Anatomy of a Masterpiece – ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ by Pablo Picasso

In the second in his series of six articles, our art critic, Malcolm Storer, examines and dissects another supreme masterpiece of western art, scrutinising the artist and why, when and where it was created.    

Nowadays the term ‘changed the course of western art’ is an overused, hackneyed expression. But in this case, there is just no denying it. Quite simply, what Picasso created in his ramshackle Montmartre studio in 1907 not only changed forever our perception of what painting can do, it smashed it to smithereens. Literally!

In Renaissance times artists grappled with the thorny subject of perspective – how to impart special depth on to a flat surface, giving the viewer the illusion of being able to roam at will through the painting.


But when the young Picasso first visited Paris in 1900, he wanted to do much more than that. Fresh off the train from Malaga he arrived at an auspicious moment; the Paris World Fair was in full swing, offering visitors a glimpse into the future.

Along with fellow painter George Braque he became fascinated with the nascent technology of film making, with its shifting perspectives of time, space and motion. However, unlike like the revolving camera which allows us to see all four sides of an object, Picasso and Braque sought to convey this sensation in one single image. Thus, Cubism was born.

The progenitor of this revolutionary art movement is Picasso’s masterpiece ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, a creative tour de force of splintering, geometric forms so radical even his close friends thought he had gone mad.

We are standing in a brothel. At the top left of the painting a hand draws back a curtain to reveal five prostitutes. So far so clichéd — for centuries, the female body has been used in art to titillate the male viewer, with sensual poses and simpering smiles. Here, though, Picasso turns that on its head.

The women stare at us, not the other way round. Their mask-like faces — reflecting Picasso’s obsession with primitive art sparked by an exhibition of tribal masks at the Louvre — convey a detached, threatening aura.

Everything about the image disturbs the eye, from the sickle-shaped water melon at the bottom of the painting poised like a weapon, to the prostitutes terrifying, zombie-like stares, to the razor sharp bed sheets that promise a night of lacerating love. ‘Come on, if you think you’re man enough!’, the prostitutes seem to be saying.

Also, Picasso has no interest in the Renaissance obsession with perspective and the vanishing point. His figures are flat, in-your-face totems. By reducing his figures to a combination of geometric shapes, he runs counter to centuries of artistic tradition in which the human form is deified, duplicated and romanticised.

It’s as if Picasso has painted the image onto a pane of glass and we are witnessing the first millisecond as it begins to shatter, opening another dimension through which the painters of the future can follow.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon can be seen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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