Tuesday, April 26, 2011

In which the author (re)visits the Demoiselles

The "Demoiselles d’Avignon” is a breakthrough painting for Picasso… I believe that he never really understood everything it represented, everything he could now work on, artistically, because he had painted this. The work, spurned by nearly all of Picasso’s acquaintances, spent several years in isolation. It did lead, in its way, to Cubism. But Picasso tired of that. He never again painted anything that could be considered the next great leap forward. He resisted pure abstraction. He returned to classicism. He had broken the rules. But he never seemed to find out ... why.

Art historians write about Picasso’s “Demoiselles” with some frequency. The possible sources for the painting, never really discussed by the artist, fascinate us all. Where did these women come from? Ingres, Delacroix, El Greco, a rivalry with Matisse… ? There are probably more sketchbook pages drawn in preparation for this painting than any other in Picasso’s life. He was poor as he was thinking about his Demoiselles, but he had a special canvas made.  Speculation seems … useful, and could help us see what Picasso saw.

I came across a painting the other day that I believe provided a source for these women. It isn’t mentioned by anyone else, as far as I know. Let me begin with some groundwork for my idea. (And, for the record, I don’t believe that Picasso was delineating women in a brothel).

In her exhaustive study, Picasso, Style and Meaning (NY: Phaidon Press, 2002),  Elizabeth Cowling mentions Peter Paul Rubens’s “The Judgement of Paris” as a “relevant” source for “Le Demoiselles d’Avignon,” because of the inclusion of a “peripheral” figure -- Rubens’s Mercury appears to prefigure the Demoiselle who leans into the picture at top right – and because the stance of Rubens’s Minerva is echoed by Picasso’s central Demoiselle (172-3).  She also mentions that Picasso spoke of Rubens’s “fiery genius” on a 1917 visit to the Prado, and indicated that he had known Rubens’s work “since boyhood” (318).  And she says that Picasso would return to Rubens, to his “Battle of Anghiari,” as he sketched the Vollard Suite in 1933-34 (405-6).  But Cowling also suggests that Picasso’s preparatory sketches for “Demoiselles” indicate that he was “trying out and rejecting the voluptuous Titianesque/Rubensian option” as a model for his women (178); certainly the Demoiselles are composed mostly of angles and seem rather un-harmoniously arranged. "Demoiselles" is not exactly a tender encounter in a forest glade.

Then there is Leo Steinberg’s “The Philosophical Brothel” (Art News, September 1972, pp. 20-29 and October 1972, pp. 38-47).  Steinberg writes that, in “Demoiselles,” Picasso “challenges far more than traditional focused perspective” principally because this painting announces a “farewell to stylistic consistency” and also because when we look at these women, in their different modes and different spaces, “neighboring objects diverge willfully into discrepant styles” (45).  He then says “the five figures, though conceptually freed from each other, become a conglomerate unity, cohere like tensed fingers, and the whole collapsing interior stage of the picture closes like a fist …. This is an interior space in compression” (46). [Isn’t he a fabulous writer?]

And, in her article, Lisa Florman (“The Difference Experience Makes in ‘The Philosophical Brothel,’” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 85, No. 4 (Dec. 2003) pp. 769-783), pictures “The Group Portrait of the Amsterdam Musketeers’ Civic Guard (1534)” by Dirk Jacobsz (774), just as Steinberg did. The painting is an astonishing feat, a portrait of seventeen faces, crammed into a tiny space; because all the men are similarly dressed, clean shaven and in partial profile, each man looks ... different:

Florman returns to discussing “Demoiselles” and says “the picture is about the image in its otherness locked in with the real world” (777). She critiques the subjective and objective stances of Steinberg’s essay… but isn’t that what happens to each of us? We return to the “objective” facts of a painting before us approaching it with our own subjectivity each time… differently, each time.

Another article, “The MoMA’s Hot Mamas,” by Carol Duncan (Art Journal, Vol. 48, No. 2, "Images of Rule: Issues of Interpretation," Summer 1989, pp. 171-8), argues that MoMA’s collection, its nudes, its “recurrent images of sexualized female bodies [with the Demoiselles as the primary examples] actively masculinize the museum as a social environment” (172). But I disagree with Duncan. And I disagree partly because I believe her article simplifies the act of museum-going … and simplifies Picasso … and also because I believe “Demoiselles” is based, in part, on a painting of 4 men and a philosophical bust.

The painting is Peter Paul Rubens’s “The Four Philosphers.”  Look at the figures up against the Demoiselles. Look at the curtain, upper left, and the blue slices of distant space that appear in both paintings. But, principally, look at the men and the women.  

Now, first, consider Cowling. Look at the figure breaking in at the upper right in Rubens’s “Judgement,”  and the figure of Seneca breaking into Rubens’s “Philosophers,”  and Picasso’s most isolated Demoiselle on the upper right; Mercury, Seneca, and an un-named, jarring, strident woman--- none of these figures, placed in the same spot in each work, belongs with any of the others in their paintings. These three figures each represent an intrusion and are painting to emphasize that intrusion: an extreme of judgment (Mercury), stoicism and stone (Seneca), and geometries of rejection (that Demoiselle).

Now think of Steinberg’s points… The five women in Picasso’s painting have been worked over  in “discrepant styles” yet, Steinberg says, represent a “conglomerate unity.” Now, look at Rubens’s five figures. Two men look at us, but one face is flushed, one composed … the one student seems as though he might be blind, or is staring, unseeing into a middle distance, and the farther right student is gazing with something like awe at… Rubens? And Seneca seems mildly embarassed; flowers protrude from some part of the niche where his bust has been awkwardly placed. Each “face” is in a different world --- yet we can see that they are together in an enclosed, academic “compression.”

Next, think of Florman’s care in placing the Jacobsz picture in her essay; Rubens’s men are like Joacobsz’s and also “about the image in its otherness locked in with the real world.”  Just like the Demoiselles. The mind reels with the zooming-in and zooming-out demanded by Rubens and Picasso.

Last, Duncan. Yes, nudes are important in art. And, yes, MoMA does bring many of these nudes to the foreground.  But if you see that Picasso may have moved his nudes into places once occupied by Rubens’s men – aren’t we saying that women who are not principally “sexualized” (think about it, now) have, with “Demoiselles,” finally, been granted the foreground?  Not a brothel… but definitely philosophical.

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