Ismail Bala , Africa And the Birth Of Modern Art: A Note On Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

I have felt my strongest artistic emotions when suddenly confronted with the sublime beauty of sculptures executed by the anonymous artists of Africa. These works of a religious, passionate, and rigorously logical art are the most powerful and most beautiful things the human imagination has ever produced. I hasten to add that, nevertheless, I detest exoticism.

-Pablo Picasso
African Art? Never heard of it.

-Pablo Picasso


A hundred years have passed since Pablo Ruiz y Picasso (1881-1973) – probably the greatest artist of the twentieth century – completed his famous painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, in the summer of 1907. Picasso began this oil painting in 1906, the 8-ft. tall, 7-ft., 8-in. wide canvass has since 1937 been in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon shows five nude prostitutes in a brothel. On the left side of the painting are three women, the one on the leftmost side is shown (supposedly) drawing back a curtain to reveal the rest, while the second and the third are depicted frontally; they stare straight out of the canvass, fixing their gaze on the viewer (or voyeur, or even a client, since they are supposed to be prostitutes). As many art critics have argued, the portrayal of the three women, most especially the head of the one on the furthest left, is, as it were, influenced by ancient Iberian sculpture that Picasso was reported to have seen in 1906 in the Louvre (Paris). The two other women on the right hand side of the canvass (i.e. the one standing rather slightly in the background between the curtains, and the other squatting in the foreground) have been given heads that clearly resemble the African sculptures or masks that Picasso must have seen in the Museé d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro, also in Paris. The bodies of the five prostitutes are painted by flat, angular topoi of colour with little or no shading. At the bottom of the painting is a bowl of assorted fruits, containing a melon, pear, some grapes and an apple. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon got its title from Picasso’s friend, Andre Salmon, in 1916 as Picasso himself says: “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, how this title irritates me. [Andre] Salmon invented it. You know very well that the original title from the beginning had been The Brothel of Avignon. But do you know why? Because Avignon has always been a name I know very well and is a part of my life. I lived not two steps away from Calle d’Avignon where I used to buy my paper and my water colours and also, as you know, the grandmother of Max [Ernst] came originally from Avignon. We used to make a lot of fun of this painting; one of the women in it was Max’s grandmother, another one Fernande, and another one Marie Laurencin, and all of them in a brothel in Avignon.”

Originally though, the painting is supposed to feature two male figures: a sailor as well as a student carrying a skull: “According to my original idea, there were supposed to be men in it. There was a student holding a skull. A seaman also. The women were eating, hence the basket of fruits which I left in the painting. Then, I changed it, and it became what it is now.”

Based on one’s interpretation, the painting is, as it were, either euphemistic or ironic, iconic or shocking, classic or simply hyped. Indeed, it is ironic that despite Europe’s anxiety and outright denial of the possibility of African art, it was the influence of such disavowed art which helped inaugurate, by most account, what came to be regarded as modernism in its assumed various forms in art, literature, music and dance in the early years of twentieth century. As Henry Louis Gates argues, a fraught experience with the much-maligned African art quite cataclysmically defined and shaped the forms that modernism had to take in the twentieth century, since the African way of seeing (represented by the so-called tribal and religious paintings and sculptures) became central in an unprecedented way in the history of European aesthetics.

It follows, therefore, that what we now know as modern art is considered to have its origin from that fateful day in 1907 when Picasso visited the Museé d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris. But Picasso almost immediately downplayed the significance of the African influence on the painting as soon as the importance of that is highlighted by art critics. This led to Picasso’s notorious denial of African art: “African art? Never heard of it”. Despite Picasso’s ambivalence, denial and anxiety about the African influence, he eventually acknowledged it in a conversation with Andre Malraux in 1937 (which only came to light in 1974): “Everybody always talks about the influences that the Negroes had on me. What can I do? We all of us loved fetishes. Van Gogh once said, ‘Japanese art – we all had that in common’. For us it’s the Negroes. When I went to the old Trocadéro, it was disgusting. The Flea Market. The smell. I was alone. I wanted to get away. But I didn’t leave. I stayed. I understood that it was very important: something was happening to me, right? The masks weren’t just like any other. Pieces of sculpture. Not at all. They were magic things. The Negro pieces were intercesseurs, mediators. I always looked at fetishes. I understood; I too am against everything. I too believe that everything is unknown, that everything is an enemy! Everything! Not the details – women, children, babies, tobacco, playing – the whole of it! I understood what the Negroes use their sculptures for. Why sculpt like that and not some other way? After all, they weren’t Cubists! Since Cubism didn’t exist. It was clear that some guys had invented the models, and others had imitated them, right? Isn’t that what we call tradition? But all the fetishes were used for the same thing. They were weapons. To help people avoid coming under the influence of spirits again, to help them become independent. Spirits, the unconscious (people still weren’t talking about that very much), emotion – they’re all the same thing. I understood why I was a painter. All alone in that awful museum, with masks, dolls made by the redskins, dusty manikins. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that very day, but not at all because of the forms; because it was my first exorcism painting – yes absolutely.”

