Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907,
Photographed by Beth Gersh-Nesic, January 1, 2015
Not the least of all the exhibition's virtues is the display of contemporary art which brings Picasso's masterpiece into the present.
Damian Elwes, Picasso's Studio at the Bateau Lavoir, 1908, 2008
oil on canvas, collection of the artist
We begin with Damian Elwes' work, an interpretation of the Demoiselles
in Picasso’s Bateau Lavoir studio. In
this regard, Elwes wills himself to connect with Picasso’s biography and the
history of the work as well.
Elwes explains his work:
There is only one existing
photo of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
in Picasso's Bateau Lavoir studio, and it shows that the top half of
the painting was sometimes covered by a cloth. This was presumably done because
the masked faces caused too many unwanted reactions. In my painting, I have
removed the cloth which is lying on the floor. A further influence on Demoiselles was El Greco's The Opening of the Fifth
Seal which was owned by the Spanish
painter Zuloaga. Picasso had visited his friend, Zuloaga during the creation of
Demoiselles and seen the angularity
in the El Greco painting. This same angularity is especially visible in the
draperies surrounding the Demoiselles.
So, I decided to reference this influence by making the cloth under the table
resemble the cloth on the floor in The Opening of the Fifth Seal. . .
In a sense, I am appropriating Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and all the other artwork in the painting,
but I never thought of it in those terms. The way I see it, I am taking
paintings that I love and putting them into a different context in a new image.
This is a way to give them added meanings. The new context happens to be the
same one in which they once existed. My paintings are about creativity. I never
try to paint an exact replica of any of these masterpieces because that would
be dull. Instead, I try to leave their paintings unfinished because that makes
them lively and different from the images that we know so well. I started
painting studios at the beginning of my career as a way to learn from artists,
and it is still the case that I learn so much from each studio painting.
Elwes, therefore, opens the door to understanding an artwork
in terms of its life in the studio, the fruit of the artist’s labors and
numerous influences that accumulate throughout the years.
Sophie Matisse, De-Moiselles, 2007
oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Harvey Blau
Courtesy of Sophie Matisse, copyright 2015 Artists Rights Society, New York
Sophie Matisse, on the
other hand, considers contextualizing the Demoiselles
in terms of absence. Herein she emphasizes
the background composition minus the gals which overlap and disassemble sharp
folds that crystallize around their bodies.
In front of Sophie-Matisse’s De-moiselles
(2007), standing at a distance, we can detect a humanoid configuration on the
left, curled into an upright recumbent pose, pierced with openings that frame
clouds floating through blue skies. Painted to celebrate the Demoiselles’ 100th anniversary, Matisse’s De-Moiselles harkens back to the Salon Cubists’ rules that
seem to lean heavily on Picasso’s 1908 early Cubist endeavors, such as Three Women and the Rue-de-Bois landscapes. Sophie Matisse emphasizes formalism over
iconography, abstraction over figuration, reminding us that Picasso’s Demoiselles almost tiptoed over the thin
line that separates the two.
Kathleen Gilje, Demoiselles, 2007
oil on linen, courtesy of the artist
Kathleen Gilje’s Demoiselles (2007) also celebrates the
100th Birthday of these celebrated broads. Here only two of the five are on view. Gilje proceeds from the opposite direction of
Matisse, humanizing Picasso’s prostitutes by bringing them back to us as
curvaceous tantalizing women. Gilje imagines full-bodied studio models inspired
Picasso’s geometricized bordello wenches.
Far from shocking, Gilje choses to make her female figures robustly real
in the Courbet sense of the term. They
are unidealized, a bit rough around the edges, fleshier than conventional classical
nudes, adorned with a floral tatt, and
utterly self-possessed in their poses and womanliness – decidedly missing in
the original. Unlike Picasso’s dems, they
do not stare down with hypnotic eyes that seem to cast an evil spell. Instead, they gaze without seeing – appearing
a bit distracted and unwilling to reciprocate through ocular penetration.
the Demoiselles as recognizable
women, the artist explains why she concentrated only on one pair in the
painting: “By only doing the right side of the painting I could play with the
space in my own way and create my own dynamic movement. I was telling the story
and creating a bit of theater. It was a stage setting or a tableau
Picasso’s painting in terms of the women whose human qualities are purposely
suppressed and deformed in the original.
