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  • Writer's pictureHaydn Dickenson


The name 'Picasso' is on the lips of anyone invited to name a famous artist. He has even become the subject of a thousands-fold proliferated TikTok sound trend where some one asks:“What's this?”, to be given the response “It's a art project.”, the first person then affirming “OK, I like it...Picasso.” Come on, you must have heard it!

It is a little like the phenomenon of the great pianist Paderewski, effectively a late nineteenth/early twentieth-century rock star in respect of his fame and his antics, known by the average person on the street as 'Padrooski', even if that person barely knew what the great Ignace Jan did; I would hasten to add that Paderewski, still much maligned, was a very magnificent pianist indeed - an artist of rare poetry.

I am also put in mind of Beethoven, whose charming piano miniature Für Elise (plagued into eternity, of course, by an execrable mispronunciation) and his so-called 'Moonlight Sonata', have both achieved a fame quite outside their provenance, musical significance, or even sound.

Picasso is another 'one of these'. His striking and dynamic physical appearance in photos and self-portraits is highly and universally recognisable as are his revolutionary paintings, and his name has become a symbol for ground-breaking, maverick brilliance in art.


SELF-PORTRAIT - Pablo Picasso (1907)

I must confess that Picasso does not figure among my 'Top-Five' artists, or even slightly outside that boundary. I am nevertheless fascinated by the turbo-charged pace of his artistic development, and the searing influence that he exerted on so many painters of later generations, notably Francis Bacon who, my readers will know, resides well-within my 'Top-Five'.

At the start of his career, Pablo Picasso powered through a 'Blue Period' (1900-1904) followed by a 'Rose Period' (1904-1906) during which times he produced pictures of touching simplicity, humanity and tranquility. The Blue Period presented a cool and sombre outlook, with the Rose Period offering a warmer mood. Both periods, in my opinion, contain the artistic embryos of the eruptions that were to follow.

In 1907, the same year as the self-portrait above was painted, Picasso created LES DEMOISELLES D'AVIGNON, a work of supreme candour and confrontational honesty which also, amusingly, manages to incorporate a still-life of one of the artist's beloved bowls of fruit at the base of the composition. The thrust of the painting is, of course, the five nude sex-workers from the Carrer d'Avinyo in Barcelona which outraged the world and led his friend and colleague Georges Braque to exclaim:

It is as if he made us drink kerosene and then swallow a lit match”.

LES DEMOISELLES D'AVIGNON - Pablo Picasso (1907) Museum of Modern Art, New York

The critic Clement Greenberg has stated: “I am unable to put myself in the mind of the artist. How was he able to do that in 1907?”

Picasso's trajectory was so rapid that the angular, jabbing limbs of the Avignon girls came only four years after he painted the haunting CELESTINA.

CELESTINA - Pablo Picasso (1903)

Echoes of the sad old woman Celestina with her one eye clouded over, may be seen in 'Les Demoiselles' with their displaced eyes that seem to look straight at us but simultaneously past us, or through us. Indeed, the woman at the top right of the painting has one dark, unseeing eye, the same one as Celestina's.

Notably, both the 'Blue' and the 'Rose' colour palettes are incorporated in the picture which also manages to introduce allegory – in the fruit – and the influence of African Art (in the faces) which played such a major role in Picasso's depiction of the human form.

The composition of 'Les Demoiselles' enthrals me. At first sight, we notice the two women on the right have darker heads, bearing rougher, inscribed shading on their faces and hair. The composition appears incongruous when we contrast these with the more serene figures on the left and particularly in the centre; and then we notice that the lady on the left also has a darker, albeit softer face. She – who also has a dark eye - appears to be looking towards the figure at the top right. Shift your gaze to the bottom right and the squatting girl; we see the latter's face sharply swung round to confront us with the most direct stare of all the figures. She too, has one dark eye which, like Celestina's is lower than the other. Suddenly, the composition starts to fall into place as we notice a triangle created between the figures on the extreme left, the top right and the bottom right.

Establish a link between this geometry and the simultaneous triangles of breasts, challengingly and ferally gestured elbows, knees, and a unity is quickly apparent. Could there exist, here, a nod towards the triangle as apparent in Renaissance religious art? The upward-pointing triangles (male-symbolising) of the elbows and the downward-pointing ones (female-symbolising) of the second-left figure's groin and the lower-right woman's body shape as defined by her bottom and splayed legs and arms seems most apposite. The broadly downward-pointing triangle mentioned in the paragraph above embraces the entire composition in a subtle but brazen frame of femininity.

As we delve further into detail, we notice motivic connections between the proud, outward-jutting triangles of breasts and jabbing elbows, the unevenly-set eyes finding echoes and mirrors in the offset line of breasts given their geometry by the haughtily-demanding cocked hips. Incidentally, I also see, in the two central figures, echoes of Picasso's own facial features.

Shocking? Perhaps even today, but 'Les Demoiselles' is a painting which exists absolutely within a historical context and not at all in some kind of deliberately startling vacuum. Art throughout the ages has shocked people. Let us not forget the outrage that followed Michelangelo's depiction of The Last Judgement on the Sistine Chapel wall.

In music, Debussy's 'Prélude à 'Après-Midi d'un Faune' caused consternation when it was first performed in 1894, as did Stravinsky's 'The Rite of Spring' in 1913. Both are now considered cornerstones of western art music, the Debussy work especially being recognised as effectively representing the moment at which music turned 'modern'.

Braque was right about the kerosene and the match, but trying something new can lead to startling revelations.

Copyright Haydn Dickenson 2023


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