Shock and Awe

An Interview with Miles Unger

OR: Do you see any relationship between the struggle Picasso had with Les Demoiselles and the struggle he had with his portrait of Gertrude Stein?

Unger: The portrait of Gertrude Stein was completed in the fall of 1906, after he put it away. He mostly worked on it the spring of 1906. I think that the portrait of Gertrude Stein is crucial in Picasso's development. You see him moving from the sentimental, poetic vision of the rose period with all those acrobats and circus performers wandering about in the desert. But with Gertrude Stein, he eliminates much of the narrative element and sweet, melancholy color of the rose period  in favor of these browns and blacks. It's not a very ingratiating painting. You can see him concentrating on form for form's sake. Or trying to use form itself as an expressive tool.

Everything about the Gertrude Stein portrait is pushed forward. She leans forward. He gives very little sense of space. He's very interested in the sculptural presence of the figure. You can see this is very much a kind of transition towards Cubism. That idea of pressing everything up against the surface of the canvas, and using the form itself as the expressive element in a painting. All of this gives it a kind of aggressive, pushing power. It's in your face, but not in the way that Les Demoiselles is, but in that sense you get when you're in the presence of a powerful personality, the kind that Gertrude Stein was.

We see in the portrait of Gertrude Stein an interest in making the painting not a picture of something, but an actual presence in the world. The idea that painting is almost sculpture. It exists physically in the world. It almost thrusts into our space, rather than seeming like a window on another space. This is something that we see very much not only in Les Demoiselles, but in the Cubist paintings that come after.

OR: Is Les Demoiselles the first Cubist painting?

Unger: This was one of the most fraught questions in modern art scholarship. To me, it ultimately is a semantic question. Cubism comes out of Les Demoiselles, but a traditional Cubist painting in many ways is very different from Les Demoiselles. You have this painting that Picasso creates over the course of six to eight months in 1907, which captures all his rage, fury, and anxiety. Picasso speaks of it as almost a shamanistic work, which is protecting him from the dark spirits. He called it his first, using the French word, “intercessor painting” — something that intercedes between you and the dark forces of the world.

If you look at a typical Cubist painting of a couple of years later, what's the subject? You have a café table, a newspaper spread out, a glass of absinthe. It's very mundane. All that fury and passion contained within Les Demoiselles is not present.

Cubism is a very cerebral art form. It deals with mundane subjects, but then treats them in the most abstruse and almost abstract way possible. All the passion that was poured into Les Demoiselles — there's none of that. It's much more intellectual. But you can see that in the struggle he had in order to give the figures in Les Demoiselles their power, he gave them a kind of physical presence on the surface of the canvas that very much feeds into Cubism.

OR: What was the public reception of the painting when it was first displayed? What influence has the work exerted over the course of modern painting?

Unger: One of the fascinating things about Les Demoiselles is that for a long time, it was whispered about as a painting that almost had this mythological stature as the key work of modernism. But it had been seen by almost nobody. When Picasso let some people into his studio to take a look at it, everybody was horrified and shocked. Picasso, in a huff, took it off its stretchers, rolled it up, and put it away.

But it had already done its work. André Derain, even after initially ridiculing it, almost quoted it in the paintings that he painted over the next year or two. The same was true of Georges Bracque. Artists are looking at it, and thinking about it and absorbing it, but very few people had actually seen it. In 1916, during the middle of a war, it reemerged in André Salmon's exhibition — the same exhibition where it received its title. Again, the painting gets some critical attention, but then it goes underground again until, interestingly, André Breton in the '20s re-discovers it and starts promoting it as the great foundational work of French art and of modernism in general. It’s eventually acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, which becomes the high temple of modernism. Alfred Barr, its director, anoints Les Demoiselles as the key work in the history of 20th-Century art.

But interestingly, the terms under which Les Demoiselles was reincorporated into the mainstream, and even as the key work of modernism, were very different from the way it was originally seen and the way it's come to be seen in recent decades. Alfred Barr was very interested in seeing this work as the foundational work of Cubism and tried to suppress those Expressionist narrative elements that were clearly present in the work. He played down the rage, the sexuality, the fear, the superstitions.

It was only in the 1970's with the reassessment of modernism by critics like Leo Steinberg that the psychological elements of Les Demoiselles once again came to the fore.

OR: How does Picasso end up selling the painting, and how does it end up at MoMA?

Unger: Again, André Breton plays the key role in this. Breton was in charge of the collection of a French fashion designer, Jacques Doucet. He was encouraging Douset to beef up his collection of art, and he was the one who says, "This painting is the key work of the modernist movement. You really got to get it for your collection."