Les Demoiselles d’Avignon 1988
Le Dernier Picasso: 1953-1973 16, 1988
Picasso: Creator and Destroyer
When the Museum of Modern Art mounted its huge Picasso exhibition in New York in 1980, it obtained the full support of the Picasso museums in Paris and Barcelona on condition that the Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), in a sense the cornerstone of New York’s collection, might be allowed to cross the Atlantic for a final time for display in these two cities. The New York exhibition was a triumph—the greatest Picasso exhibition there has ever been or ever will be, even though the late work was inadequately represented. Many of the great works seen together will never be reunited: Guernica, for example, was afterward restored to Spain, according to the artist’s ultimate wish, and is now permanently installed in a dependency of the Prado, its rage and its passion muffled inside a grotesque bullet-proof cage. The relatively small Demoiselles exhibition shown in Paris and Barcelona was a triumph of a different kind. It is accompanied by a two-volume catalog, which makes the Demoiselles, after Guernica,1 the most extensively documented twentieth-century painting.
In the catalog, William Rubin writes at length about the picture with his customary thoroughness and incisiveness. Pierre Daix analyzes the relevant sketch-books. The exhibition’s organizer, Hélène Seckel, has brought together in a lively and intelligent fashion virtually every scrap of information relating to the work up to 1939, when it first went on display in its present home. Leo Steinberg’s celebrated essay of 1972, “The Philosophical Brothel,” is reprinted, with a postscript of 1987. It is now a moot point whether Guernica or the Demoiselles is the most famous image of the art of our age. Guernica has engaged the attention of specialists and commentators of every persuasion and has driven several of them insane. The Demoiselles remains more central to concepts of modernism and is ultimately the more important work—one of those rare individual works of art that have changed the course of visual history.
The Demoiselles was conceived and executed in a small and filthy studio in a ramshackle wooden building known as Le Bateau-Lavoir, perched on the slopes of Montparnasse. The picture can’t have been seen by all that many people in the years after it was painted and, with one exception, almost nothing was written about it at the time, or even subsequently, by the people who must have seen it in its original studio setting while it was being painted or immediately afterward. Fernande Olivier, who was living with Picasso at the time, does not mention it in either of her two memoirs.2 Neither does Apollinaire, although he had written so poignantly on Picasso’s earlier work and had already, and more than anyone else, helped to bring Picasso to early fame. I think, however, he may have commemorated it in a dark and savagely erotic poem, “Lul de Faltenin,” which was published in La Phalange a few months after the painting had been finished.
Max Jacob, who in the early years of the century shared with Picasso his top hat, his bed (they slept in it separately in relays), and indeed his very existence, and who at the time of the Demoiselles remained in many respects his alter ego, referred to the great painting only once, years later, and then casually, almost in passing. Another of Picasso’s writer friends, the poet, critic, and journalist André Salmon, did however discuss the picture at some length in his La Jeune Peinture française, which appeared in the autumn of 1912; and it was he who set the tone and formalistic approach in which the work was to be discussed for some fifty years to come.
Less surprisingly, we know about the reactions of Picasso’s painter friends only through their work, or at second hand, through hearsay. Derain, possibly with Balzac’s Frenhofer in mind, predicted that one day Picasso would be found hanged behind the painting. In the event it was the picture that to a certain extent hanged Derain. An artist of great intelligence and enormous natural gifts, more than any other artist of his generation he had acted as a weathervane for contemporary young French art, and he now produced a large lifeless answer to the Demoiselles, a three-figure piece called La Toilette, which he subsequently destroyed; he recovered his balance but the direction of his art had been permanently altered.
Matisse was made angry by the Demoiselles and seems to have thought it was something of a bad joke, although I believe he reacted to it indirectly when in 1908 he produced his great Bathers with a Turtle. Braque, too, initially disliked the Demoiselles; but he studied the picture harder than any other artist, and indeed his subsequent friendship and collaboration with Picasso led to the Cubist revolution. Critics and collectors were similarly baffled. Gertrude Stein tells us that Tschoukine, who had become an important patron of Picasso’s, said: “What a loss for French art.” Leo Stein burst into derisive laughter. Vollard, always taciturn, said nothing. Kahnweiler, who was about to become Picasso’s dealer, subsequently became obsessed by the picture; but he was also made uneasy by it right until the end of his days.
The Demoiselles was first shown publicly at the Salon d’Antin in 1916 in an exhibition organized by André Salmon. The picture, Picasso’s only entry, became the centerpiece of the exhibition, which was extended by a couple of weeks—cultural events of a comparable importance (literary and musical sessions accompanied the show) were rare in wartime Paris. It was here that the painting, which was originally known to Picasso’s intimates as Le Bordel Philosophique, acquired its present title. Picasso must surely have agreed to the way in which Salmon listed the work, but he came to dislike the title intensely, presumably because it seemed evasive and genteel; and he most often referred to the painting simply as “mon bordel.” Although the Avignon of the title has been associated with a brothel in Barcelona’s carrer d’Avinyo, near where Picasso’s family lived, Rubin is probably right in suggesting that Salmon chose the title because since the time of the papacy Avignon had carried overtones of sensuality and vice: the Abbé de Sade, Rubin reminds us, who was the uncle and tutor of the divine Marquis himself, quoted Petrarch on the subject.