In this way, rather than address Picasso’s project as an abstract problem, the development of a new
artistic vocabulary, which Sophie Matisse’s work seems to do, Gilje returns to
the reality of studio life (like Elwes), but in her mind the working models
become a behind-the-scenes narrative, an aspect of the work that needs to be
acknowledge and dignified. Modeling,
like painting, is hard work – and “working women” is the metaphor for all who
try to please for a living. Here too
Gilje tries to restore the inspiration for Picasso’s art, real women who led
real lives, as Janie Cohen so poignantly pays homage to the women who posed for
the photographs that also inspired the Spanish artist. (Her essay is published in the exhibition catalog.)
Léonce-RaphaelAgbodjelou, a renowned photographer from Benin, who exhibits in London, created a
series of portraits entitled Les
Demoiselles de Porto Novo, the city in Benin where Agbodjelou was
born. Son of celebrated photographer Joseph
Moise Agbodjelou (1912-2000), an artist who belonged to the Picasso-dominated
Léonce-Raphael makes his own way through hybridizing real women
(not depicted women, as we find in Gilje) hidden behind an African mask
covering their faces. The visual impact
is chilling, instantly calling to mind Picasso’s original work and colonialist
Agbodjélou’s compositions, in triptychs and
singular images, use architecture to allude to the subject matter – the history
of the coloniser and the colonised. The atmosphere that
emanates from vacant passageways and sitting rooms is no mistake;
both location and subject are meticulously orchestrated.
The set upon which these Demoiselles manifest has
been in Agbodjélou’s family since its creation in 1890. Erected during the
era of French colonial rule, it was built by Afro-Brazilians artisans who were
amongst those repatriating to Porto-Novo. They encompassed only a sliver of the
millions that were taken from the Bight of Benin as slaves.
The model’s very presence in the house conjugates
a memorable juxtaposition. They stand bare-breasted and masked, a diligent
combination of vulnerability and anonymity that simultaneously attracts and
deflects the gaze. Their disguise, as selected by Agbodjélou from surrounding
villages, submerges the models within the mystery of Vodun. This spiritual
facet of Beninese life maintains forward momentum in the present day. As
misplaced as these quasi-modern women may seem in such a colonial shell, all
are integral components of Porto-Novo. In assembling all of these
channels, Agbodjélou composes an aesthetic history encompassing the local
people and the past they share.
Thus, as we study Léonce Raphael Agbodjelou’s individual
composites and compositions, we might think of Salmon’s description in his
“Anecdotal History of Cubism”: “It was about the masks that are almost free of
any humanity.” Here the dehumanization is meant to come from
Julien Friedler, Demoiselles d'Avignon, 2005
(in the Fleming exhibition the version of 3 unpainted bronzes is installed)
Courtesy of the artist and Gabrielle Bryers Fine Art and Production, LLC
polychrome sculpture Demoiselles
d’Avignon (2005) is also shocking. Above is an individual example of a series of seated figures inspired by the demoiselle on the lower right of the canvas. Friedler’s lewd ladies raise their upright middle-fingers to offer their sentiments, full frontal, knees open wide to display their white vagina-dentatae (a conflated eye and mouth), the sites of sexual gratification. They are fierce!
Friedler is a follower and former patient of
the famous psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, He earned a degree in philosophy
from the Sorbonne and then ethnography from the University of Brussels. His work is considered
“neo-expressionist.” In his response to Picasso's Demoiselles, one action seems to speak for all five vixens.
George Biddle, Europa, 1926
lithograph, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gift of L. Aaron Lebowich, 50.360
Photograph, copyright Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
George Biddle, Carlo
Maria Mariani and Stas Orlovski address
the Demoiselles in terms of the
iconic pose of the middle figure on the left as we look at the painting. The artists mission seems to reference the
painting in terms of synecdoche – the part representing the whole.
