New encounters with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon: gender, race, and the origins of cubism.

Author:Chave, Anna C.
  1. Wassily Kandinsky, "Reminiscences" (1913), in Robert L. Herbert, ed., Modern Artists on Art, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1964, 35.

  2. Rubin addressed this problem tellingly (though, to my mind, unhelpfully) by distinguishing Picasso's contribution to Cubist practice from Braque's as follows: Braque provided the "passive, feminine side of the formal equation (... a vision of Tellus Mater notably open-laned, inviting entry)," while "the vigorous Picasso thrusts his hard, sculptural morphology" into that "syntactical-spatial structure" (W. Rubin, "Pablo and Georges and Leo and Bill," Art in America, LXVII, Mar.-Apr. 1978, 136).

    What was "the amazing act upon which all the art of our century is built"? What is "the most innovative painting since Giotto," the "'harbinger comet of the new century,'" the very "paradigm of all modern art," no less?(1) What is the modern art-historical equivalent of the Greatest Story Ever Told? What else but the monumental Demoiselles d'Avignon painted by Picasso in 1907? Six years ago, this single painting, "probably the first truly twentieth-century painting," occasioned a major exhibition at the Musee Picasso in Paris commemorated by a ponderous two-volume catalogue.(2) The director of the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York swore he would kill himself if the plane transporting the work to that event were to crash.(3) What can account for such hyperbole, for such an unparalleled fixation on a particular picture?

    "In mystical terms, with this painting we bid farewell to all the paintings of the past," pronounced Andre Breton of Les Demoiselles.(4) More than any other work of art, Picasso's picture has been held to mark or even to have precipitated the demise of the old visual order and the advent of the new. That art historians should have conscripted Les Demoiselles to serve in such a strategic capacity might seem odd, however, if we take into account that the cognoscenti resoundingly rejected the picture at the time it was painted, and that it remained all but invisible to the public for three decades thereafter, when it finally found an audience--though at first only in the United States.(5) The painting "seemed to everyone something mad or monstrous," the dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler recalled; "Derain told me that one day Picasso would be found hanging behind his big picture."(6)

    Why have historians parlayed this once reviled and ignored image of five rather alien-looking prostitutes vying for a client into the decisive site of the downfall of the prevailing visual regime?(7) Undeniably, Picasso violated pictorial convention in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon: by his deidealization of the human form, his disuse of illusionistic space, and his deployment of a mixture of visual idioms. In the standard art-historical narratives, however, these violations on the artist's part tend to get conflated with the putatively violent aspect of the women he depicted, who often come to assume a kind of autonomous agency. And whereas Picasso's contemporaries fingered him as the perpetrator who "attacked" his female figures, later accounts often cast the artist together with the viewing public as the prostitutes' victims.(8) Leo Steinberg experienced the picture as a "tidal wave of female aggression . . . an onslaught"; Robert Rosenblum perceived it as an "explosion" triggered by "five nudes [who] force their eroticized flesh upon us with a primal attack"; and Max Kozloff deemed it simply "a massacre."(9)

    Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is generally credited not only with a momentous act of destruction, but also with one of creation. Long designated the first Cubist painting--"the signal for the Cubist revolution" in its full-fledged dismantling of representational conventions(10)--the painting is now more loosely considered a curtain raiser or trigger to Cubism.(11) Others had pulled crucial triggers before Picasso, however. When Baudelaire told Manet, "You are only the first in the decrepitude of your art," he referred to the scandalously frank picture of a courtesan, Olympia, rendered with startling flatness in 1865. For that matter, a compressed or otherwise compromised female form, often that of a prostitute or femme fatale, would come to serve almost as an avatar of modernism.(12) Feminist critics have lately diagnosed this fact, that the avant-garde's testing of cultural limits so often played itself out on the female body, as symptomatic of a visual regime where "Woman" serves as "the very ground of representation, both object and support of a desire which, intimately bound up with power and creativity, is the moving force of culture and history."(13)

