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A Review of Pablo Picasso's Painting Les Demoiselles D'avignon

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‘Few can have guessed at the time it was made that the picture which Pablo Picasso worked on in the winter of 1906-1907, and which now is known as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, was destined to have so decisive an effect on all modern painting’.

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The painting shows a group of female naked whores, two of them on the right hand side hideously deformed and two others staring, confronting the viewer. This image is disturbing ‘both in its raw sexuality and in the violence it does to conventions of spatial illusion, figural integrity and compositional unity’. This painting was influenced by Iberian sculpture and African art. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon may show social struggles problematic in conditions of issues in gender and class. Georges Braque was extremely impressed by Picasso’s accomplishment and influenced his work in many ways, and is clear to see in his painting Nude, which was produced in the winter of 1907-1908.The forms are simplified in this picture and the volumes are emphasized and are defined with heavy outlines, the shape is suggested by broad parallel brushstrokes. Braque entered six recent paintings into the Salon, and they rejected them all, he was extremely upset so he decided to exhibit his work with Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler.

Kahnweiler opened a small gallery in Rue Vignon in 1907, and he bought a large amount of Picasso, Braque’s and Derain’s work. This shows how impressed he was with their paintings and the thought the style of cubism would be immense. The poet Apollnaire prefaced the catalogue for the exhibition, which was his debut as an art critic. In 1908, Braque started to paint landscapes in which he intended to longer reproduce more or less transient colour imitations, but to use the most secure elements of the landscape. He started to restrict his palette to just ochre’s and different hues of green, brown and bluish grey. Braque’s technique was very similar to that of Picasso’s. In 1909, Picasso started to divide large volumes into series of smaller ones. After a while the cubists, started to have a change of interest towards planes instead of volumes. Louis Vauxcelles wrote in an article in Gil Blas, in November 1908, ‘M.Braque is a very daring young man. He constructs metallic, distorted, outrageously simplified figures. He despises form and reduces everything – houses, landscapes, and figures- to geometrical designs, to cubes’.

The painters moved forward cautiously, sometimes stopping on the way and every so often going back to earlier methods. 1910 was considered as an important year in Cubism as this was a beginning of a new era. Picasso and Braque discontinued using the traditional way of seeing which had been used for over four centuries. They put an end to using the single viewpoint of perspective and they now viewed the object from a range of angles therefore attaining a new full, more effective vision. This was known as Analytical cubism.

In 1911, Picasso and Braque no longer conveyed the pure colour of the items represented and started to introduce lettering, occasionally stencilled onto the painting. Braque explained that the reason of including lettering was to ‘demonstrate their purity and total absence of distortion that they were no longer governed by the laws of perspective’. And Braque explained that adding lettering gives a little more reality into the paintings. In 1912, the cubists took to replicating texture and during this time manufacturers were producing wallpaper that imitated woodwork, marble and textiles. And soon after they started to use pieces of newspaper, matchboxes and postage stamps pasted onto their work. This was known as ‘papiers colles’ or ‘collage’ as it’s known today. This too gave the paintings more reality. Cubism wasn’t all just about Picasso and Braque, however they were inspiration for other cubists such a Gris, Leger, Gleizes, Metzinger, and later on Delaunay and Marcel Duchamp. In 1913 -14 when all the most important findings had been made, Cubist painting became freer and more decorative.

Yet, due to the war Cubism went on a temporary break. Picasso, Braque and Gris were isolated from each other so a break was predictable. Nevertheless Picasso didn’t abandon Cubism, although he experimented with other forms of art in 1915. Furthermore the sale of Kahnweilers gallery after the war led to many to believe that Cubism was in deterioration.

Cubism owed much to the art of the previous fifty years, cubists responded against van gogh, and they admired Seurat ‘for his intellectual objectivity, his classical detachment and formal purity’. Gauguin was a great influence in the formation of Cubism, as young painters who worked in Paris in the early twentieth century saw him as the ‘true discoverer of the aesthetic worth of primitive art’. However there was only one nineteenth century artist that played a clear direct role in the formation of Cubism, C. C gave a link between

twentieth century painting and traditional western art. The impressionists painted objects as they saw them and not as they had been trained. They gave the paintings the greatest intensity in colour and ‘got rid of the prevailing dinginess of most academic painting’. However by concentrating on colour they often forgot about form and volume, except C. C interpreted form and colour by means of small, individual brushstrokes. ‘Line and colour are inseparable’ he told Emile Bernard. Picasso tackled this problem that C faced, though he was still mainly involved with representing volume on a two dimensional scale. Vivid colour were replaced by a limited array of subdued tones, the drawings lost their freedom and fluency and is restricted to rendering the outlines of objects reduced to their minimal terms. According to the cubists, ‘the object possesses an absolute form, an essential form and we should suppress chiaroscuro and the traditional perspective in order to present it’. And they believed that an object has many complete forms, as many as there are planes in the region of perception.

