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The lifelong and fruitful rivalry between Picasso and Matisse is already evident in 1907, when Picasso is working on Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. Matisse had exhibited Le Bonheur de vivre in 1906. It is widely bonheurdeVivreridiculed by Parisians, but Picasso sees in it a daring move forward in the game of overriding the past. The “game” is to invent a new art, an art that’s against what has gone before. And here is Matisse quoting from the Renaissance and thumbing his nose at it at the same time. For Picasso this presents a challenge: could he come up with something more shocking. He starts working on Les Demoiselles at the end of 1906 BlueNudealready. Then in the spring of 1907 Matisse comes out with another shocker: Blue Nude, Memory of Biskra. The fact that a leading art critic at the time, Bernard Berenson, calls the painting “a toad,” is encouraging, it means that bourgeois taste is being offended. That’s the program: “épater le bourgeois” (to shock the conventionally-minded middle class).
LesDemoiselleDAvignonIn the fall of 1907 Picasso finishes Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and has some friends and collectors over. “Those invited to a viewing found it as baffling as the stuff Matisse was currently producing. Picasso’s three closest friends—the writers Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob and André Salmon—were noncommittal. Kahnweiler considered the painting a failure, and Leo Stein burst out laughing when he saw it.” (Hilary Spurling, The Unknown Matisse, p379)
Picasso kept it in his studio until it was exhibited for the first time in 1916 at the Salon d’Antin, Paris, when André Salmon gave it the title by which it is known. The title comes from Picasso’s private joking with friends about a notorious brothel on Avignon Street in Barcelona. Picasso later said he disliked the title.
Jacques Doucet (1853–1929), a wealthy Parisian fashion designer purchased the painting in transactions lasting from 1924-1929.
Jacques Seligmann & Co., New York, purchased it from Madame Doucet in September 1937.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York purchased it from Seligmann, 1937- 1939, where it has been drawing crowds ever since.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is considered to be an icon of modernism. “Icon” is a strange word to be used in talking about modernism. More on that later.
All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.
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PosingPicassoAvignon1
You’ve seen it hundreds of times in art books. And now there it is: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. In the flesh, in the canvas, in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This famous painting, this icon, yes, icon, of modernism. You’ve flown thousands of miles to get to New York, you’re modern, you’re not shocked by this shocking painting, you’re cultured, civilized, you’re familiar with its origin myths and the various interpretations offered by art historians. You know that Picasso’s early sketches show a medical student entering a brothel, that the red light district in Barcelona, where Picasso spent his teen age years, was along a street called Avignon. You’ve studied every passage of this painting from reproductions in art books: the course handling of the drapery, the aggressive fruit bowl, the terrifying masks. And here it is and here you are. It looks just like the reproductions in the books. It’s big and you knew that PosingPicassoAvignon2all along. There is no surprise, there’s nothing new here at all, nothing to learn, nothing to experience. So there’s nothing for you to do but stand in front of it like a good tourist and do the touristy thing; you ask your friend to take a picture of you standing in front of Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles D’Avignon.
In 1936 in an essay called The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction Walter Benjamin said when people go to museums now, they don’t go to see art, they go to see the original of what they’ve seen before in reproductions. There’s no surprise, no experience, no epiphany, no shock, no aesthetic experience. What they’re curious to see is the original that spawned so many reproductions.
That’s what I witnessed earlier this month when I spent a day at the MoMA. Les Demoiselles D’Avignon drew a crowd. I inched my way close to the painting’s edge and looked closely at the brush work. Very clean, very neat. No overpainting that would leave previous layers to peek through (pentimento). No reworking. No pencil or charcoal lines to lay out the composition.

A less famous painting of Picasso’s, Night Fishing in Antibes, was not mobbed and attracted only the occasional poseur. Famous because it was a Picasso, but not as widely reproduced. Hence a smaller crowd.

PosingPicassoNightFishing

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.
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Without preliminary sketches, Karen produced this exquisite line drawing of a face. She drew without a model or an image. It’s her invention, probably a self-portrait after her disappointment with the earlier drawing project. (See the still life set up in the previous post.)

Picasso comes to mind.

I don’t know if Karen was paying homage to Picasso.  But I’ll venture a guess about her immediate source of inspiration: the red and blue paper mask-face that an after-schooler had left in our classroom.

What’s the connection to Picasso?

Picasso spent his teen age years, in the 1890’s, in Barcelona.  He was precocious as an artist and as a thinker.  The friends he hung out with (in a café called Els Quatre Gats)  were artists and writers, ten and fifteen years older than he.  Barcelona in that decade was a hotbed of anarchy.  Artists were outraged at the social injustice, poverty and bourgeois complacency they saw in the city. Central to anarchist beliefs was the faith in the power of art to alter the ways in which people thought, to change the consciousness of the age and thus to hasten the social revolution.

When Picasso moved to Paris in 1904, his friends were again artists and poets who debated the function of art in an urgently needed social and aesthetic revolution.

In Paris at the time, African and Oceanic  art could be bought on the cheap at flea markets.  Artists who worked in the modern vein all owned such masks and sculptures, including Picasso.  When Picasso visited the Ethological Museum (called the Trocadero at that time), he was smitten by the rawness of what was then called “primitive art.”  It was “against everything,” he said. Tribal artifacts, including the art of American Indians,  represented the antithesis of overly refined 19th century European art. Since this refined art documented the corruption and decadence of the society he rejected, he saw in “primitive” art a potential for total rebellion and therefore a hope of stirring the consciousness of his contemporaries.  The shock might wake them out of their comfortable bourgeois complacency and make them consider new social, political ideas and a new aesthetic.

Picasso famously drew the profile in the front view of a face, as for example in his Girl before a Mirror, 1932. (Detail shown here.) At right, a Kwakiutl mask from British Columbia.

Art students and art lovers can hardly get around Picasso.  There he is, the colossus of the 20th century.  It’s hard not to be influenced by some aspect of his many styles of working during his very long life.  Who can say what inspired Karen to make this fine drawing?  But there you are, I see Picasso in it.

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Picasso was born October 25, 1881, in Malaga, Spain.  He spent his teen-age years in Barcelona, a hot bed of anarchy in the 1890’s.  His friends were anarchist writers and artists, ten and twenty years older than he:  Santiago Rusinol (1861-1931), Ramon Casas (1866-1932), and Isidro Nonell (1873-1911).  They discussed the writings of Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin and Nietzsche.  They were anti-church and anti-government, outraged by the impoverishment of Spanish peasants who poured into the cities.  They believed that an artist has to transform himself, to overcome his past and create himself anew.

Picasso is often presented as anti-intellectual and a-political, an image he himself encouraged. But, in fact, he wrote poetry.  He wrote a play in which Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir read the leads.  His dealer H.D. Kahnweiler said, Picasso was completely unpolitical, but Picasso joined the Communist Party in 1944. The newspaper clippings he collaged into his late cubist work all deal with the horror of war.   Picasso is a complex character.  Well, I just thought I’d mention this on his birthday

“Yo Picasso,”  1901.  Oil on canvas, ~ 73 cm x 65 cm.   (I, Picasso)

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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