A painting's tale

Different strokes

A painting's tale

In 1907, Bateau Lavoir (The Laundry Boat) was just a ramshackle wooden structure in Paris. It was poorly heated and had a single tap for water. In this unimpressive building accommodating several young and penniless artists of different nationalities was created one the most iconic paintings, which revolutionised 20th-century art.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was 25 when he painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907. He drew on multiple and diverse sources including African tribal masks, Iberian sculpture, and master works of El Greco and Cezanne; and reportedly made over 100 preparatory sketches and studies for the painting.

When it was completed, the large 62- square-feet painting showed an infamous brothel scene on a street in Barcelona. Five naked prostitutes with huge black eyes and blank faces stared squarely at the viewer. Two of them stood with arms raised and flaunting their breasts; the other 3 were masked.

Clearly, Picasso had gone against previous conventions of depicting the female body. In form and content, the painting was dramatically different from anything Picasso himself or any other artist working in Paris had painted till then. It distorted the human form to divest it of any emotion, concern and soul.

Unsurprisingly, the large 8-foot-square painting was received with outrage and revulsion. Even Picasso’s friends and admirers saw in it an explosion of anarchy, violence and crude sexuality.

Barrage of brickbats

Henri Matisse found it to be raw, cacophonic and nasty; while Picasso’s loyal patron, Gertrude Stein, saw it as an ugly and veritable cataclysm. Picasso’s fellow founder of Cubism, Georges Braque,  thought his friend might have drunk petroleum to spit fire onto the canvas. Painter André Derain declared: “One day we shall find Pablo hanging himself behind his great canvas.” With such raging responses flowing, Picasso rolled the painting and hid it for several years.

When it was shown in public for the first time in 1916 as part of a group exhibition, the reaction was no different. Critics and fellow painters once again derided it as a crude, immoral and vulgar piece of art. Picasso promptly rolled it back and kept it that way for the next 8 years.

Finally, some support

There was a silver lining within the cloud of widespread negativity. The influential surrealist poet André Breton (1896 – 1966) saw virtue in Picasso’s much-maligned painting. In 1923, he recommended art collector Jacques Doucet (1853–1929) to purchase it. “It is a work which to my mind transcends painting,” he wrote persuasively. “It is the theatre of everything that has happened in the last 50 years. It is the wall before which have passed Rimbaud, Lautreamont, Jarry, Apollinaire, and all those we still love. If it were to disappear, it would take with it the largest part of our secret.”

In a subsequent letter to Doucet, Breton named Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as the most important event of early 20th century. “It seems to me impossible to speak of this (painting) except in a mystical manner. The question of beauty only arises much later, and even then it is only fitting that it be broached with prudence. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon defies analysis, and the laws of its vast composition cannot in any way be formulated. For me, it is a pure symbol, like the Chaldean bull, an intense projection of this modern ideal, which we are only able to grasp piecemeal. Still, mystically speaking, after Picasso, goodbye to all the paintings of the past! For me it is a sacred image.”

In 1924, Doucet decided to buy the painting for 25,000 francs. When it reached the wealthy art collector’s luxurious home in an affluent Parisian suburb in December that year, Doucet informed Picasso that “the subject (of the painting) is a little… well, peculiar, and I cannot in all decency show it in Mme Doucet’s living room.” Picasso, whose relationship with Doucet deteriorated over time, never responded to Doucet’s invitation to view the painting in its new home.

Doucet died on October 30, 1929, and the painting passed on to his wife. By 1935, its value was estimated at 1,20,000 francs. In 1937, 3 decades after it was painted,  Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa), New York.

In 1939 it was shown as part of the exhibition Art of Our Time. “Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon is one of the very few paintings in the history of modern art which can justly be called epoch-making,” declared Alfred H Barr Jr, the then director of MoMa. “In few modern works of art is the arrogance of genius so powerfully asserted.”

That did not mean Les Demoiselles found easy and universal acceptance. “The average man can see no sense in Picasso’s work,” wrote Anita Brenner in New York Times (Picasso versus Picasso/ November 12, 1939). “There must be a trick in it somewhere, if collectors are willing to pay thousands of dollars for one of these splotchy scrawls.”

Acceptance & praise

Today, however, things are different.  Many historians believe that Les Demoiselles d’Avignon marked the real beginning of Modern Art and the art world as we know it today. In July 2007, the Newsweek magazine produced a 2-page, 4-column article describing Picasso’s painting as the “most influential work of art of the last 100 years.”

Eminent art critic Robert Hughes wrote in his famous book, The Shock of the New: “With its hacked contours, staring interrogatory eyes, and general feeling of instability, Les Demoiselles is still a disturbing painting after three quarters of a century, a refutation of the idea that the surprise of art, like the surprise of fashion, must necessarily wear off. No painting ever looked more convulsive. None signalled a faster change in the history of art. Yet it was anchored in tradition, and its attack on the eye would never have been so startling if its format had not been that of the classical nude.”

This, then, is the story of a great work of art painted in a ramshackle building in Paris by a young but determined artist.

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