In 1907 Pablo Picasso displayed Les Desmoiselle D’Avignon (loosely translated as “the whores of Avignon”) in Paris, France. Subsequently, the art world erupts with anger, disdain, and general disapproval of the piece calling it a “hoax” and discarding it to the dregs of Picasso’s basement for decades.
While the painting was initially met with such a horrific response, the true brilliance and impact could not be denied and would eventually change the art world forever. To understand why it is the greatest painting of all time, however, you must know the context and why it is so special.
In the late 1800’s, the Avant Garde art world marveled at the brilliant genius of the Impressionists. Up until the impressionists, the art world was largely driven by artists who created visual representations of what they saw. They painted pictures of people, events and things and the resulting images looked like their actual subjects. The artwork, therefore, was considered of higher quality when it accurately represented its subject, not the artist themselves. Art was about its subject, not the artist.
Looking back, the examples are near limitless. Michelangelo paints biblical scenes of stunning realism in the 1400’s and the art world is dominated by the Rennaisance. Ancient cave drawings that were created over 4,000 years ago depict realistic images of the animals they hunted. Baroque and the Age of Enlightment throughout the 1600-1700’s only further solidified the position that an artwork should be a realistic, identifiable representation of the subject. Since the beginning of time, the creator of the artwork was merely a footnote next to the subject of the piece.
This ideal and position was attacked by the impressionists, most notably by Paul Cezanne. In the mid 1800’s, Cezanne began the impressionist exploration of the way in which light interacts with the artist’s subject. His goal was not necessarily to glorify the subject itself, but rather explore and capture the manner in which light interacted with the subject. Cezanne is largely credited with changing the perception of the artist and focusing more on the act of painting itself, rather than its subject.
This change in philosophy and approach to art revolutionized the way people not only thought about art, but about life as well. No longer was the artist’s job to paint the most realistic portrait of some random, affluent dignitary. Cezanne gave the power to the artist and changed the way the world understood art. The rest of course is history, as his contemporaries like Monet and Van Gogh, took the ball and ran with it creating timeless, “beautiful paintings” that are adorned across the world. While Picasso’s painting may in fact be the greatest painting of all time because of the way it changed people’s view of the art world, one could just as easily argue that the artist who had the greatest impact on the fine art world was in fact Cezanne.
The reason why Cezanne is important in understanding why Les D’Moiselle D’Avignon is the greatest painting of all time is because of two important concepts. First, the art world had only just swallowed the idea of changing the way art was created. For literally thousands of years, art was created in one way and one way only, until Cezanne changed that perception in the late 1800’s. The second important reason to understand Cezanne’s impact on Picasso’s masterpiece is the actual painting technique he introduced to the world – the idea of painting “planes” of light.
These planes were visual pieces that when brought together helped create the illusion of depth on his canvas. As you can see from the picture to the left, Cezanne would draw out a plane on an object, paint, and then move to the next. In its crudest form, Cezanne used a paint-by-number approach to create his timeless, and priceless images – breaking the subject into pieces to color. Make no mistake about it though, Cezanne’s art costs more than a country – there was a reason that the French government had Cezanne’s picture on their currency.
These planes of light fragmented the subject to the point that the closer in proximity one actually viewed the painting, the less recognizable it actually became. It literally separated the form and the subject, and this was a revolution in regards to the art world of the time. While Cezanne may or may not have intentionally painted in this manner, there was no mistaking the deliberate approach Picasso took to craft Les Desmoiselle D’Avignon.
The other important point to make with Impressionism is that the subject of the painting remains in relative proportion to reality. The size of a woman that Cezanne paints is very much the size and shape of a woman – Picasso broke this mold by breaking the visual representation of form and changing Cezanne’s “planes of light” into “planes of form”.
Les Desmoiselle D’Avignon disengaged the artist from any sort of mastery of the traditional form as represented by paint that created within the viewer a sense of beauty. It took the viewer into a subconscious area in the deep recesses of their mind and evoked an emotion that was different, and yet arguably, much more impactful – disgust.
In the 1900s there were hard parties, loose women, and drugs. But the affluent crowd, the bourgeois, they wanted in on the culture, but were not prepared for the shock of the new. They wanted to be a part of the artistic movement and wanted an opportunity to own a pretty painting. Up until this moment in 1907, they were used to seeing beautifully colored paintings and having a grand ole time at the gallery and salon openings. Of course, the art world had seen naked women for many years, but the moment the bourgeouis realized the subject of Picasso’s masterpiece was represented in such a grotesque and unfinished appearance, they were disgusted. And are they wearing masks? oh the horror!
Picasso had created within the viewer a feeling of disgust, confusion, and animosity, something which had never been done at such a prestigious level.
Once the Avant Garde realized the power they had to evoke not only this type of emotion but potentially others, the art world changed forever. No longer was the artist bound to visually represent his subject. Picasso continued to produce paintings diving deeper into the concept. Soon he was joined by Georges Braque, and together they created and drove the art movement known as Cubism. The break between the visual form and it’s visual representation was complete.
While Paul Cezanne’s evolution of the way form was represented on a canvas was the first truly “new” approach to painting, the metamorphosis of the artist’s subject itself was thrust into a new direction the day the painting was displayed in the gallery in Paris in 1907. This new direction was at the forefront of all Modern painting, and arguably, art.
The “shock and awe” impact upon its release forced Les Desmoiselle D’Avignon underground, where the art world kept it covered for years, eventually being purchased by Doucet for 250,000 francs, a paltry sum for a priceless work of art. Today, the Museum of Modern Art in NY City houses the masterpiece which cannot be purchased for any amount of money. Any art enthusiast who is in NY would enjoy the room where it is typically displayed. On the opposite wall I have seen Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, as well as several other priceless paintings including Monet’s waterlillies.
And there, unmistakably large and in your face, is Les Desmoiselle D’Avignon. The fractal forms crude and raw. The African masks appear as though Picasso used a #2 pencil eraser and scribbled them on. The wine jug and the grapes? of course – the subject is within a brothel. It oozes sexuality. It bleeds sublime primitivism. It is disgusting, and it is the greatest painting of all time.