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Course: AP®︎/College Art History > Unit 6

Lesson 2: Modern and contemporary art

Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

Pablo Picasso's painting, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," marks a radical break from traditional European art, introducing a new style known as Cubism. The painting portrays a brothel scene, drawing on African masks and Iberian art for inspiration. It challenges conventions of representation, space, and the female nude, sparking controversy and paving the way for modern art. Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907 (Museum of Modern Art). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • leaf green style avatar for user waldo
    Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is considered the best and most important Picasso but my all time favorite will always be the “Three Musicians” my first Picasso. - - Which is your favorite Picasso and why?
    (19 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user John
    Is this considered the first masterpiece of cubism?
    (12 votes)
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    • leaf blue style avatar for user Ellen B Cutler
      It's a strange eruption of something that looks very cubist before Cubism came into being. So no, not for me. Cubism was actually named more than a year later in the fall of 1908 when the painter Matisse and the critic Vauxcelles puzzled over Braques' paintings done under the influence of Cezanne, calling them "bizarreries cubiques," strange cubical forms. I'd say the first truly cubist works date to the winter of 1908-09 when Picasso and Braque are deliberately and jointly exploring a range of compositional deconstructions and techniques.
      (12 votes)
  • female robot grace style avatar for user Rebecca Fitzgerald
    Can someone explain to me why Picasso is so important? I just can't for the life of me figure out why. His paintings for me are painful to look at, and throw far too much into the overall composition, though that is just my opinion. Is he important merely because of the style of his work, and the time he brought it about?
    (3 votes)
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    • piceratops tree style avatar for user Arthur Smith
      He's important for his style and the times he lived in, but also for the dramatic and poetic elements of his work. Picasso told stories in his art and presented his opinions. It wasn't always pretty, but that wasn't his goal. He wanted to experiment with new forms of picture making and show us the world from his point of view.
      (7 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user personcommajoe
    what cultural concern does Picasso express?
    (4 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user adonovan650
      Picasso had been to exhibitions of African and "primitve" (non-European) art in Paris at this time. He was struck by the the elemental vitality and totemic power of the forms, especially the ritual masks on view. This was not an art concerned with beauty or any of the traditional values embodied in the art of Europe for centuries; it was raw, shocking, exciting. At the same time, Picasso felt the need to do something in response to the cool, intellectual genius of Matisse, the only artist in Paris whom Picasso recognized as his artistic equal. "Les Demoiselles" was both a calculated assault on all French notions of "beauty"-most especially the beauty of the female nude-as well as a daring attempt to forge his own formal vocabulary of the primitive. When Picasso allowed some of his artist friends to view the work, they were aghast; the picture was violent, brutal, ugly-exactly what Picasso intended. For it must be remembered that "Les Demoiselles" was conceived as a "ferocious critique of Matisse's 'Le Bonheur de vivre' which for the past year Picasso had seen every time he visited Leo and Gertrude Stein's [Paris] apartment." ("Matisse/Picasso. The Story of Their Rivalry and Friendship" by Jack Flam, Westview Press, 2003, pg. 41).
      (4 votes)
  • sneak peak yellow style avatar for user heavencandytrees
    Do professional artists create their own style or follow the one of that era?
    (4 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      I'm having trouble getting my mind around the term, "professional artists". Do you mean artists who do nothing other than art, therefore it is their profession (like a doctor, lawyer, butcher, baker or candlestickmaker?)

      Or would that be like a commercial artist, who draws or makes graphic representations on a computer for ads and etc.

      If it's the first, one who creates art for the sake of creating art (and may sell some of it from time to time), I'd say these have the chance to CREATE their own style, developed in relation to the "zeitgeist", and maybe out ahead of the era.

      As for commercial artists, they follow instructions and collect their paychecks. They do their jobs, just like your math teacher does hers.
      (2 votes)
  • aqualine seedling style avatar for user Sarah X
    What does Beth Harris, mean by " expressing the flatness of the paining not creating false illusion" what illusion is shattered?
    (4 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Kate Wu
      Since the Ranaissance, traditional Western paintings always try to make a 3D illusion on canvas. But this started to change around the second half of 19th C.. Painters like Manet, Cezanne, and many others tried to invent a new way to paint instead to mimic a real view on canvas. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon didn't try to make a 3D illusion, on the contrast, it looks flat, it shows the flatness of the painting and the canvas.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user donna Head
    Looking at the second figure on the left, it resembles the Dying Niobid. Do you think Picasso could have referenced that work of art?
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Petrarocks247
    Do you think this painting reflects Picasso's view of women?
    (5 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user The Babbler
    Why did early artists paint undressed women so much?
    (2 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user Jon Dough
    At , Can we really consider Picasso a child-prodigy if he learned all those techniques from his father?
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

