We can only imagine the impact that this life-size painting had on viewers 100 years ago. “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” flaunts a brazen disregard for the made-up rules of art. Though the painting was not shown publicly until 1916, Georges Braque saw the canvas in 1907 in Pablo Picasso’s studio before the paint dried. And what Braque saw altered the genetic code of his intelligence forever. I suspect that for many artists today, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” has lost none of its zest. Its clash of forces and ideas emits a power that does not fade.
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Art historians typically discuss the Demoiselles in terms of content: a brothel—five prostitutes in an enigmatic room that includes a table with still-life (fruit), ephemeral fabrics (tablecloth, curtains, clothes, wallpaper), and possibly a chair; in terms of three major influences: Primitivism—expressed through overt sexuality, flatness, geometric design, and references to Egyptian profile-art (the woman at the left) and African tribal masks (the two right figures); El Greco (elongation/vertical distortion); and Cézanne (geometrization and shallow depth of the pictorial field, as well as echoes of Cézanne’s paintings of bathers in the arrangement of nudes); in terms of representational devices: the owl-like head swivel of the seated woman on the right (an early, literal example of “simultaneity”) and the profile-like flattening of the noses of the two women second and third from the left; or in terms of the geometric formal integers that comprise the iconoclastic aesthetic system (triangles, wedges, diamonds, ovals, trapezoids, and blends of these shapes), another indication of the long shadow cast over the whole painting by Cézanne.
But standard discussions rarely probe the deeper spatial qualifications of the painting. Commentators do agree on the basics: the 3-D picture space resides in a realm of ambiguity, signified in part by aggressive dismembering and foregrounding of body parts (such as the left hand of the woman on the left, the left leg of the second woman from the left, and the head of the seated-woman on the right). Through these and other devices of visual conflict, Picasso picked up where Cézanne’s research left off and plumbed an inherently architectural aspect of the painting’s organization: space. As a result of Picasso’s search for new ways to organize an aesthetic field and reconcile 3-D form with the flat picture surface, the Demoiselles violently upended the “laws” of linear perspective held sacred since the Renaissance and challenged the conventions we associate with how to represent everyday space.
Ultimately, as painter/writer John Golding and others have generally observed, the interplay of form and space in the Demoiselles contributes to a Cézanne-like game of affirmation and denial vis-à-vis the illusion of perspectival space versus the reality of the flatness of the painting’s canvas. Folded surfaces (fabrics), folded forms (bodies and walls), and folded spaces (inside/outside) appear with beguiling equivalence—oscillating between oppositional values: fracture and fusion, projection and recession, volume and plane.
“In Violin” and other collages by Picasso, Braque, or Juan Gris, the concept of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”—who represents what is termed as significant space—operates as a controlling principle. And from painters to sculptors to architects, artists today who tap this timeless principle become not only form makers, but also space makers. These artists learn the secret to becoming design makers.
This essay written by Madison Gray and major changes have been made. The full copy of this essay is at: https://archive.org/details/PicassoLessons
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