Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon ) is a large oil painting of 1907 by the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881–1973). The work portrays five nude female prostitutes from a brothel on Carrer d'Avinyó (Avinyó Street) in Barcelona. The women are unflatteringly rendered with angular bodies. Two appear with African mask-like faces and three more with faces in the Early Iberian style of Spain. Picasso here adapts a Primitivism and abandons use of modelling in favour of a flat, two-dimensional picture plane. In the painting Picasso was seeking a way in which figures could be simplified and made more structurally powerful and expressive.
The genesis of "D'amoiselles" was apparently difficult. In the year before the painting was finished Picasso initiated a series of paintings and drawings that have subsequently become known as his "Negro Period".It was after this brief period that Picasso (who had already started "D'amoiselles") returned to it and reworked two of the faces with African masks in mind. These faces, with flat ridged noses, sharp chins, small oval mouths and deleted ears have since been identified as characteristic of African masks of what was then called French Congo.
Finished in Paris during the summer of 1907, Picasso had created hundreds of sketches and studies in preparation for the final work. Picasso acknowledged the importance of Spanish art and Iberian sculpture as influences on the painting, but denied the influence of African masks. Some art historians remain skeptical about his denials. The sources of Picasso's influences are still debated. However from about 1906 African sculpture was beginning to interest many French painters. Vlaminck and Matisse were already beginning to form collections of African sculpture and in 1906 Derain ( an underrated artist) merged African motifs with influences from Cezanne in his painting "Bathers" It is also known that in the spring of 1907 Picasso visited the Musee Du Trocadero, with the poet Guillaume Appollinaire, where an exhibition of African sculpture from French Colonial Territories could be seen. According to this version of events the heads in "Damoiselles" were re-painted in Negro masks style with striations and distortions after this visit to the Trocadero. The last painting in which Picasso used striations was "Nude with Draperies" in 1907. Thereafter striations were dropped but simplified planes, now modelled in light and dark, were retained and the beginnings of Cubism were formed.
Although Picasso denied the influence of African sculpture on his work it is hard to see, given the time he was born into, how the influence could be ignored. Picasso was born in 1881 and French interest in Africa had begun in the late 1870's. Between 1875 and 1882 De-Brazza, a Frenchman, was exploring Africa in the area of what is now Gabon. The results of De-Brazza's exploration was the establishment of a French trading area on the north bank of the Congo river. Events in Europe were soon to make this trading area a base for colonial expansion.
Rising industrialism and commercialism, the search for new sources of raw materials and markets led to an economic race among the leading European nations. After about 1880 a movement was launched in France to push for economic and colonial expansion in Africa. Driven by fears of Germany, then expanding industrially at an unprecedented rate, a small group of French politicians and businessmen began a campaign to make France the leading political and economic power in Europe. By the end of the century French public opinion backed this view that only by large-scale colonisation could French markets expand and keep pace with Germany. With commercial interest established in Africa by the European powers a land grabbing race was on.
The dates of French acquisitions coincides very neatly with Picasso's early years. In 1881 Tunis was occupied, French Congo in 1885, Senegal , French Guinea and Ivory Coast in 1889, Algeria and Madagascar in 1890, Upper Senegal and Niger 1893 and 1898.
Picasso first arrived in Paris in 1900. Originally staying for about a month before returning to Spain he returned in the spring of 1901 to stay permanently. By 1906 Picasso was searching for an alternative way of painting to that of his "Blue" and "Rose" manner and began work on the "D'amoiselles".
If we view the historical times in which artists live as a milieu from which artist may select or be confronted by those elements that shape their art Picasso's arrival in Paris is timely for the growing interest in Africa and its artifacts. (Spain is conspicuously absent from most of Africa). The appearance of African influences in "Modernism" may be said to be a direct result of French colonialism. The collision of the two raises some interesting questions( if we perceive colonialism as "bad" and modern art as "good"). Did French artists exploit the art of French colonies in much the same way that colonies were exploited by moneyed and military groups of France ? Or did artists recognize the humanity in these by-products of colonialism, certainly the interest of French artists in African artifacts helped raise consciousness of it above anthropological curio. It is perhaps curious that aristocratic Britain (who dominated so much of Africa) never responded artistically to African art like Republican France.French artists never treated African art as "quaintly inferior" but recognized it as a means of expression and were willing to learn from it.
In fact the roots of interest in other cultures for French artists dates back to the beginnings of French expansion outside Europe. Napoleon's conquests in Egypt in 1798 introduced an "Oriental" fashion into
French art. As French expansion continued into Africa the Far East and Oceania these influences grew and penetrated more deeply. Delacroix and Ingres both made use of Middle Eastern and North African motifs.
However both bring an essentially European sensibility and technique to "exotic" subjects. This relationship is somewhat changed in the work of Gauguin and Van Gogh ( who also saw France as his spiritual home). Van Gogh and Gauguin studied the art products of Japan and Cambodia less for their "picturesqueness" than for expressive qualities that they brought squarely into their own works. It is perhaps this tradition that Picasso and the French artists of the time inherit. The systemization of Cezanne coupled with the simplifications of the art of non European cultures must certainly be counted in the development of Cubism.