But as attitudes around gender roles began to shift in the 1960s, the painting’s legacy was again contested. In 1973, pioneer of “new art history” Carol Duncan wrote a scathing condemnation of the painting on feminist terms. She argued that Picasso had portrayed mere “femme fatale” and “new, primitive woman” archetypes. The entire painting, she believed, was a sexist backlash against women’s increasing demands for equality in the early 20th century.
And certainly, Picasso’s track record with women was dismal. In fact, Unger begins his book in 1945, when—at the age of 64—Picasso brought his young lover, the barely-graduated Françoise Gilot, on a tour of the Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre. He took her to see a poor, toothless, old woman who was once a head-turner so beautiful that she induced one of the painter’s friends into suicide. It’s apparently a warning for Gilot that, despite her relative youth, she cannot escape the deleterious effects of time. A strange seduction, indeed.
Of course, that’s only a small sampling of Picasso’s musings about women. Other choice quotes on the fairer sex include: “For me, there are only two kinds of women—goddesses and doormats” and “women are machines for suffering.” Unger surmises that this attitude is evident in the work. “You can’t look at Les Demoiselles d’Avignon without suspecting that this is a man who had some issues with women,” he explained to Artsy.
The continuously contested nature of the work speaks, for better or for worse, to the potency of the artist and his legacy. “Works of art settle down eventually, become respectable,” Jones writes. “But, 100 years on, Picasso’s is still so new, so troubling, it would be an insult to call it a masterpiece.”