Damoiselles d’Avignon

What do you see.
Sharpe angular outlines of women? flat tones, little depth for expression of shape within the ‘unfeminine’ outlines?

Not a mirror image of real life for sure. Especially when portraits and figurative images had, from the beginning of 1300’s renaissance Europe, been striving for that similarity in likeness. Nature rendered as itself. The flatness of either godly or human form was given depth ; the new science of perspective having effect in architecture and painting.

Why now in 1907 did Picasso decide to ‘retrograde’ back to rendering an image flat? When artists worked in tempera up to the early renaissance, they didn’t have the luxury of time to mix and blend colours into formations of depth illusion and shape.
Picasso worked in the relatively new medium of oil and did, yet he had no desire to paint ‘photographic’ or even remotely similar mimics. He instead chose to invoke his questioning imagination. He was, as were many at that time interested in what had become in the west a developing craze – a fascination with all things exotic, born on the exploration and colonisation of continents since the 1700’s.
And, for artists like Picasso and Gauguin and Matisse… the fascination with African imagery, history and the far east, became a fascination with their own way of seeing and how they rendered images.

And the timing of 1907; specifically, this was a time of change, old certainties and the bedrock of faith, science and philosophy had been questioned for some time. But the first decade in the new millennium was a time when these changes gained traction. Some groups of artists created their own social norms in manifestos. This would be tempered or change again after the carnage of the first world war, but the years prior to 1913 were riding on new ideas, and importantly not resting on statues of older, time-embedded ones.

Picasso’s life may have shown evidence of his attitude toward women, but his paintings are, as far as paintings go, only able to depict the image represented. Any thoughts or feelings invoked are all subjective, along with any information about the artist the viewer has, and what the artist intended.

So from the point of the angular lines, the unfeminine lines, the aggressive lines maybe, what is their point? Or maybe they are ‘just’ shapes. The dark lines are not shadows as we would see them, but could be, holding the two central figures shape’s softer tones of pink, lifting them away from the lighter blue and white ‘background’. And African mask-like lines on the faces of two of the others. Dark tones on the face of the figure on the left. And green stripes and blue edging to the nose of the two mask like faces on the right. The fruit is recognisable, but not balanced on any surface. It could be sliding off the canvas.

The red ‘curtain’ or is it a block of colour, although a hand appears to be holding it. This could make for a dramatic or theatrical side drape to the canvas. There is no background as such, just more shapes highlighting the figures, as if backlit perhaps. The colour of the figures are pushed forward to the viewer, maybe that is where any proactive stance could be felt. As opposed to the passivity of so many previous reclining nudes throughout history.
And looking at it as a mirror of where the viewer is stood, changing that to looking downward.  You could see the surround to the figures as sharp angular shapes of fabric, a bed maybe.

The images in front of you are of female forms, for sure, but rendered in a completely different way from that of the norm. A shock inducing move for the times? Or at least a contentious one?
Except they are naked, nothing new there. They are erotic, the one on the left for example, holds her arm up, bearing all, as would many typical reclining nudes. Except she has a non-passive stance, her eyes and expression unflinchingly direct.
The nude and ‘vulnerable’ bodies eschew an angular fortitude, a strength. They certainly are foremost in the viewers eye when looking at the canvas, not shying away. Their eyes, almond shaped like that of Byzantine or Egyptian art. Three of the stares fixed on the viewer.

The white drapes an almost unnecessary prop. A coy reminder of female portraits of the past.
There are no references to pubic hair or erogenous zones, just shapes.
Not necessarily vulnerable as a group here. As was the single model of many portraits of nude women.

To me the group show a strength, with their in-your-face stance, nakedness, eyes fixed on the viewer and their bodies broken down into cones and triangles, shapes rather than voluminous curves.

Away from any ambiguities, we do know that they are five women from a brothel in Barcelona. The original figure on the left, initially intended to be male.

This painting would be put into categories; the flatness of Primitivism and the way Cubism would breakdown seeing; from what was considered ‘reality’ into paintings that would show in terms of flatness, shape of colour and movement.


Art Made Clear is a soon to be available series of videos intended to remove the mystery from art history.
Please take a look at some excerpts 


Further links