(classy piano music) - [Man] We're on the fifth floor of the The Museum of Modern Art looking at Domoiselles d'Avignon by Pablo Picasso. - [Woman] Picasso is a Spanish artist, but he's Paris when he paints this. (murmuring) The title translates to The Young Ladies of Avignon. - [Man] Which refers to a street that's not in France but is in Barcelona and associated with prostitution. What we're looking at is a brothel. The idea of rendering a woman who is available to the male viewer, but within a context that goes back to Degas. But it also goes back to Manet, if you think about his painting Olympia. And you could go even further back to the Venetian Renaissance and look at paintings by Titian. - [Woman] For many art historians, this painting is seen as a break with the 500 years of European painting that begins with the Renaissance. - [Man] And many art historians see this as the foundation on which Cubism is built. - [Woman] So it's this radical break that points to the future. And it's a radical break with these conventions of representation that had for so long been accepted in the West about how you make a body in space, how you create a space. All of that is up-ended by Les Domoiselles d'Avignon. - [Man] Gone is linear perspective. Gone is chiaroscuro, that modulation of light and shadow that creates the illusion that Picasso, by the way, was in love with, the magic of illusion. But here he's shattering it. - [Woman] He found the formal means to convey the ideas, I think, that were behind Les Domoiselles d'Avignon, ideas about sexuality, about the female nude, about sexually transmitted diseases. This is a confrontational painting. - [Man] In the original sketches, the woman were focusing on a male that was included, a sailor that was also a medical student. But he takes those men out, and the women, then, turn their gaze outward, like Manet's Olympia, to engage us, the viewer, directly. - [Woman] Those two male figures give us a clue to some of the ideas behind the painting. A sailor, someone who's in a brothel as a customer, who was seated at a table originally. - [Man] And then the medical student takes on a more analytical view, who looks at the women from a more scientific perspective. But also maybe from a more artistic perspective. Artists have a history of dissecting human bodies, of understanding the bone structure, the musculature, of looking at the body analytically. - [Woman] But let's not forget that that medical student carried, at least in some sketches, a skull. And of course it makes sense that a medical student studying anatomy might be carrying something related to his profession to tell us who he is. On the other hand, the skull, in art history, is a reminder of death. It's a memento mori. And so there seems to be some tension here between the sensuality that the sailor is indulging in and a moralizing reminder that the pleasures of life are short, indicated by the skull carried by the medical student. - [Man] The faces of the women on the right are often seen as representations of African masks that we know Picasso was then looking at. The figure on the left is an archaic figure, going back to Ancient Spain and going back to Iberian art before the classical period. - [Woman] That's one of the problems of this painting. We look at art and we expect stylistic coherence. But here we have this agglomeration of styles. - [Man] It's a kind of invention. Picasso is allowing his laboratory to be exposed to us. There is a physical confrontation, there is danger here. - [Woman] The figures are really close to us. Space has become this palpable three-dimensional fractured planes. - [Man] The curtains that seem to thread in between the figures are pressed right up against those figures. There is no space behind or between. There is still some sense of illusion. There's still some shadow. There's still some highlighting. But Picasso has only created an illusion that goes back into space a few inches. It's a little bit difficult to look at this painting without the hindsight of understanding where Cubism is going to go. But knowing that Cubism is this deconstruction of three-dimensional form, shattering that form and then placing those fragments back on a two-dimensional surface, has led some art historians to look at the central figure as one that we're both looking across at, but also looking down at as if we're standing over her while she lies on a bed. These were not ideas that Picasso came up with independently. Matisse had been exploring these ideas, and before him, Cezanne had done this. - [Woman] You can see why artists who saw this painting in Picasso's studio soon after it was painted were horrified. Even Degas, when he represented un-idealized women in a brothel, never came close to the rawness, the ugliness. - [Man] Picasso was a product of his culture. He's a product of this moment. The fact that he's looking at African masks in order to represent danger is an expression of France's colonialism. Those objects, those masks, were coming to France because France had large colonial possessions in Africa. And Picasso at this time knew very little about the cultures that these came from. He was interested in them for their formal qualities, for their formal inventiveness. Also because they represented otherness. - [Woman] This idea of needing to go outside the Western tradition in order to express what the early twentieth century and the lat nineteenth century felt like is important, this tendency toward expressing the flatness of the picture plane, not denying it by creating this false illusion. This is a very important thing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. - [Man] It speaks to the oppressiveness with which post-Renaissance culture, mannerism, the Baroque neo-classism, the academies of the nineteenth century, all weighed on contemporary artists who were seeking a new visual language to represent modern culture. (classy piano music)