It is always complicated to truly grasp the importance of this painting. Neither the colours nor the subject appear particularly sophisticated. It may even seem bland and uninteresting to the unaware. Yet, this very work would change the progression of art forever. Like an explosion, its shockwave was felt throughout all the arts, and catapulted Pablo Picasso to be the dominant figure of the art world in the 20th century. This is, of course, the Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – the work that marked the birth of Cubism.
After showing an extraordinary ability to paint with early masterpieces such as Femme en Bleu (1901), Les Pauvres aux bord de la mers (1903), and The Old Guitarist (1903), Picasso decided to move to Paris. Here he became a leader of sorts to the artistic avant-gardist. However, with his departure from Spain, Picasso also departed from his traditional pallet. For instance, (entirely unlike his previous work) from 1905 Picasso was primarily working with oranges and pinks. Moreover, his subject matter became festive, prosaic, and ultimately, quite unlike the forlorn figures depicted during his Blue Period.
In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, we experience the full extent of Picasso’s changed aesthetic. However, before delving into the style of the work, we first must understand what we see. Picasso depicts five women, all of them distorted and angular. Notice the allusions to Iberian sculpture and art fin their faces and bodies, which Picasso was heavily influenced by. But who are these strange women? To put it bluntly, they are prostitutes. Very much like Olympia (1863) by Manet, these women are looking forward towards the viewers, creating the impression that we have just walked into a brothel.
However, take the time to observe each woman. Notice where they are positioned. Notice also the complete lack of depth to this room. Even though we see a woman appearing through the curtains in the back, all characters seem to be on the same plane (that is to say, the same distance from the viewer). This is Picasso’s first attempt to create three-dimensional shapes on a two-dimensional surface – a technique otherwise known as ‘cubism.’ This multi-perspective gives us an incredible sense of travelling through space without matter. Knowing this we should now see the true disposition of this room. The curtain on the right no longer seems like a wall but a bird’s point of view over a bed where the two central women lay.
Beyond it’s massive stylistic revolution, this painting also holds a true meditation. Fundamentally, the work is a critique of the loss of truth in the Western society. Within his cubist style, Picasso goes against the work of the impressionst and realist painters of the previous century, and the aesthetic views of the society that made them famous. Within this rejection, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon suggests Picasso’s belief that the new industrial world of the 20th century, and it’s obsession with superficial beauty, was deficient. That is to say, 20th century society lacked truth – this quality had been eroded in the process of modernisation. This is why there are such strong allusions to primitive societies in the painting. For example, traditional African masks are worn by the two women on the right, while the face of an ancient Iberian sculpture is worn by the woman on the left. Picasso saw more truth in primitive societies than in developed civilisation. Perhaps this is why he decided to depict a brothel – a setting which obviously evokes basic human impulses.
In this painting Picasso ignores his entire artistic education, painting almost like a child. He undertakes this venture in the pursuit of truth, something which a perfectly composed and perfectly beautiful masterpiece could never achieve. At the end of his life Picasso famously said: “At fithteen years of age I painted like Velasquez; it took me eighty years to paint like a child.”