“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” Is Picasso at His Most Revolutionary—and Most Reprehensible

Alina Cohen
Feb 20, 2018 11:05PM

Portrait of Picasso, via Wikimedia Commons.

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907. © Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

When it comes to Pablo Picasso, the world is of two minds. The trailer for the second, Ron Howard-produced season of National Geographic’s Genius presents a magnificently-coiffed Antonio Banderas as the Spanish painter. The first season told Albert Einstein’s story; the impending episodes suggest Picasso is second only to the man who proposed the theory of relativity.

Navigate current events platforms, though, and you’ll find the artist’s name mentioned in a very different context. In the #MeToo era, journalists are citing Picasso as one of art history’s worst misogynists—name-dropped alongside contemporary offenders like Thomas Roma and Chuck Close. Rather than a heroic innovator, the Spanish painter is presented as an abusive, misogynist scumbag.

According to writer Miles J. Unger, existing literature on the artist also veers toward these extremes. “There are two types of Picasso biographers,” he told Artsy. “The ones who think he can do no wrong, and the people who think he could do no right.” The first approach, he believes, obscures the true source of the masterpieces: the fury and fear of an insecure man. The second ignores their crucial impact on modern art, as well as the joy and new perspectives they offered the public. In his new book, Picasso and the Painting that Shocked the World, Unger adheres to a third approach: “Be honest.” Using the story of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) in particular, he attempts to encapsulate what made Picasso so revolutionary—and so reprehensible.


Critics have hailed the painting as a watershed moment in art history, the first true work of both Cubism and of modern art. “Les Demoiselles dAvignon is the rift, the break that divides past and future,” wrote The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones in 2007. “Culturally, the 20th century began in 1907.”

The iconic work, which today hangs in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent galleries, features five nude women whose bodies fracture into jagged shapes. A breast becomes a shaded diamond. Kneecaps and elbows adopt a peculiar sharpness. The three women in the center stare confrontationally at the viewer, while the two at the ends are seen in profile, gazing across the painting. The figures appear to be in different worlds; two even seem to be wearing masks. White and blue shapes hover around them like sheets, while fruit rests on a table in the foreground.

Unger traces the work’s origins to the summer of 1906, when the artist and his then-lover Fernande Olivier ventured from their home in Paris to the Catalonian city of Gósol. By this point, Picasso had already cycled through his famous Blue and Rose Periods, during which time these hues dominated his art.

In Gósol, Picasso began a sexually-charged canvas called The Harem (1906), in which five prostitutes stretch and preen. A large, nude man looks on while grasping a suggestively-shaped wine vessel in his left hand. “The comic frustrations of The Harem will be transformed a year later into the far more harrowing emotions of predatory lust and thwarted desire in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” writes Unger, noting that some of the preparatory drawings for the latter work also include that vessel, called a porrón. In other paintings from this summer, Picasso channels El Greco. He treats the canvas as a “continuous faceted surface” and makes his figures appear to be “tumbling forward into our space.” This specific approach, Unger argues, led to Cubism.

Georges Braque, Large Nude, 1908. © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Pablo Picasso, The Harem, 1906.  The Cleveland Museum of Art, Bequest of Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. © Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In the spring of 1907, a 25-year-old Picasso purchased the canvas that would eventually become Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. An ardent student of drawing, he filled 16 sketchbooks with preliminary ideas for what he hoped would become a groundbreaking new work. The painter wanted “not to broaden the Western tradition but to destroy it root and branch, creating a work so belligerent, so defiant, that neither side could give up the fight until victory had been won,” writes Unger.

The young artist sought to surpass his friend and major rival, Henri Matisse, whose Fauvist approach of using vivid, unreal colors had placed him at art’s cutting edge. Indeed, Picasso’s final work would respond in some ways to Matisse’s 1906 painting Le Bonheur de Vivre, a lush and sensual scene populated by nude bathers. African masks and the paintings of Paul Cézanne served as major influences as well. Picasso even went so far as to purchase Iberian sculptures stolen from the Louvre, which he used for inspiration as he attempted to rupture painting’s two-dimensional limits.  

Picasso’s friends, collectors, and fellow painters were the first to view the painting. One of his patrons, Leo Stein (brother of Gertrude), actually laughed the first time he saw it. The work debuted publically in 1916, at a Parisian gallery exhibition entitled“L’Art Moderne en France.” By this point, Picasso was working rapidly in his new Cubist vein, as was his friend Georges Braque.

Journalists were initially hostile to Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, scandalized by what they saw as the hacked-up bodies of naked women. Yet, founder of Surrealism, André Breton, eventually championed the work—he liked the evidence of a roiling, conflicted subconscious. Breton encouraged art adviser Jacques Doucet to purchase the painting, thus joining a well-regarded collection featuring pieces by Georges Seurat and Henri Rousseau. In 1937, MoMA director Alfred H. Barr Jr. called Les Demoiselles d’Avignon “the most important painting of the twentieth century” and prioritized its acquisition for the museum.

Henri Matisse, Le Bonheur de vivre, 1905-06. © 2018 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

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.”

Alina Cohen