Stas Orlovski’s work engages
us with the recognizable individual iconographic motifs, which have entered our
popular culture vocabulary.
difficult to avoid Picasso because he shows up everywhere - even in the
cubist/suprematist/folk mash-up of my mid-century Russian children’s books. The
pervasiveness of Picasso in many of the sources I was looking at (Cubism, Dada,
Surrealism, graphic design, printmaking, collage, early film) ultimately lead
me to consider his iconography.
I began specifically referencing
Picasso's Demoiselles by way of a lithograph by a lesser
known 20th century American artist named George Biddle. About 15 years ago a
friend gave me a portfolio of various prints that included Biddle’s Europa. Dated 1926, it depicts 6 stylized nude female figures, one of
which is riding a bull, inside an imaginary landscape. The iconic poses and
bull motif suggested that Biddle was wrestling with his own relationship with
Picasso. I was struck by the conversation that was taking place within this
modest print. “Europa's” awkward (in a good way) attempt to negotiate the space
between figuration, abstraction, allegory and social realism provided an entry
point into Picasso’s vocabulary.
I returned to Europa for years without knowing why,
or what to do with it. In hindsight, I think Europa echoed my own negotiation with Picasso. Demoiselles intrigued me because I was searching for an
iconic figurative form to occupy the spaces/landscapes/gardens in my work.
Eventually I began appropriating some of the Demoiselles figures
into my drawings, paintings, prints and finally into my animations. I turned
the figures into silhouettes, cut-outs, shapes, containers and vessels. I
placed them into various spaces, created patterns out of them and projected
images inside them. Ultimately, the Demoiselles inspired
figures became central characters/actors in my animations. The drawing in this
show is a product of a stop-motion sequence from my first animated project
Stas Orlovski, Figures, 2012
ink, charcoal, gesso and Xerox transfer on paper
Courtesy of the artist and Mixed Greens, NYC
It is through Stas Orlovki that one can appreciate
the contribution of George Biddle, who studied art in Paris at the Académie
Julian in 1911 and the Philadelphia Academy of Art in 1913 and 1914. He returned to Europe in 1914 and studied art
in Munich and Madrid. During World War I
he joined the US armed forces, then settled as a civilian in France in 1924. In
1928, he traveled to Mexico to work with Diego Rivera. Biddle is best remembered for his role in
advocating for government funding for the arts. He knew Franklin Delano Roosevelt at Groton
and corresponded with the president during the Depression, perhaps influencing
the creation of the Federal Art Project and the Works Progress Administration. He went on to serve on the U.S. Commission of
Fine Arts, from 1953 to 1955. How then
did he come to appropriate a figure from the Demoiselles, if indeed he did?
My guess is that he found in Henri Matisse’s, Pablo
Picasso’s and Paul Gauguin’s figures a similar standing nude female figure with
arms lifted, stretched seductively over her head (the Ariadne pose). The presence of this figure in Europa in 1926, as Stas Orlovski
describes, testifies to the enormous influence of the Modernists masters, whose
motifs became the touchstones of twentieth-century avant-garde art. I cannot say if indeed Biddle saw Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon in Architectural Record in 1910 or Salmon’s
exhibition in 1916 or La révolution surréaliste in 1925. All of these opportunities were within his
reach before he painted Europa.
Carlo Maria Mariani, Untitled, 2007
watercolor, pencil, wash, and collage on paper
Collection of Liz and Scott Evans, NYC
Carlo Maria Mariani too
isolates the iconic pose of the central figure on the left, known as the seductive
Ariadne position, with forearm raised, armpit exposed, usually arranged as a
sleeping nude, similar to Giorgione’s SleepingVenus (1510). In Mariani’s Untitled (2007), the artist pairs the
central left nude in the Demoiselles
with a detail from Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ La Source, created between 1820 and 1856. Ingres’ classical nude is a nubile damsel,
doe-eyed and desirable, whose fertility abides in ever-flowing water from her
enormous vase, lifted by her right arm over her back to her left shoulder, to
empty its contents. Her expression is anodyne; her body round and full – quite
the opposite of Picasso’s flat, angular figure.
