Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
Pablo Picasso
Currently housed at Museum of Modern Art in New York, aquired through the Lille P. Bliss bequest.

"There's nothing worse than a brilliant beginning." --Pablo Picasso

Picasso created this scene of five women after looking at masks from Africa displayed in Paris, some would say as novelties. He was a intrigued by the non-western aesthetics and values of beauty just as the post-impressionists were captivated with Japanese painting and woodblock prints. He used the sharp angles, exaggerated facial features, and even some animorphic traits from the African masks he saw for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Even though these women were depicted as clearly possessing these features, some art historians choose to read the painting as women wearing masks. Picasso’s interest was in the variation of the idea of attractiveness, so this interpretation seems unlikely as he used the new inspiration for facial features, if more subtlety, in a portrait of Gertrude Stein. When told that his portrait was not what she looked like, Picasso replied (as only Picasso would) that “she does now”. Indeed, if I have seen another image of Stein, I can not recall what it looked like.

Although the title is literally translated form French to mean “The Young Ladies from Avignon,” the women are not from the city of Avignon. They are in fact from the street of Avignon in the red light district of Barcelona where Picasso grew up. The title’s suggestion adds depth to the idea of masks and changing appearances in order to seem other than one’s self for any number of reasons.

In Les Demoiselles Picasso utilized cubist elements, specifically in rendering his figures in multiple perspective. Though it is quite understated when compared to some of his works like Girl Before a Mirror or The Three Dancers. What we do know is that this painting owes heavily to the later work of Cezanne as well as Gauguin. Matisse was also interested in these two artists, and Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is inspired by Matisse’s The Joy of Life.

Although cubism itself had been around for quite some time, the term was not coined until 1909. By 1910 or so what is now known as Analytic Cubism had become a recognized alternative to Fauvism. Later, in collaboration with Braque, the next phase of Cubism, Synthetic Cubism, was initiated by Picasso.

Every act of creation is, first of all, an act of destruction.
- Picasso

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