    The Greatest Story Ever Told was perforce a narrative of exclusion, then: a story told by a heterosexual white male of European descent for an audience answering to the same description; and the stories told ever since about that Greatest Story have mostly been no less narratives told by straight white males for a like public. Virtually every critic who has addressed Les Demoiselles has not only assumed what is indisputable--that the picture's intended viewer is male and heterosexual--but has also elected to consider only the experience of that viewer, as if no one else ever looked at the painting. (Through Les Demoiselles, Picasso "tells us what our desires are," one critic declared, peremptorily.)(14) No doubt Picasso's chosen subject dictates this scenario, since today, just as in 1907, prostitution marks an indelible social boundary between the sexes: between men, who can routinely contract for the sexual services of women, and women, who have never had a comparable opportunity.(15)

    Among my objectives in the present text, then, is to examine where Les Demoiselles d'Avignon positions some of its unanticipated viewers; to explore the painting from, as it were, unauthorized perspectives. What follows is a study in reception, present and past, in short, but one that takes its focus through the critical lenses of gender and race. (Examining the painting's reception history from a given, raking angle, not in a full, even light, will bring some neglected aspects of that history into relief while, admittedly, flattening or obscuring other elements that would figure prominently in a more general or comprehensive kind of reception study.)(16) Poststructuralist and reception theories have shown that all publicly circulated images accrue meanings beyond their makers' intent and control, or that the meanings of works of art are more contingent than immanent, for in the act of interpreting art works critics shape their significance by shaping how and what the public sees. As for the terms in which Les Demoiselles has been read, they have often been incipiently sexist, heterosexist, racist, and neocolonialist: so I will argue. (I should perhaps add plainly that neither Picasso's own intentions for the picture nor his susceptibility to the biases enumerated above are the principal subjects of investigation here.)

    To begin with, the place that Les Demoiselles d'Avignon conspicuously marks out for a client-viewer is hopelessly unsuited to me--a heterosexual, feminist, female viewer.(17) But I can find some basis to identify with its protagonists. Although my privileged background has insulated me from the desperate straits that have long driven women to toil in the sex industry, like other independent women I nonetheless have an inkling of what it means to be treated as a prostitute. When I traverse the city streets alone I am subject to pestering by strange men who lewdly congratulate me on aspects of my anatomy while ordering me to smile. If I am not mistaken for a prostitute, given my reserved dress and behavior, I remain prey to that pervasive suspicion that a trace of whore lurks in every woman--just as an "honest" woman supposedly lurks in every whore.

    As it happens, the streets in my own longtime neighborhood on Manhattan's Lower East Side encompass a major prostitute "stroll." The streetwalkers I encounter there are a lower class of prostitute, more drug-addicted and ill than the type of woman Picasso portrayed, but I occasionally see them assume the poses of the two demoiselles at the center of the painting, their arms crooked over their heads in an age-old formula for seductive femininity. On the Lower East Side, as in Picasso's picture, however, the woodenness of the women's stances and their faces' masklike stolidity suggest that they know they are party to a tiresome artifice. Like virtually all women, I have engaged in such half-hearted acts of simulation, engaged in such a "masquerade,"(18) and this helps me to view the demoiselles empathetically: they seem to me at once to demonstrate and to withdraw from patriarchal stereotypes of femininity, as if in an act of noncooperative cooperation. These women--who are Picasso's fictions no doubt, but fictions founded on his observations of actual, disgruntled women and prostitutes--these women can be had, of course, but on another level they are not for the having, and that puts the client-viewer in a position of nerve-wracking uncertainty; of not knowing what lies behind the mask. For women, meanwhile, the price of this strategy is a profound sense of alienation, insofar as "the masquerade . . . is what women do . . . in order to participate in man's desire, but at the cost of giving up [their own]."(19)

    A different kind of masquerade, an act not only of mimicry but also of minstrelsy, is figured by the two boisterous women on the right-hand side of the picture, where Picasso caricatured sacred African masks and employed them in a brazenly disrespectful way.(20) Mimicry is an act of appropriation and "one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge," observes Homi Bhabha, adding, "mimicry is at once resemblance and menace."(21) These demoiselles offend me, then--and yet, I confess, they attract me too: not because...

To continue reading