The tension between the
two invokes an expected frisson of disorientation, as one traditional beauty
competes with the modernist femme fatale.
This is Mariani’s point: to reinvigorate modern art through
classical/academic allusions. Which one
is the more powerful on contact? Which
one is more powerful in the history of art?
Only the art historians can say for sure. As for the rest of us, we can only marvel at
how quickly Picasso’s women became iconographically significant (a mere fifty
or so separates the academic master from the modernist giant, and only one
hundred from Picasso to Mariani). The comparison
affirms Picasso’s deliberate challenge to his artistic forefathers.
Gerri Davis, Bordel, 2010
oil on linen, collection of the artist, New York
Gerri Davis challenges all of modernism itself as
she embarks on her own journey to artistic mastery. She is on a quest that requires delving deep
into the caldron of the art-giants, attempting a baptism by fire. The artist explains:
d’Avignon marked a turning point when
paintings ceased to be thought of as windows that we look through, and began to
be seen as planes that we look at.
When I began my life as a painter, Picasso’s pivotal piece was a point of entry
into the discourse of contemporary painting. I studied his work by
interacting with it as a painter, by painting it. I wanted to engage his
interplay of iconography and abstraction, where figure and void exchange places
and symbols assume statures according to their importance. He exposed his inner
daemons for us in his petite
bordel, exposing the disdain he
felt for his own desire. Here the elder Pablo is stripped bare, his wares on
display above a labia-like shellfish garden. It is ultimately an exorcism
of venerated misogyny by a young woman more historically suited to be the muse
than the painter – it’s as if the puppet has stepped out of the proscenium and
taken hold of the strings.
One wonders if this Semele may self-destruct on her
way to reaching Picasso’s revelations.
Or might we consider her Zeus himself, throwing his father off his back
to make way for the next generation, as indeed Zeus’ father Cronos killed his
own father Uraneus, which gave us Aphrodite.
Through destruction there is creation.
But Davis’ work is not violent or
mean-spirited. It questions the powers
that be in art by dissecting the greatest influences on her generation. In this way, she has decided to unman the
Titan-art forces, render them impotent in her series of tired old Picasso-lookalikes,
whose sexual potency seems no longer active. Her work is a metaphor that subverts the popularized Picasso persona,
the macho man, thus dismantling the extraordinary charge that still operates in
the original quintet of his making.
Yet for all the transgressive iconography, the
colors remain luscious, incandescent and sexy. There is energy in the light that ascends from the forms, something
mystical and wondrous generating from the Demoiselles’
its fiery “stone.”
Jackson Tupper, Sophie/Diana 2012
archival pigment print, diptych, courtesy of the artist
And finally Jackson Tupper, the youngest member of
this exhibition, pays homage to the Spanish master in a mannered Cubist
confection based on the magic of photography and other skills. The female form rhymes with the camera, yet her eyes are closed while the camera's eye "stares back." The act of looking (or not looking) is on view. Should we consider this deft Photoshop manipulation an impersonal antidote to the aggressive "mirada muerta" (deadpan stare) of Picasso's central figures? Or is this a denial of ocular intercourse, reminiscent of voguing. It seems to say, "She couldn't care less about you," much in the same spirit as her Picasso sisters.
We have surely moved on since the Demoiselles had their say about sexuality. And yet it never ceases to astonish me that Les Demoiselles d’Avignon remains a touchstone for artists
emerging into the sunlight of their own careers. They have taken the full measure of this work
and projected it further into the unknowable future – its infinitude assured
for the centuries ahead.
(To see photographs of the exhibition, please click on the link to my previous blog post: Picasso in Vermont
Catalogue with essays by Janie Cohen, Laura Blereau and Beth S. Gersh-Nešić,
Price: $20. Order from The Fleming or from Amazon
Au Revoir, Staring Back,
Beth New York
aka Beth S.
Director, New York Arts Exchange