Before becoming the master of Cubism, Picasso was a young Spanish painter living in Montmartre. In 1907, he unveiled one of his most famous works of art. It was not only overwhelming in style but also in its subject matter. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon features five naked women in a madly unstructured atmosphere, full of geometric shapes and strange angles. In this week’s edition of “Canvassing the Masterpieces,” KAZoART will help you better understand this revolutionary and provocative work of art.

Inspired but misunderstood

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Turkish Bath, 1862

In 1906, Picasso hit a creative wall. He thought he had exhausted his inspiration and couldn’t delve any deeper into his art. With a desire to renew his passion for the trade, he realised that in order to advance, he needed to break tradition.

Inspired by what was then called the “primitive” arts of Africa and Spain, he drew on these new resources to to develop his style. That said, he did claim to have been inspired by some Western artists such as Ingres, notably his work Turkish Bath (1862), or Matisse’s Le Bonheur de Vivre (1905-06). Even Gauguin’s major retrospective contributed to Picasso’s artistic rebirth.   

It took him nine months to create Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. And to his great surprise, his masterpiece did not receive a warm welcome from his contemporaries or critics. Viewers were stunned by its bizarre staging. What’s more, the art community was shocked that he dared to depict naked women whose bodies were highly abstracted and clearly not within the confines of the academic code of painting.

Henri Matisse, Le Bonheur de Vivre, 1905

And then we have the faces. Of this work, Georges Braque said: “It’s as if you wanted to give us oil to drink to spit fire” and André Derain added “One day, we’ll learn that Picasso hung himself behind his big painting”.

Even the avant-garde artists criticised Picasso’s work. The canvas stayed in his studio until 1916. It was discovered a whole thirty years after its creation during an exhibition at the MoMA, where it has been preserved ever since.

4 Details you don’t want to miss in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

1. Fragmented forms

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The absence of shadows and perspective and the flatness of the picture plane are all done to strike the viewers. On top of its bold aesthetic elements, the canvas is massive, measuring 2.4 x 2.1 metres. Picasso’s angular forms break with the typical representation of the female body. Against a backdrop of drapery, all of the figures are facing the viewer except for one…

Seated at the bottom right of the painting, a woman with an impossible posture spreads her legs and looks back at us. Her face is characterised by harsh features and her gaze is cutting. Of all the faces, hers is the most complex. It embodies the misaligned shapes and curves that will be a common thread throughout the Cubist movement.

2. Angular and Asymmetrical Faces

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The lack of realism is continued with the asymmetry in the other faces. While some are less dramatic than others, they all demonstrate Picasso’s interest in the reconfiguration of features. The rounded eyes are not aligned and seem to be facing forward yet their noses are shown in profile.

Though the composition may at first appear disheveled, Picasso demonstrates a perfect mastery over his subject matter. He highlights the primitive aspect of the bodies by deliberately omitting their attire. The women look smooth while their curves are angled and sharp.

3. A fruit basket front and center

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Just as we get wrapped up in the strange forms of the female bodies we notice a bizarre addition to this painting: a basket of fruit. We’re fairly sure these “demoiselles d’Avignon” are actually prostitutes in a brothel. They however, pay no attention to the fruit in the foreground. Placed on a vertical table, its position sets the improbability of the scene. What’s more, it gives us no further information or clues about what’s going on in the scene.

So why then did Picasso paint this still life? According to his preparatory sketches and studies (of which there are about 800) we have every indication that these women should’ve been depicted eating. There also should’ve been two men in the scene: a sailor and a medical student,
one of which is holding a skull. The final version left out these details in order to highlight this atypical group of women.   

4. A homage to African art

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The female figure with the diamond-shaped diaphragm in the upper right corner is not to go unnoticed. She appears to just be arriving on the scene, walking through curtains. Like the woman in front, her face also serves as an attribution to an African masquerade mask, a sacred object from which Picasso drew inspiration.

A great admirer of African relics and motifs, Picasso understood the cultural importance and powerful symbolism behind these faces. He first encountered African art in Paris and subsequently had a revelation. Claiming to have been able to feel the power that these objects held, he was inspired to incorporate them into Western Art in a way that does not re-appropriate them but rather shows reverence.

Picasso circa 1908 in his workshop in Montmartre, Paris, surrounded by African art. Photograph: Apic/Getty Images

Cubism has arrived

Despite the initial criticism, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon brought about a new means of artistic expression. Picasso made way for Cubism and revolutionised body/object representation in painting and sculpture. We no longer expect artists to remain faithful to the visual reality of forms and perspectives.

It was the critic Louis Vauxcelles who first used the term “Cubism” in 1908, not to praise but to denounce the simplification of subjects. Now, we can marvel at reduced geometric shapes and cubic patterns, whether or not they lack depth.

Picasso-inspired work on KAZoART – Hildegarde Handsaeme

On KAZoART, the artist, Hildegarde Handsaeme breaks down the complexity of the human form by deconstructing her subjects’ features. She carries on the Cubist tradition in a way that would make Picasso proud.

Hildegarde Handsaeme, Women with yellow nail
Hildegarde Handsaeme, Women with yellow nail