As if this lengthy “confession” is not enough, Picasso has made perhaps an even more dramatic admission of his indebtedness to African masks to Francoise Gilot (even prior to Andre Malraux’s interview quoted above): “When I became interested, forty years ago, in Negro art I made what they refer to as the Negro period in my painting, it was because at the time I was against what was called beauty in the museum. At that time, for most people a Negro mask was an ethnographic object. When I went for the first time, at [Andre] Derain’s urging, to the Trocadéro museum, the smell of dampness and rot there stuck in my throat. It depressed me so much I wanted to get out fast, but I stayed and studied. Men had made those masks and other objects for a sacred purpose, a magic purpose, as a kind of mediation between themselves and the unknown hostile forces that surround them, in order to overcome their fear and horror by giving it a form and image. At that moment I realized what painting was all about. Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation; it’s a form of magic designed to be a mediator between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing the power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires. When I came to that realisation, I knew I had found my way. Then people began looking at those objects in terms of aesthetics.”

No doubt, at least from these lengthy, ambiguous statements, Picasso’s encounter with African art was a profound one (some would say on both of them). But the surprising thing is no less Picasso’s dismissal of the formal influence of African masks on his work: a denial of its own peculiar mode of representation. But the question is why would Picasso reluctantly admit to a new way of representation, one which was decidedly African, thereby breaking with long-perpetuated belief of disavowing the same tradition as backward, primitive and ugly?  The lengthy, rambling quotations of Picasso’s acknowledgments of the African influence clearly underlines his own revulsion of African art, and also, by implication, the long-held revulsion of Africa and African aesthetics by Europe. Therefore, Picasso’s ambivalence towards his transforming influence is, in fact, that of painter fiercely wishing to be seen as original. It follows then that the ambivalence Picasso exhibited is, in part, that of Europe’s own ambivalence about Africa, about blackness and what it represents, just as it is about an aesthetic relationship to a culture and people which Europe, throughout history, represents and disparages as a sign of what it was not and could not be.

In another equally profound way (other than the aspect of African influence on the painting) Les Demoiselles d’Avignon also played a crucial historical role in its exceptional influence in the phase and face of modernism’s development. This is more apparent when a distinction is made between “traditional art” and “modern art”. Whereas traditional art imitates the realistic appearance of people, objects and scenes in the real world, modern art does not. Traditional art is seen as representational, leaning closely towards the naturalistic (or the realistic), modern art either distorts physical appearance or simply disregards it completely.

In the same vein, before Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso’s work was mimetic; in a sense even a continuation of the tradition of such realist painters as van Ryn Rembrandt, Vincent Van Gogh, and Francisco de Goya. But Les Demoiselles d’Avignon ensured that Cubism and a whole host of other movements followed suit, so much so that works like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon itself, which few years earlier would not have been accorded any recognition as art, have subsequently achieved recognition and are regarded as classic.

Yet again, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon demolished traditional art by subverting one of its most enduring characteristics: the high level of craftsmanship and skills expected. A realist painting is expected to achieve precision in its rendering of surface. When Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was finished in 1907 it culminated not just in a rebellion against precise rendering of surface, but it would appear to be an attack on it.

The last vestige of traditional art which Les Demoiselles d’Avignon discarded was the idea of beauty which, at least since the Renaissance up to the nineteenth century was at the centre of realist painting and a dominant issue in European aesthetic theory; but with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, there is no notion of beauty, no attempt to make the prostitutes beautiful, since the racist, self-indulgent argument goes, by employing the plane provided by the African masks, Picasso asserted his insistence on the women’s ugliness.

