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Miles Unger on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

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.

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.”

Doucet was very reluctant. It’s not a comfortable painting to hang in your house, to say the least. And this was exactly why it appealed to Breton. But he finally convinces Doucet that it would be a feather in his cap if he had this painting hanging on his wall.

Picasso reluctantly agreed to sell it for far less than what it was worth, based on the promise that Doucet’s collection would eventually be donated to the Louvre. This didn’t happen. When Doucet died, his widow sold it to the dealer Germain Seligman. This was in the years leading up to the Second World War. Seligman decided, given the political situation in Europe, that it was probably a better idea to sell it in the United States. This was just at the time when the Museum of Modern Art was getting started. Alfred Barr was trying to build up his collection.

Alfred Barr had already determined in his own mind — and this is not a particularly controversial assessment — that Picasso was the key artist in the history of 20th-Century art. He was trying to put on a Picasso show. Eventually he urges the museum board to purchase this work, and it blew their budget. It’s one of the few times in their history they had to sell off a work in order to raise the funds to pay for another: they sold off a Degas racetrack picture in order to raise half the funds.

OR: Is it the most important Western painting? How do you see it situated in the broader world of Western art?

Unger: That’s a difficult and subjective question. Some months ago I saw an article trying to assess how much a work would sell for at auction if it ever went on the market. Obviously, Les Demoiselles is not something the Museum of Modern Art will ever part with, so it’s a completely abstract question. But Les Demoiselles was listed as what would be the most expensive painting ever sold if it ever went to auction.

The consensus of art scholars, and people who look at these things, is that it’s the most important painting of the 20th Century. You can make a very strong case that the Les Demoiselles had a greater influence on a greater number of paintings and movements and artists than any other painting in the history of modernism.

If you want to say what is the greatest painting of the 20th Century, that’s another question. I think that’s far more difficult, and dependent on your particular tastes. Guernica is probably better known in the popular imagination than Les Demoiselles is. Picasso painted Guernica as a public painting. One of the interesting things about Picasso is, for the most part, he was a very private man, and he painted because he had to, because he had to exorcise the demons in his soul. He was in some ways, quite content to have Les Demoiselles rolled up in a secret place like some kind of fetish kept in the dark to light candles to. That was very much his view of art: a private, almost primitive ritual.

Guernica was meant as a kind of grand political statement at a time of political upheaval, so it’s always been more in the public mind. Guernica addresses the public in the way that Les Demoiselles does not. I guess the ultimate answer is it depends on how you look at it. I don’t think there is a definitive answer, but certainly if you look at the impact this almost secret painting had on the course of art, if you take the spring and summer of 1907 when it was first seen and look at the huge transformation of the art world it effected — it’s like a rock dropped in a pond, you see these rippling effects, these waves of transformation based on what happened.

You have the Futurists in Italy, you’ve got the Constructivists in Russia, you’ve got the Dutch artists like Mondrian, all of this sort of building out very quickly in the space of a few years from this sort of central point. Partly it changed the course of Picasso’s art, and Cubism became the avant garde movement that really shook up the world and transformed the look, not only of art itself, but of design and architecture.

It stands as kind of ground zero for a huge transformation in the way we perceive art and the way art looked.