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Modern and Contemporary Art has been a theme on the blog this month. We’ll showcase it more in the future, but a good slew of Renaissance, Mannerist, Neoclassical and Baroque artwork will be discussed for the rest of the summer. I’m looking forward to it!

A strong capstone for this month’s investigations is Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, one of (if not the) most revolutionary work(s) of art of the past century. This is a piece with as many complexities as brush strokes, and I hope I can touch upon some of the most profoundly influential aspects of this painting. Let’s begin, first, with my individual impressions upon seeing it at MoMA.

Appearance, Size and Placement

The picture doesn’t highlight the brilliance of the colors in this painting. It’s something to behold when you’re only a few feet from it, looking up at the ladies looking down on you. Its colors are mesmerizing, as captivating as Van Gogh’s Starry Night from the same perspective. But unlike Van Gogh’s masterpiece, there isn’t a small crowd of onlookers huddled together snapping pictures with flash on. Les Demoiselles was, comparatively, not as appreciated by museumgoers. But this work is just as important, and I’ll soon explain why.

The painting is massive. It is an 8′ by 7’8″ oil on canvas, a size that dwarfs other famous pieces at MoMA, including Starry Night (2’5″ by 3′) and Dali’s The Persistence of Memory (9.5 in by 13 in). I’m 6’1″, for scale. It is, in every sense of the expression, a painting which captures your eye when you walk in the room.

When I was privileged enough to have seen Michelangelo’s Pietà (Specifically his Pietà of the Virgin Mary and Jesus), and it is stationed behind a glass wall. This, of course, was because of the assault upon it by Lazlo Toth in 1972. The David, another classic work, is not behind a glass wall, but every conceivable angle of the statue is under constant supervision. At MoMA, there were three or four watchmen who made sure we were not standing too close. But look how close that is! Didn’t receive a look or comment about it. I said the same thing in an article from last September, but after visiting the art museums of Europe, it still holds true. I cannot describe the feeling of being less than a foot from one of the most revolutionary works of art in recent history.


I will put a larger photo of the work here:

Some of you emailed me asking me to cover Matisse a bit more, so it’s nice to hear you enjoy some of Modern Art! Here’s a detail you’d be interested in: Matisse did not like it. This is likely because Picasso was heavily inspired by a work of his, Blue Nude (1907).


If you’re interested in the relationship between Matisse and Picasso, one of the most fruitful “rivalries” in art, on the level of Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi, Vanity Fair had a great introductory article back in 2003.

Picasso would have preferred to name it differently. His original title was Le Bordel d’Avignon, (The Brothel of Avignon) or Mon Bordel. Picasso’s paintings can be notoriously difficult to interpret, but like Guernica, there are interpretations which can safely be assumed to be intentional, although Picasso grouched when others asked what he intended.

The three ladies on the left each look similar, but are different in their own way. One of the models for the painting was Picasso’s lover at the time, Fernande Olivier. Every woman in this piece looks out with an expression either of apathy or of angst. The two figures on the right, however, have led to major discussion by art critics, with too many ideas, some more supported than others, to fully account here in such a short space.

Here are the safest points of argument about this piece: the women look either unhappy or apathetic, and any sense of realism is deliberately abandoned.

So what’s revolutionary about it, then? Picasso, alongside Georges Braque, would go on to revolutionize artistic depiction in the 20th Century through Cubism. I will write a piece on Cubism in the future, but it was a massive departure from previous styles of European painting. As we will see in the next few months, geometric ideas like perspective had the power to completely alter how real a painting looks. Picasso was not the first to move past the need for perspective in painting, but he was one of the very first to popularize it.

See you next week!