With Sight And Sound, The Fleming Explores Picasso’s Radical ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’

Jun 5, 2015

Pablo Picasso's masterpiece Les Demoiselles d'Avignon was one of the 20th century's most controversial pieces of art. Reviled and revered, it's been studied by art historians, railed against by other artists and used as inspiration for new paintings, sculptures and photographs.

The Fleming Museum of Art at the University of Vermont has put together a multi-media exhibit exploring Picasso's influences and why Demoiselles has engendered such strong reactions for more than 100 years.

Vermont Edition toured the multimedia exhibit with Janie Cohen, a Picasso scholar and the director of the Fleming Museum.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Picasso

The original Les Demoiselles d'Avignon can only be seen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It's left just once since 1939, for a special exhibition in Paris and Barcelona. The Fleming exhibit offers guests a modern alternative: a life-sized projection of the painting displayed on an 8-foot-tall canvas.  

Painted in 1907, Picasso's Demoiselles depicts five naked prostitutes staring out from the canvas. Three of them wear masks. One is seated with her back to the viewer, but her face, covered by an African mask, looks forward. Picasso said of this painting that he had created cubism. He also created quite a stir in Paris when the painting was first shown publicly in 1916. “Normally artists had made the prostitutes seductive and welcoming, conforming to the traditions of beauty in European art,” says Cohen. “Not so Picasso. He had set out to make a shocking painting that would really turn art on its head.”

This painting by Damien Elwes, included in the exhibition, shows what Picasso's Paris studio would have looked like as he was painting 'Demoiselles.'
Credit Damien Elwes / Fleming Museum

The public’s outrage at the time of Picasso’s work was in response to the way he portrayed the women in Demoiselles, says Cohen. “There’s the Africanization, the fact that they're not soft and voluptuous and curvy – they're very angular,” she says. “One of the main reasons aside from those is that they are staring at us. They’re staring back out of the painting, which was absolutely brand new.”

This is especially true when considering the male gaze — a critical theory that the dominant perspective in works of art and media is that of a man — and female subject, says Cohen. “These women are looking at us. And that was what was so outrageous about the painting. It frightened people. It made them angry,” explains Cohen.

"These women are looking at us. And that was what was so outrageous about the painting. It frightened people. It made them angry." - Janie Cohen, Picasso scholar and Fleming Museum director

As museum guests contemplate the painting, recordings of reactions from Picasso’s contemporaries, read by UVM students and professors, filter down from the ceiling. "Part of what I was trying to do with the exhibit was to really take you back to the moment,” says Cohen.

Painter Georges Braque, a contemporary of Picasso, was initially outraged by Demoiselles, describing the work "like drinking kerosene in order to spit fire." But Cohen says Braque's reaction was also one of professional jealousy, because Picasso "had jumped ahead of him and had made this outrageous painting." In the following years the two artists worked together to develop cubism. Cohen says they described themselves at that point as being "tied together like mountain climbers."

Contemporary artists influenced by Demoiselles d'Avignon

The exhibit also features a group of contemporary artists who were influenced by Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in one way or another.

Bordel by Gerri Davis:

Gerri Davis's 'Bordel' depicts one man in seven poses and is a direct response to Picasso's 'Demoiselles.'
Credit Gerri Davis / Fleming Museum

“It’s one man. [Gerri Davis] hired him to pose, to model for it. So you see him in the poses of [Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,] but you also see him in transitional poses. So it's very cubist in that way,” says Cohen. “If you think about a cubist painting, you're looking essentially at one person from different perspectives, and here you are looking at one person from seven different perspectives.” Cohen says that there are details in this that relate to Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. “Like the head on the far right, where he has one eye closed and one open, if you look back at Demoiselles, the woman entering through the curtain has one black eye — she's got a mask on, but one of the eyes is very similar to that. In [Demoiselles], the still life in the front is always discussed in the literature as being phallic, and so here [Davis] replaces it with a shelf of oysters,” Cohen points out.

Untitled (Demoiselles de Porto-Novo Series) by Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou

'Untitled (Demoiselles de Porto-Novo series),' by Beninese photographer Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou, references the original Picasso work and also raises questions about race, power and colonialism.
Credit Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou / Fleming Museum

"There are things about this that are initially disturbing,” says Cohen. “It’s a black woman's body with a wooden mask over her head. She's nude from the waist up, and she's in a vast architectural space that you get the sense — and you're absolutely right — is colonial. These are women from surrounding rural areas that he has hired to model. The masks are Vodun ... we know under the term Voodoo … [they are] posing in poses that are not traditional.”

Cohen says the photographs in the series can cause discomfort in the viewer. “Initially I had a moment of pause in showing them," she says. “I thought it raised interesting questions. Is it a postcolonial critique? Is it just responding to Picasso? Is it really focusing on the ongoing series he's doing and just introducing some twists to it? So it's kind of open ended.”

Cohen’s thoughts on Picasso

Cohen has been the director of the Fleming since 2002. She is an internationally known Picasso scholar and has just published her own groundbreaking work on the influence Picasso likely found in stylized photographs of African women at the turn of the 20th century. Her work, and other artists and styles that Picasso drew upon for Demoiselles, are also featured in the exhibit.

“I’m not an apologist for Picasso. He was really a … something I can’t say on the radio,” Cohen says, agreeing that Picasso was definitely not an anti-colonialist or a feminist. “But in some ways, in placing the gaze back on the women in the painting, I think that the responses, primarily of his male colleagues and cohorts, says a lot. He made this painting that made his male colleagues and friends extremely uncomfortable.” Cohen says that Picasso really put an agency into the painting, which wasn’t present in paintings at the time, particularly depicting prostitutes.

"I’m not an apologist for Picasso ... But in some ways, in placing the gaze back on the women in the painting, I think that the responses, primarily of his male colleagues and cohorts, says a lot."

Did Picasso intend to make a statement about the power dynamic between men and women and to perhaps improve the status of prostitutes in French society? Cohen says no. “In knowing him and knowing his motives to the extent that I do, that was not a motive. What he was doing he was doing for himself. He was doing [it] so he could kind of leapfrog into the forefront and carry the mantle of the avant-garde and no one else,” she says.

'Staring Back: The Creation and Legacy of Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon,' runs at the University of Vermont's Fleming Museum of Art through June 21.