In a letter dated April 15th 1904, C wrote to Emile Bernard stating:

‘Nature should be treated in terms of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone and all laid out in perspective, i.e. so that each side of an object or a plane converges on a central point’.

The cubists gained inspiration from C, even while developing techniques completely diverse to his. Picasso and Braque were aiming at ‘to get back to the durable form of the thing seen, by eliminating incidentals, bringing out as clearly as possible prototypal geometric forms’

One influence of ‘reality’ and ‘realism’ that inspired the cubist ideas was the philosopher Henri Bergson. ‘Bergson’s philosophy was profoundly anti-materialist and idealist’ and he alleged that ‘reality’ was that which ‘we all seize from within’ , and that it is conjured of each persons experience and perception of the world rather than ‘external objectivity or simple analysis’. Bergson saw reality as in regular flux and that each individual’s idea of reality is fabricated of memories, experiences of the past, which are present in individual consciousness.

‘It’s evident that the technical processes of Picasso’s and Braque’s works from 1909 to 1911 had been developed at the expense of conventional depiction. The later paintings are furthest away from iconic dependence and conventional notions of realism, as something dependent upon resemblance’.

Cubism despite the intellectual bias and clear concern with purely formal pictorial values, was never at any phase an abstract art. The cubists claimed their art was an art of realism. Apollinaire, who was enthused by the break that Cubism created with traditional painting, had suggested that the movement would be a move towards total abstraction, still insisted that the Cubists were realists, since their inspiration was taken from truth ‘beyond the world of appearances’. Apollinaire also stated simply that ‘ Courbet is the father of the new painters’. Gleizes and Metzinger emphasized that to evaluate Cubism you must go back to Courbet. ‘He initiated a move towards realism which has touched all modern endeavours’.

Although Cubism was a step towards abstraction, the Cubists carried on and experimented with the realist ideas of C and Courbet. And it was a gradual step towards abstraction. ‘Cubism was a completely new pictorial language, a completely new way of looking at the outside world, a clearly defined aesthetic’.

Apollinaire stated: ‘ Out of these two movements (meaning realism and cubism) which follow upon each other and fuse so successfully, is born an art that is simple and noble, expressive and precise, passionate in its search for beauty’

The artists were painting ‘realistic’ views of still life’s and landscapes. They viewed the objects from a range of perspectives, which produced a more ‘realistic’ observation on the objects. By showing as many aspects of it as possible the artist could communicate more clearly the real nature of an object. The meaning of ‘realist’ truth means the ‘truth to the nature of materials rather than the truth to nature’. The emphasis is on the true qualities of the surface of the painting other than the true image of nature and the world. Cubism ‘far from distorting nature, provides a new interpretation of it, equally realistic though other than that of Renaissance’.

Adding everyday objects to create a collage adds a touch of reality to the paintings, and also adding the lettering to the painting gave the painting a sense of realism. Apollnaire believed that objects such as cigarette packets, newspapers and stamps were ‘already drenched in humanity’. Picasso and Braque’s work contained words or part words that were personal or had some meaning, and in one of Picasso’s works, Ma jolie. The phrase means a general term of endearment. However Ma jolie was his nickname for his lover Eva Gouel, he used these words to show his personal feelings.

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In early Cubism, they used a limited range of tones and colours. They used pure colours, however towards the end of Cubism and the beginning of abstraction artists such as Robert Delaunay used vibrant colours in their work. This was regarded in the late nineteenth century by Pissarro as ‘an equivalent to the complexity of vision’. There was a desire to paint things as they are not as they appear, therefore getting a more truthful outlook on the painting. The effects of Cubism are still with us today. The effects are seen in art today and have contributed towards the development of architecture and applied arts. Cubist paintings were intellectual, and the painters depicted ‘the world not as they saw it, but as they knew it to be’.

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