From the foregoing, one thing is evident: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon had a formal influence on a succession of modernist (read: Cubist) paintings which came after it. Yet its enormous influence could not have been possible if it is not a powerful iconoclastic painting in its own right. At the most basic level, the painting is a picture of five nude prostitutes; supposedly then Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is about prostitution. The prostitutes’ nudity is openly (almost celebratory) sexualised, and their sexuality is underlined at the same time by degrading them, and more importantly by their accessibility and their presentation to the male viewer -since they are prostitutes, the viewer could also be either a voyeur or a customer. For that time (1907) the painting was a strangely stylized picture, not just in the discordant depiction of the prostitutes, but in its almost effortless invention of the radical characteristics of Cubism: the way in which its composition is organised into contours of figures rendered into angular shapes, the flattened pictorial representation, the figures of the nudes radically stylized and distorted so as to appear (so to speak) splashed against the surface of the canvass, and the overall non-realistic conventions which, as argued earlier on, was influenced by African masks in the drawing of the nudes’ faces.

The painting combines the invention of these modernist/cubist conventions with a powerful representation of (strangely for that time) an empowered sexual femininity. The women are debased as nude prostitutes – within the dominant convention of the painting – but then they are, in a way, transformed in the painting by cubist form, which is achieved with stylized blackness into iconic force. And it was in conceiving and painting the prostitutes that Picasso invented his own form of modernist painting. Through that art, the nudes become frightening, even awesome, just as they are rendered magnificent and powerful figures. They are inevitably figures straight out of Cubist art as the transition into a new form of empowered sexual feminine; they are as much hideous figures as they are powerful and repulsive of that femininity.

At a different level, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is a painting about looking, just as it is also about prostitution or brothel. It is, then, about looking as it is about looking at and being looked at by prostitutes. The viewer is fixed by the painting almost immediately at a first glance as either a client or voyeur of the prostitutes for whom they are parading themselves. The bowl of fruits assumes a phallic status, becoming instead of a mere bowl of fruits, the viewer’s/voyeur’s phallus leading him into the brothel and towards the prostitutes. Therefore, the painting avails us a “peep” into a brothel and prostitution.

At this point, one could argue that the intrinsic rage directed against the prostitutes makes Les Demoiselles d’Avignon an irreducibly misogynistic and sexist picture. As Carol Duncan trenchantly argues, the painting underlines the very foundation of “the new primitive woman”: “Picasso dredged up from his psyche the terrifying and fascinating beast that gave birth to both [the femme fatale and the new primitive woman]. The Demoiselles prismatically mirrors her many opposing faces: whore and deity, decadent and savage, tempting and repelling, awesome and obscene, looming and crouching, masked and naked, threatening, and powerless. In that jungle-brothel is womankind in all her present and past metamorphoses, concealing and revealing herself before the male. Picasso presents her in the form of a desecrated icon already slashed and torn to bits no other work reveals more of the rock foundation of sexist anti-humanism or goes further and deeper to justify and celebrate the domination of woman by man.”

Despite Duncan’s scathing critique of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the pivotal feature of it still remains a face-off, a confrontation between the artist and the brothel  he paints, between a client and a voyeur and the gaze (and rage) of the prostitutes – especially those jutting out from the centre, i.e. the second and the third from the left. The viewer and the voyeur enter the brothel while directly looking at the whores with anger and lust, and the anger and lust is immediately returned in the same manner by the prostitutes. The returned gaze of the whores is important for two things: it is a metaphor of their situations and state of minds, as it is also a mirror reflecting back the situation and feelings of the viewer/voyeur/client. Therefore, despite being both sexist and misogynistic painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is a dramatic portrayal of the institution of prostitution with all its inherent, alienating trappings involved therein.

In the last analysis, what Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon proves is the artist’s need for a break – radical as it is also profound – with the so-called naturalistic plane of representation associated with traditional art forms. And if Picasso’s quest for that radical break is to be realised, then he needed to break with the long-held denigration of African art, and imbibe, in equal measure, a dismantling of the idea of beauty. The African masks he came to rely on readily helped him achieve that.

With the influence of African masks, Picasso achieved a unique economy of space in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in which women are projected to us in a form of “in-your-face” manner in order to evince a confrontation between the viewer and the canvass, client/voyeur and prostitutes; and forces us (either as viewers, clients or voyeurs) to see the reality of prostitution. It is indeed the ease with which the painting achieves this that makes it so iconoclastic, so revered yet so shocking to the viewer even today, just as it was to both Henri Matisse and Georges Braque a century ago.
Ismail Bala, a lecturer in the Department of English and European languages, Bayero University, Kano, is a currently a Fellow of the International Writing Programme, University of Iowa, Iowa city, USA


Leadership: For God and Country, Wed. Sept 10 2010


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