Saturday, 14 February 2015

Why I Love… A series of posts on artworks which have made a lasting impression on me. No 1: "Les Demoiselles d’Avignon" by Pablo Picasso (1907).

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Pablo Picasso (1907)

I first became aware of this very well-known painting, famed to have given birth to Cubism and the rise of modern art, around 1995 when I was enrolled on an evening introduction to art history course at Birkbeck University in London.  I wasn’t, and am still not, a huge fan of Picasso.  Back in 1995 after reading a very heavy and theoretically dense academic text about Demoiselles, I didn’t really understand much more about the painting other than a few key facts.
Five years after my initial introduction to Demoiselles, during a visit to New York I was very lucky it see it in Museum of Modern Art and was completely mesmerised.  It is a huge painting, around 2.5m x 2.5m, full of bold colours and sweeping, confident and savage brushstrokes.  Sitting in front of such a wonderful painting my imagination was easily transported back to turn of the twentieth century Paris, while still seeming wonderfully contemporary.  No wonder it caused such a scandal when it was originally painted.

Serendipity drew be back into the painting’s orbit once more during a first trip to Paris where unbeknown when booking, the hotel I was staying at, the Timhotel Montmarte in rue Ravignon, was actually right next to the studio, known as Le Bateau Lavoir, where the painting was created and where Picasso had lived and worked between 1904-1911.  Redeveloped into private apartments many years previously, an illustration of Demoiselles featured in the poster on display in the window of the former studios.  It gave a brief history of the site to the numerous art students and lovers passing by and paying homage.
rue Ravignon, Paris - site of Le Bateau Lavoir

Many more years passed by before my attention was once more and unexpectedly drawn back to Demoiselles during research on the French painter Marie Laurencin.  Her story and work presented a fascinating case study on how women artists have been written into art history narratives, which was the overall focus of my MA research.  During my research, I discovered Picasso had associated one of the prostitutes featured in Demoiselles as Laurencin.
Marie Laurencin and Pablo Picasso, c. 1907
Below are some extracts from my final dissertation “Ungilding the Lily:  A Reappraisal of Marie Laurencin’s use of Self-Representation and Figurative Abstraction between 1904 and 1924”.

Laurencin was also the only female artist to play an active role in the group of artists and intellectuals surrounding Picasso and the Bateau Lavoir in Montmartre, where the principles of Cubism were formed.  Despite working within this highly macho and phallocentric group, Laurencin developed her own individual artistic language during this period.  The majority of writing on Marie Laurencin’s involvement in the cubism movement between 1907 and 1914 primarily focus on her relationships with Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire as well as her failure to adopt Cubist aesthetics in her work.  Her inclusion in accounts of the major personalities of that time has been reduced to her being portrayed as the passive (and sometimes abused) muse of Apollinaire, a joke to Picasso who barely tolerated her and as a bourgeois hanger-on.  She has also been accused of deliberately promoting a ‘feminine’ painting style so that she did not have to compete with her male contemporaries.  After her return from exile in Spain during the First World War, she went on to enjoy commercial success and celebrity as a society portrait painter before falling out of fashion from the late 1930s.  Since her death in 1956, her work has been seen as superficial and largely derivative. 

