Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

“The masks weren’t like other kinds of sculpture. Not at all. They were magical things. And why weren’t the Egyptian pieces or the Chaldean? We hadn’t realized it: those were primitive, not magical things. The Negroes’ sculptures were intercessors… Against everything, against the unknown, threatening spirits. I kept looking at the fetishes. I understood; I too am against everything. I too think that everything is unknown, is the enemy! I understood what the purpose of the sculpture was for the Negroes. Why sculpt like that and not some other way? After all, they weren’t Cubists! Since Cubism didn’t exist… all the fetishes were used for the same thing. They were weapons. To help people stop being dominated by spirits, to become independent. Tools. If we give form to the spirits, we become independent of them. The spirits, the unconscious, emotion, it’s the same thing. I understood why I was a painter… Les Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that day – not at all because of the forms, but because it was my first canvas of exorcism – yes, absolutely!”

These remarks were made to André Malraux in 1937. Jack Flam, in his essay, “A Continuing Presence: Western Artists/African Art” (New York: Museum of African Art, 1994; p. 62), makes the following important observation, “Equally important, he also seems to have understood that African art was meant to be used rather than merely looked at; and used not only by its audience, but by its creator. That is, the process of making the work was meant to be conceived as an integral part of its function – as with a ‘fetish.’ The physical act of working on the Demoiselles d’Avignon seems to have been an act of ‘exorcism’ for Picasso. In fact, the Demoiselles may be the first European painting that consciously fulfilled a function like that of African sculpture.”


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