Modern and contemporary art
Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
(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)
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