The Demoiselles was almost certainly seen at the Salon d’Antin by the great couturier and Maecenas Jacques Doucet, who was subsequently to acquire it. But it was André Breton, acting as Doucet’s librarian, who urged his patron to make the purchase in a series of letters of such eloquence that we can only regret that he never wrote about the painting at greater length and independently, so to speak. (What a marvelous companion piece it would have made to that small masterpiece “Phare de la Mariée,” his essay on Duchamp’s Large Glass.) In November 1923, when Doucet appears to have been still wavering, we find Breton writing: “It is a work which for me goes beyond painting, it is the theater of everything that has happened over the past fifty years, it is the wall before which have passed Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Jarry, Apollinaire and all those whom we continue to love.” A year later, after the sale had been completed, we find him still reassuring Doucet: “Here is the painting which one would parade, as was Cimabue’s Virgin, through the streets of our capital.”
Doucet paid 25,000 francs for the work, an astonishingly small sum even at that time, and Picasso probably agreed to the sale because Doucet had promised to bequeath it to the Louvre. (It never got there, but Doucet had almost certainly not acted in bad faith, and it is very likely that the Louvre may have verbally rejected the offer of such a controversial work.) Picasso never forgave Doucet for having got the work out of him so cheaply and he refused to come to see it when it was finally installed in the new mansion in Neuilly into which the Doucets moved in 1928. There it was given pride of place on the landing of an extraordinary staircase (the steps were of silver and red enamel under heavy glass and the newel posts took the form of exotic birds) conceived by Doucet himself and executed by the sculptor Csaky. Opposite the Demoiselles stood enormous double doors by Lalique (rescued from an earlier dwelling) that led into the “studio” and beyond into the room where oriental antiquities were displayed. The picture itself was encased in a forged metal frame, especially designed for it by Legrain, who had originally achieved fame as a bookbinder but had also come to be recognized as one of the greatest French craftsmen of his time. The Bateau-Lavoir was a world away.
In August 1929 A. Conger Goodyear, who was president of the trustees of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, was taken to see the Doucet collection and was bowled over by it and its setting. Alfred Barr, then the museum’s director, starred the Demoiselles in the list of paintings he wanted to put together for a Picasso show that was originally to have taken place in 1931, but for various reasons was not mounted until 1939. In the meantime, Doucet had died, the house had been demolished, and Madame Doucet had sold the collection of eleven Picassos (the eleventh turned out in fact to be by Braque) to the Seligmann Gallery, which had branches in Paris and New York. The Demoiselles was sold for six times what Picasso had received for it.
The picture sailed for New York in October 1937 on the Normandie, the Legrain frame traveling separately. In November it went on show at the Seligmann premises on East Fifty-first Street to the accompaniment of considerable publicity. On November 9 Barr, who now described the picture as “the most important painting of the twentieth century,” urged the advisory committee to propose the picture to the museum’s trustees. In December the sale went through. (Things moved fast in those days.) The picture went on view on May 10, 1939, in an exhibition entitled “Art in Our Time,” which was designed to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the museum and its reopening in its present premises. Somewhere between Fifty-first and Fifty-third Streets the Legrain frame mysteriously disappeared.
The recent Demoiselles exhibition consisted of the great canvas itself, a handful of paintings that led up to it, and some five dozen oil paintings, watercolors, and drawings that relate directly to it; equally revealing and exciting are the sixteen sketchbooks that record the processes of Picasso’s mind and eye at work over a period of some nine months from the autumn of 1906 through to high summer of 1907. These he kept himself until his death, and until recently they were relatively unknown. The problems of sequence and date surrounding the sketch-books and the individual leaves within them have not been completely sorted out, and given Picasso’s unmethodical working processes they probably never will be. But the sketchbooks make it immediately obvious that this was by far the most elaborately plotted of all Picasso’s masterpieces. Finally, there is what is virtually a small exhibition within an exhibition—a group of “things seen”: possible sources of inspiration. Many people have expressed reservations about this section of the exhibition and have found it either extraneous or didactic. I myself found it fascinating, demonstrating as it does that working from photographs and reproductions, the actual feel of works of art, the presence with which they confront us, becomes so completely lost.
Picasso's Guernica by Herschel Chipp, an important work of both analysis and synthesis, will be published by the University of California Press in November 1988. A useful anthology of comment and criticism is Picasso's Guernica, edited by Ellen C. Oppler (Norton, 1987).↩
Picasso et ses amis (Paris: Librairie Stock, 1933); Souvenirs Intimes: Ecrits pour Picasso (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1988).↩
Picasso’s Guernica by Herschel Chipp, an important work of both analysis and synthesis, will be published by the University of California Press in November 1988. A useful anthology of comment and criticism is Picasso’s Guernica, edited by Ellen C. Oppler (Norton, 1987).↩
Picasso et ses amis (Paris: Librairie Stock, 1933); Souvenirs Intimes: Ecrits pour Picasso (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1988).↩