Peter Daix is one of the many historians who have suggested that Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was Picasso’s desire to outstrip his rival Matisse and that the aggressiveness of the final version was as a result of him seeing Le Bonheur de Vivre [The Joy of Living], 1905.[1]  Picasso set out to destroy Matisse’s image of an Arcadian pastoral bliss by replacing it with a nightmare vision of sexual subversion, prostitution and primitive menace, influenced by the collection of African and Iberian figurines and masks which he had recently acquired.  Fagan-King has further purported that the original brothel scene arose from Picasso reading Apollinaire’s pornographic stories around that time which included a ‘Laurencine personage’ in a brothel description where the character “opens her legs like the pages of a book”.[2]  This description would locate Laurencin as the figure in the lower right hand side of Picasso’s composition and the face which bears the brunt of his most extreme fragmentation and primitisation.  An added ‘incentive’ by Picasso to place her there may have also been provided by some unsavoury talk between him and his close friend writer Henri-Pierre Roché as alluded to by Richardson (1996).[3]  In fact, all of Richardson’s accounts of Laurencin’s involvement with Picasso are extremely salacious and he seems to have included her purely in order to reveal her numerous and varied sexual proclivities,[4] in effect reducing her to the most corrupt femme-fatale behind her mask of respectability.[5]  Additionally, while there is no direct evidence to support this, something far more offensive may be happening in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.  Given that Picasso would have been well aware of Laurencin’s mixed-race heritage,[6] assaulting her race as well as her gender, makes his ‘joke’ doubly unpalatable. 

Elliott and Fagan-King have both contended that Les Jeunes Filles [The Young Girls], 1910-11, is evidence that Laurencin was familiar with Picasso’s painting (which was not exhibited publically until 1916) and acted as the artist’s retort.  Upon first appearance it would seem a weak and futile one in comparison to Picasso’s crude and violent humour.  Stylistically, its restricted colour palette and composition mimics Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, as does the cubist handling of the background.  However, the fact that the cubist elements have been relegated to the background landscape and also limited to representing assorted objects of basket, fan and pitcher, while the abstraction of the women in the foreground is pure Laurencin suggests that these young girls (who all bear the artist’s developed facial logo) provide an antidote to the savagery, violence and sexual display of Picasso’s women with their graceful, curvilinear and clothed bodies.  Laurencin’s blague, therefore, is to refuse to submit her body/their bodies to any distortion and dissection.  In doing to, the artist rescues them from the brothel and celebrates, rather than denigrates, their womanhood.  In effect, Laurencin renders Picasso’s ‘joke’ impotent by insulting the virility and creativity of the Catalan bull”.         

Les Jeunes Filles, Marie Laurencin (1910-1911)

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was there at my very first foray into art history.  It lingered in my imagination over the years, where scenes of a bohemian Parisian life in the early 1900’s, featured regularly in my day dreams.  It also featured in the conclusion of my academic undertakings and therefore deserves its number one position in this ‘Why I Love’ series.

[1] Daix, P. and Rosselet, J. (eds).  (1979).  Picasso: The Cubist Years, 1907-1916. A Catalogue Raisonnée of the Paintings and Related Works.  London: Thames and Hudson, p11.
[2] Fagan-King, J. (1988). United on the Threshold of the Twentieth-Century Mystical Ideal: Marie Laurencin’s Integral Involvement with Guillaume Apollinaire and the Inmates of the Bateau Lavoir.  Art History, Vol. 2, No 1, p103.
[3] Roché , H-P. (1906) as cited in Richardson, J.  (1996).  A Life of Picasso, Volume II: 1907-1917.  London: Jonathan Cape, p63:  It seems likely (although there does not appear to be any material which directly links these two facts) that Roché, who was also Laurencin’s first lover shared with Picasso stories of Laurencin’s sexual activities which were contained in his diaries and which alleged that at the time she was with Roché, Laurencin also enjoyed the attention of three lovers (sometimes at the same time), but that he had extracted himself from the relationship because of her “shameless squatting on the bidet in front of them both like a man”, which disgusted him.
[4] Richardson, J.  (1996).  A Life of Picasso, Volume II: 1907-1917.  London: Jonathan Cape, pp 61-67.
[5] Ibid: Richardson’s only reference to Laurencin’s work is again to the two paintings in which Picasso is featured, describing Une Réunion à la Campagne as a “curious apotheosis,” before begrudgingly admitting that: “For all her precocity, Laurencin deserves more recognition than posterity usually records her for her early work”.
[6] As mentioned earlier, Laurencin had creole ancestry and such heritage can clearly be seen in photographs of the artist and her mother from around this time.