear perspective and foreshortening, as well as chiaroscuro and modelling. Using the "Cubist" method of painting, Picasso and other Cubist painters disassembled people and objects into flat 'snapshots' (views of the person/object) which they then laid out in a series of transparent/opaque overlapping planes. This allowed an object to be seen from a multiplicity of viewpoints (occurring perhaps at different times), instead of only a single viewpoint (at one particular time).

Of course Picasso and Braque didn't invent this new "Cubism" overnight. It involved a gradual process of experimentation which occupied both artists (independently to begin with) during the period 1908-10.

But Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) is traditionally seen as Picasso's pivotal first step towards the new Cubist style, a step which established him as the leader of avant-garde art in Paris. In preparation for it, Picasso did hundreds of drawings and other preparatory studies, including the charcoal drawing Nu aux bras leves (1907), and Head of a Sleeping Woman (Study for Nude with Drapery) (1907, Museum of Modern Art, New York). It is also worth noting that it was painted at the end of his "Negro" period, when he was heavily influenced by primitive carvings, notably the African sculpture on show at the time at the Ethnographic Museum in Paris. As a result, it features some disturbing anthropomorphic features and imagery. (Note: Other important influences on Picasso, regarding this particular painting, were the works of Cezanne (1839-1906) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). For another style, see also: Neoclassical Figure Paintings by Picasso (1906-30).



Interpretation of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

The huge composition (some 8 feet x 8 feet; 244 x 233 cm), which would have filled an entire wall of his cramped studio in the Bateau Lavoir building in Montmartre, is a figure painting of a scene in a brothel. (Note: The title "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" was a lighthearted suggestion by the poet and art critic Andre Salmon (1881-1969), who claimed to see a resemblance between Picasso's figures and the prostitutes on Carrer d'Avinyo - Avignon Street - in Barcelona. Picasso himself referred to it as "my brothel".) The painting presents us with an uncomfortable mosaic of angular and overlapping fragments of five female nudes, at least two of whom stare provocatively at the viewer. Its "Cubist features" combine powerfully with its violent forms and animalistic masks to both shock and challenge the viewer.

The picture is like a cinematic close-up. The five women - each over seven feet tall - are shockingly present, pressing themselves to the surface of the picture. The colour of their flesh makes them appear starkly naked rather than merely nude. And the way the figures are grouped is also striking: there appears to be no connection between them, which heightens the drama of the picture as well as its uncertainty. The two central women, in particular, are especially provocative: they stare expressionlessly out at the viewer, while lifting up their arms to show their breasts. These women - all aggressively flaunting their nudity - are real prostitutes with no hang-ups about what they have to offer. The head of one figure (top right) is covered with a primitive mask; while a second, squatting, figure (bottom right) is also masked, although her face is made up of multiple views, like a badly arranged jigsaw.

Its "Cubist" characteristics include Picasso's use of flat, splintered imagery, together with patterns of light and dark (as opposed to rounded volumes), in order to create a sense of space and form. The splayed figure (bottom right) is made up of a collage of different viewpoints of herself, while the others are depicted in a flattened geometric form, with only minimal three-dimensionality. The painting's sharp, almost shard-like pictorial components, imbue it with a disturbing sense of violence and sexual power.

The main point of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon was to challenge the viewer's normal assumptions. The gigantic intrusive nudes, the absence of perspective, the disconnected nature of the group, the juxtapositioning of normal faces with masked faces, the fact that all five seem to be arrested in time: all this contributed to the kaleidoscopic chaos and the sense of pictorial anarchy. Even the small tableau of fruit (bottom centre), the first indication of Picasso's interest in still life painting, appears to be falling from an upturned fragment of a bowl. The picture was a revolutionary act against the tyranny of Renaissance art, whose ruling principles of perspective, shading, colour and composition had to be trashed in order to usher in new ways of representing reality. The work paved the way for the explosion of abstract art - beginning with Picasso's own Analytical Cubism (c.1909-12) and Synthetic Cubism (1912-14) - and culminating in more rigorous abstract art movements like Russian Suprematism (c.1913-18) and Dutch De Stijl (1917-31).

Development and Sale

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon was the end result of a period during which Picasso focused heavily on the analysis and simplification of form. Bored and frustrated with the conventional theory of art as the imitation of nature - a task effectively mastered by Impressionism - he reached for a sort of 'intellectual expressionism' that would allow painters to portray a new reality based on the two-dimensional picture plane. Why Picasso chose such a shockingly explicit theme for his new style of modern art, remains unclear. However, he is known to have believed in the "redemptive" power of art to "exorcize" negative elements, so perhaps he thought that such a work might help to combat prostitution and sexual disease.

The work had undergone significant changes during the five months or so of its gestation. To begin with there were seven figures: five women plus (at the left) a standing man drawing back the curtain, as well as (seated in the centre) a sailor. Picasso then erased the standing man, replacing him with one of the women. Shortly afterwards he removed the sailor. He also increased the sense of aggression in the picture, and added the two masks.

Initially shown only to a handful of friends - including Georges Braque, the critic Felix Feneon (1861-1944), Andre Derain (1880-1954), Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), Picasso's dealer Daniel Kahnweiler (1884-1979), the Russian collector Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936), and Matisse (1869-1954) - the painting was so heavily criticized that Picasso decided not to exhibit it for nearly a decade. In 1916, the painting was exhibited at the Salon d'Antin, at a show entitled 'Modern Art in France'. Picasso called it 'Le Bordel d'Avignon' but Andre Salmon, the show's organizer, gave it the more innocuous name 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' (the young ladies of Avignon). After this, the painting remained with its creator until 1924, when it was sold to the designer Jacques Doucet (1853–1929), for 25,000 francs. This artificially-low price - Doucet obtained a valuation of 250,000 francs some months after the purchase - was agreed to after Doucet allegedly promised to bequeath the picture to the Louvre. In any event, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon wasn't seen in public again until 1938, when it was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Explanation of Other Paintings by Picasso

La Vie (Life) (1903)
Picasso's poignant tribute to his friend Carlos Casagemas.

Boy with a Pipe (Garcon à la Pipe) (1905)
Rose Period portrait which sold for $104 million in 2004.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906)
Early painting of the Parisian art collector.

Seated Woman (Picasso) (1920) Musee Picasso, Paris.
A marvellously modern version of a standard antique pose.

Large Bather (1921) Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris.
Directly inspired by high classical Athenian sculpture from the Parthenon.

Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) (1922) Musee Picasso, Paris.
Neoclassicist picture featuring Dionysian mythological figures.

Woman in White (1923)
From Picasso's neoclassical period.

Weeping Woman (1937)
More generalized follow-up to Guernica on the subject of suffering in war.


• For the meaning of other Cubist paintings, see: Homepage.

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