Shock and Awe

An Interview with Miles Unger

Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon shocked the avant garde when it first appeared — and then shifted the course of art history. Art historian Miles Unger explains how the painting came into being and why it changed the world.

Octavian Report: What is happening in Pablo Picasso’s life as he begins to paint Les Demoiselles d’Avignon? Can you talk about the preparatory work that went into the painting?

Miles Unger: Les Demoiselles was certainly the most carefully planned painting of his entire career. It was the one he worked on the most, for the longest period, with the most preparatory drawings — the most agonized struggle. Picasso's an artist who's generally known for churning out hundreds of works in a month, but this was something he clearly invested a lot of himself in. I think the reasons for this were twofold. This was not an accidental masterpiece, this was something he really felt that he needed at this point in his career. He was still a relatively young man and had been a fixture on the Parisian art scene for a few years and was getting some recognition in avant-garde circles. But he had really been leapfrogged by his great rival Matisse, who was an older man, a Frenchman, much more sophisticated in the ways of the world. He had created these works that caused a sensation in the 1905 salon, and then again in 1906.

These works really made Matisse the figure at the center of the Parisian avant-garde. He was now the leader of the Fauves movement, as it was called, and Picasso really felt a bit aggrieved. He felt that place rightfully belonged to him. He was thrown into very close contact with Matisse through Gertrude and Leo Stein, who were the principal patrons of both Matisse and Picasso at this time, and they had their regular Saturday evening soirees where the artists were brought together to look at the latest works that the Stein siblings had brought together. They were very much brought into competition with each other, and Picasso felt that, particularly after the sensations created by Matisse's painting The Joy of Life, which Leo Stein acquired for his salon, that he needed to do something to answer back.

As always in these situations, there was a great deal of personal competition involved. I also think he felt like he was an artist of a very different sort from Matisse. Matisse took an almost hedonistic pleasure in color, in these delightfully beautiful swathes of opalescent color, and that was really not what Picasso was about. Picasso's art came from a much darker place. He was a very superstitious man, and really believed that art was a way of challenging the dark forces that rule our lives. He set out to create a response to Matisse in his own idiom.

It was also a period where he was very much under psychological stress. His life with his longtime mistress, Fernande Olivier, was falling apart. They had a disastrous attempt to adopt a young girl, which ended after a few months when the psychological tensions in the studio got to be too much.

All these factors form the backdrop of this painting. He rents a second studio and sets out to paint this response to the enormous canvases that Matisse had just had such great success with.

OR: Why was the painting so shocking to the Parisian avant-garde — so much so that André Derain said, “One day we will find Picasso hanging behind it”?

Unger: It comes from Picasso's raging personality. His misogyny, and his lust, and his terror of the dark forces that he thought ruled his life. He was a tormented, angry man. In this painting, for the first time in his career, he learns how to channel those dark forces into an image of searing power. The distortions he imposes on the human form, particularly in the two figures on the right, were something that nobody had ever seen before. This had really taken art to a new expressive level. It's much more aggressive and in your face and difficult.

Picasso himself said at one point that "You really have to be a masochist to like my art." And there is an element of that. There's a kind of aggression here, a kind of fury, that he really tries to channel. And one of the things that he does is have all these figures staring right out at you, so you can't really avoid their gaze. Everything about the painting is kind of aggressive. It pushes forward. It distorts. In the course of painting this he goes and looks at the African masks in the Trocadéro museum. African art is based on very different principles from western art, it's much more conceptual, much more willing to reduce the human figure to a series of abstract signs. Picasso, particularly in the two figures he painted on the right, really takes this to heart. He sees how far you can push the distortion of the human figure, how to take apart the human form to such an extent that it still reads as a human form but is vastly different from anything you can actually perceive.

You quoted André Derain. Even Georges Bracque, when over the course of the next few years would become Picasso's partner in the creation of Cubism, said he felt when he saw it that it was as if Picasso had been drinking kerosene and spitting fire.

OR: Can you talk about the compositional, philosophical relation of Les Demoiselles to The Opening of the Fifth Seal?

Unger: El Greco was one of the touchstones of Picasso's art. Picasso was a Spaniard, even though he spent most of his adult life in France. He felt very much what the Spaniards call duende — the idea that art and life are suffering; the melancholy side of Spanish art. That's something that very much comes out of the great Mannerists of the 17th Century and out of El Greco. That willingness to distort form for expressive purposes, the notion that art taps into a melancholy, fearful, nighttime version of the world.

Picasso saw this painting, which was at the house of a friend. The painting itself was very different from its original. It had been cut down to an almost square painting from a horizontal painting over the years. But the dimensions of the cut down painting are very much the dimensions of Les Demoiselles, which is an almost square painting. Unusual for a painting with multiple figures, which you would expect to be much more horizontal. This compresses the space and pushes the figures. The figures occupy almost the entire stage of the painting. There's almost no space around them, and whatever space there is seems very close and compressed, which gives you the impression of all these figures being pushed into your space.