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The day modern art was invented: Picasso's Demoiselles

by Jackie von Wullschlager

Is it possible, a century on, to unravel painting from myth? "Les demoiselles" belongs to a handful of works whose celebrity is blinding.
In the summer of 1906, Pablo Picasso retreated from Paris to a village in the Spanish Pyrenees. Had he died there, he would be remembered as a gifted symbolist, painter of pink and blue harlequins. But, says his biographer John Richardson, "there in the isolation of a mountain wilderness the artist, who sometimes chose to identify with Christ, decided that his time had come. He was finally ready to establish that he - as opposed to Matisse - would be the Mahdi of modern art."

During the next year, working in solitude, Picasso flung his energy, knowledge and courage into 800 studies for "Les demoiselles d'Avignon". No painting has ever been so weightily considered, so lengthily elaborated, so consciously created in order to turn art on its axis. Even if Picasso had died in 1907, he would still be remembered as the founder of modern art.

Yet when he showed the painting his avant-garde friends, it was so revolutionary that they all fell silent or, like Matisse, brayed with defensive laughter. Picasso rolled up the canvas and kept it in his studio like some illicit lover. There were no possible buyers. In 1916 the painting made a brief excursion to a private salon organised by Salmon, who prudishly changed the name from "Le bordel d'Avignon" to "Les demoiselles". It was not exhibited again until 1937; two years later New York's Museum of Modern Art bought it and, almost instantly, private masterpiece became public icon.

Is it possible, a century on, to unravel painting from myth? "Les demoiselles" belongs to a handful of works whose celebrity is blinding. It is interesting how many of these revolutionised art history because of the way a woman looked back at a viewer: Leonardo's enigmatic Mona Lisa; Maribarbola, the infernal glowering dwarf in Velázquez's "Las Meninas"; Manet's "Olympia" - and the hostile glare of the apocalyptic whores in the work Picasso always called "mon bordel".

The red curtain is swept back as the women invite us into the fractured, claustrophobic brothel that became modernism's gateway. The brutal contours of their bodies - flat, splintered forms - are depicted in slashing, impetuous brushstrokes. Noses like animal snouts slice cheekbones in lopsided mask-faces. Shoulders, breasts and torsos twist impossibly or hurl towards us as the pictorial space comes disturbingly forward in broken shards. Everything is unstable, convulsive and jarring, but it is the women's staring, interrogatory eyes that most transfix and unnerve.

This is a painting about looking. It announces the collapse - overnight - of traditional modes of perspective and representation that had held firm in western art since the Renaissance. It was not the first cubist painting - Picasso himself took years to assimilate its implications - but it was the first radically to question and dismantle the rules of representation. It led directly to cubism's shattered planes and multiple viewpoints - around which every painter after 1911 had to negotiate his way: futurists, expressionists, abstractionists, minimalists.

Today the work looks astonishingly prophetic: for art history, which Picasso shaped, and also for the 20th century, whose dominant political and social strands are all suggested within it - yet which were unimaginable at the end of the long European peace and fixed hierarchies of 1907. Thus the outrage of the painting then and its continuing ability to speak our language.

The unprecedented violence and distortion of "Les demoiselles" foreshadow Europe's 20th-century descent into barbarism and terror. Their sexual frankness heralds the pre-eminence of Freudian thought; their assertiveness signals women's emancipation. "Les demoiselles" is sometimes called the "Philosophical Brothel" but its effect is anything but theoretical: it involves you directly. In banishing the men, Picasso threw out anecdote in favour of assault: the modernist game that a work of art is completed by its audience.

Picasso was a fan of Baudelaire and his ideal of "the painter of modern life". Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec had depicted brothels in this context and Richardson considers the dog-faced woman as "the embodiment of the raunchiness that Baudelaire extolled". No wonder the painting was not shown publicly for 30 years and that the Louvre, apparently, declined it - Picasso never forgave himself for selling it in 1924 for a mere 250,000 francs to a collector who donated it, sight unseen, to the museum.

Picasso, in the summer of 1906, focused on primitive Iberian statuary: the basis of the three faces on the left of "Les demoiselles". With the mask-like portrait of Gertrude Stein and nudes stripped to blockish forms, he started experimenting with a truly non-naturalistic style that year. As Cézanne had insisted with his chunky, uneasy "Bathers", the female nude had to be modern art's battleground, and with his advice to "represent nature by cylinders, cones and spheres,'' his flattened depiction of space, he was the indispensable art-historical force behind "Les demoiselles". His death in October 1906 prompted Picasso's intense appropriation of his ideas, just as Matisse's death in 1954 would half a century later.

In summer 1907, he repainted the right-hand Demoiselles with the hideous African fright-masks that owed everything to what he had seen at the Ethnographic Museum at the Trocadero and which deliver the painting's greatest shock - the more so because of their disjunction with the Iberian stylisations on the left. Adding the masks was, Richardson believes, "a calculated risk, taken very late in the game". Picasso did not repaint the other heads, nor did he ever sign the painting, and for years - until it became MoMA's star turn, and its stylistic disunity a modernist glory - he insisted it was unfinished. "Les demoiselles" holds within it, therefore, a touching doubt: the angst of modern art as well as its trail to the future. It is surely this lack of resolution at a pioneering moment, that is so resonant now, and keeps us spellbound.

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