Picasso's: "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," an interpretation,

by Tony Grillo


This painting dates to the Spring of 1907. According to John Berger in Success/Failure of Picasso, this picture went through many changes and remains unfinished. Originally, the composition included two men, a sailor and another man (...a medical student?), entering the setting (ostensibly, a room in a brothel) carrying a skull, which may have been a private reference to venereal disease (and Picasso's own recent fears of having contracted what was, at that time, a life-long, agonizing and crippling illness), which would have brought the total number of figures depicted to seven. But, this is background information and not what is given, what is seen. As Max Kosloff would say, "Modern art (is) the articulation of the human predicament or condition of mortality, from which there is no escape, ... the Prime Motive for Modern Art is the Wish to Give Rise to Discussion."

Let me begin by stating categorically that the five figures in the painting are NOT representations of women; at best, they are "caricatures" of women, at worse, they're drag queens. If we are to accept that this painting is set in a bordello: then we must entertain the thought that these figures could easily be sailors and customers or actual female and male whores in "deshabille" costume, in various stages of disrobement; I take particular exception in categorizing or ascribing them to either gender; these contorted figures are NOT representations of women or men. They are NOT seductive. They are that OTHER entity that results from the meeting of SUBJECT and OBJECT, in this case, customer and whore, each borrowing aspects from one another and then represented as a third "object entity," a symbol.

But, even gender issues play a minimal role in what is depicted here by the artist; rather, it is the drawing of the human figure in a new way, attenuating, foreshortening, twisting front, back and side views, in the manner that later became known as "cubism," whose underpinnings can be traced to the tectonic qualities that are present in the African tradition of tribal mask making "without having followed a specific African model, transposing sculptural stylizations into flat fields." (Leo Steinberg: Other Criteria) And, through this painting, Picasso provoked Cubism, prompting Braque to begin painting at the end of this same year his own formal answer to it; Picasso drew from his cultural traditions, steeped in the Spanish Roman Catholic ethic, when he painted this violent "mise en scene" or tableau, "a raging, frontal attack, not against sexual immorality, but against life as Picasso found it - the waste, the disease, the ugliness, and the ruthlessness of it." (Berger: Ibid.)

This was no mere genre painting of a particular group of people; these five figures, four standing and one seated (along with seemingly "awkwardly" painted fruit in the foreground, resting on the tip of a table whose main body must be presumed to continue beyond the frame, from the picture out to the observer), are MORE than just a portrait. I would suggest that the number of figures (5) is very significant. Consider the notion that this painting was produced at the time that Freudian methods of psychoanalysis were first being applied by artists to their method of producing work (which later became known as "dada/Surrealism") and,by not too far a stretch, we come to the "association" of the number five as suggesting the five senses, i.e, touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight. There already was entrenched a literary tradition in France, namely the "Symbolistes," [represented by Baudelaire, Mallarme, Rimbaud, Verlaine, etc.] that experimented with the combination of these our senses, seeking a new synthesis; a young Picasso, as a member of the avant-garde in Paris, caught up in the milieu and angst of his times, would have also subscribed to this very same cultural ethos and would naturally attempt his own version, in pictorial terms.

Against a very theatrical backdrop, whose enfoldings suggest a Pandora's Box, already unwrapped, the demonic spirits and plagues having been let loose upon the world, or a gruesome autopsy scene, where the surgeon has made an incision in the flesh and ripped off the cadaver's face, exposing the skull underneath, the standing figure (this composite of all the races of man) to the left's hand "touches" the corporeal background, the next two figures seem almost conjoined twins (like taste and smell) and are perversely drawn in an almost "fish-like" shape with shadowy flapping tail overhead, the squatting figure is next and by virtue of its contorted aspect more readily is ascribed to sight (perhaps performing some fetishistic rite for a voyeur customer), while the standing figure in the right background, like a blind matron barking orders from the parlor, dramatically set apart, outlined by darkness, containing darkness and vague shapes (within itself, cave-like), suggests the "aural" realm of sensory perception.

But it is the jaded bestiality of man to man, man to woman, as sex-object, the general brutality of the times in which he lived, steeped in violence, that is most vividly represented here. Violence has transformed Picasso's style; the dislocations in this picture are the result of aggression, not aesthetics. The colors employed are that of baked clay with some blue and gray to indicate outlines. The forms are reminiscent of broken crockery, shards of pottery. This painting is iconoclastic, meant to shock. Picasso is concerned here with challenging civilization, as if he had raised his earthenware cup of wine to mankind at the start of a new century and hurled it instead against the wall in disgust. "In their absolute presence, Picasso's ominous whores stage a terrifying de-sublimation of art. The picture breaks the triple spell of tradition -idealization, emotional distance, and fixed-focus perspective- the tradition of high-craft illusionism which conducts the spectator-voyeur unobserved to his privileged seat." (Steinberg: Ibid.)

The addition of an arrangement of fruit at the bottom center of this composition, I believe, is like a nod of acknowledgment to his predecessor, Cezanne, whose earlier still life paintings and series on Mt. Sainte Victoire paved the way and signaled the many later spin-off Post-Impressionist movements in painting that occurred in those tumultuous times at the beginning of the 20th century. Picasso said of Cezanne - "What matters most to us in Cezanne, more than his pictures, is his ANXIETY."

Paraphrasing Marcel Duchamp, in his essay entitled: "The Creative Act," Cezanne sacrificed verisimilitude, or correctness, in order to fit drawing and design more explicitly to the rectangular surface of the canvas. Anxiety about his intention/realization was all pervasive; Cezanne wished to capture "sensation" (to represent reality). His art is all about surface and texture. It was the stressing, however, of the ineluctable flatness of the support that remained most fundamental in the process by which pictorial art criticized and defined itself under Modernism. Flatness, alone, was unique and exclusive to that art. The anchoring shape of the support was a limiting condition, or norm, that was shared with the art of the theatre; color was a norm or means shared with sculpture as well as with the theatre. Flatness, two dimensionality, was the ONLY condition painting shared with no other art, and so Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did nothing else. Reaction to Impressionism (by Cezanne and the Cubists) was toward flattening the surface of painting, so flat that it could hardly contain recognizable figures.

Modern Art functions to transmit this anxiety to the spectator, so that the encounter with work is (at least while the work is new) a genuine existential predicament. Like Kierkegaard's GOD - the art is arbitrary, cruel, irrational, demanding of our faith, while making no promise of future rewards. "Original contemporary art presents itself as a bad risk." (Steinberg: Ibid.) The Spectator completes the work, experiencing the phenomenon of transmutation ("transubstantiation"). The role of the spectator is to determine the weight of the work on the esthetic scale, bringing the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting the inner qualifications, and thus adds a contribution to the creative act.

In conclusion, from my vantage point of a century later, this breakthrough painting now more nearly aligns itself thematically with a more traditional genre painting, that of a "Memento mori," a death's head, a reminder of mortality and a nostalgic tribute to lost innocence, while still retaining its remarkable iconoclastic and graphically fresh cubistic style.


"Reducing the work of Art to its content, interpreting that, TAMES the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable." (Susan Sontag)


Leo Steinberg: "Contemporary Art applauds the destruction of values... [The Positive Cause is rarely made clear, therefore these sacrifices appear as acts of demolition, without motive.]"


Rosenberg: "... this gives modern art its vitality and impermanence... RELEVANCE, brings work to life again. Art and its function in a given human environment (social situation), in its circulation, sheds materiality, becomes inseparable from LANGUAGE; one cannot separate a work from its critical evaluation."