In the summer of 1906, Pablo Picasso retreated from Paris to a village in the Spanish Pyrenees. Had he died there, he would be remembered as a gifted symbolist, painter of pink and blue miserabliste harlequins. But, says his biographer John Richardson, “there in the isolation of a mountain wilderness the artist, who sometimes chose to identify with Christ, decided that his time had come. He was finally ready to establish that he – as opposed to Matisse – would be the Mahdi of modern art.”

During the next year, working in solitude, naked, mostly by night, in a dark room below his main Bâteau Lavoir studio, Picasso flung his energy, knowledge and courage into 800 studies for “Les demoiselles d’Avignon”. No painting has ever been so weightily considered, so lengthily elaborated, so consciously created in order to turn art on its axis. Even if Picasso had died in 1907, he would still be remembered as the founder of modern art.

Yet when he showed the painting to a band of avant-garde friends, it was so revolutionary that they all fell silent or, like Matisse, brayed with defensive laughter. Picasso rolled up the canvas and kept it in his studio like some illicit lover. There were no possible buyers. In 1916 the painting made a brief excursion to a private salon organised by Salmon, who prudishly changed the name from “Le bordel d’Avignon” to “Les demoiselles”. It was not exhibited again until 1937; two years later New York’s Museum of Modern Art bought it and, almost instantly, private masterpiece became public icon.

Is it possible, a century on, to unravel painting from myth? “Les demoiselles” belongs to a handful of works whose celebrity is blinding. It is interesting how many of these revolutionised art history because of the way a woman looked back at a viewer: Leonardo’s enigmatic Mona Lisa; Maribarbola, the infernal glowering dwarf in Velázquez’s “Las Meninas”; Manet’s “Olympia” – and the hostile glare of the apocalyptic whores in the work Picasso always called “mon bordel”.

The red curtain is swept back as the women invite us into the fractured, claustrophobic brothel that became modernism’s gateway. The brutal contours of their bodies – flat, splintered forms – are depicted in slashing, impetuous brushstrokes. Noses like animal snouts slice cheekbones in lopsided mask-faces. Shoulders, breasts and torsos twist impossibly or hurl towards us as the pictorial space, which should recede, comes disturbingly forward in broken shards. Everything is unstable, convulsive and jarring, but it is the women’s staring, interrogatory eyes that most transfix and unnerve.

This is a painting about looking. It announces the collapse – overnight – of traditional modes of perspective and representation that had held firm in western art since the Renaissance. It was not the first cubist painting – Picasso himself took years to assimilate its implications – but it was the first radically to question and dismantle the rules of representation. It led directly to cubism’s shattered planes and multiple viewpoints – around which every painter after 1911 had to negotiate his way: futurists, expressionists, abstractionists, minimalists.

Today the work looks astonishingly prophetic: for art history, which Picasso shaped, and also for the 20th century, whose dominant political and social strands are all suggested within it – yet which were unimaginable at the end of the long European peace and fixed hierarchies of 1907. Thus the outrage of the painting then and its continuing ability to speak our language.

The unprecedented violence and distortion of “Les demoiselles” foreshadow Europe’s 20th-century descent into barbarism and terror. Their sexual frankness heralds the pre-eminence of Freudian thought; their assertiveness signals women’s emancipation. The juxtaposition of the classical – the ironic draperies, references to the Three Graces and the Venus de Milo – with African masks anticipates the waning of European imperialism, the first recognition of primitive cultures. And in the fragmentary composition, as each woman occupies her own separate space – the one second left, for example, only appears to be standing; her pose is that of Titian’s or Giorgione’s supine Venus, made vertical – Picasso, although he could not have known of Einstein’s 1905 theory, gives visual expression to the relativism that underpins modern thought.

“Les demoiselles” is sometimes called the “Philosophical Brothel” but its effect is anything but theoretical: no painting since “Las Meninas” involves you so directly. In an earlier version, the whores crowd round a timid sailor and a medical student holding a skull – Eros and Thanatos – giving the work the status of narrative, allegory, vanitas. In banishing the men, Picasso threw out anecdote in favour of assault: the modernist game that a work of art is completed by its audience. He shifted the fierce gaze of his whores to the viewer, who becomes voyeur, client: “You! – hypocrite lecteur! – mon semblable, – mon frère!

Picasso was a fan of Baudelaire and his ideal of “the painter of modern life”. Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec had depicted brothels in this context and Richardson considers the dog-faced woman “squatting post-coitally on a bidet, twisting her Medusa face round to administer the shock of horror that will leave her client wallowing in disgust – for her, her sex and himself” as “the embodiment of the raunchiness that Baudelaire extolled”. No wonder the painting was not shown publicly for 30 years and that the Louvre, apparently, declined it – Picasso never forgave himself for selling it in 1924 for a mere 250,000 francs to a collector who donated it, sight unseen, to the museum. And that when Alfred Barr procured it for MoMA, his canonisation of it in the catalogue for the 1939 Picasso retrospective desexualised it by emphasising its formal qualities and sources.

The painting of course screams sexual anxiety, disillusion, misogyny. Derain said he expected to find the body of the 25-year-old Picasso hanging behind it; Braque reckoned Picasso was “drinking turpentine and spitting fire”. Eighty years later MoMA’s director William Rubin called it “a terrifying night journey of the soul”. But when Picasso told Malraux that this was “my first exorcism painting – yes, absolutely!” he meant he had exorcised not just private demons but also the entire representational tradition, western conventions of beauty, which by 1900 were bankrupt. Everywhere at the fin de
– Gauguin in Tahiti, Matisse in Morocco, Chagall in the shtetl – painters were looking to non-European primitivism to revitalise western art.
Picasso, in the summer of 1906, focused on primitive Iberian statuary: the basis of the three faces on the left of “Les demoiselles”. With the mask-like portrait of Gertrude Stein and nudes stripped to blockish forms, he started experimenting with a truly non-naturalistic style that year. As Cézanne had insisted with his chunky, uneasy “Bathers”, the female nude – apogee of classical tradition – had to be modern art’s battleground, and with his advice to “represent nature by cylinders, cones and spheres”, his flattened depiction of space, he was the indispensable art-historical force behind “Les demoiselles”. His death in October 1906 prompted Picasso’s intense appropriation of his ideas, just as Matisse’s death in 1954 would half a century later. Matisse’s own de-aestheticised, primitivist “Blue Nude”, exhibited in the March 1907 salon, also galvanised Picasso. But it was two unpredictable influences that thrust themselves into the artist’s path between 1906 and spring 1907, that were cannibalised into determining the painting’s final character.

The first was El Greco’s “Apocalyptic Vision”, then known as “The Opening of the Fifth Seal”, which the fancy Spanish portraitist Ignacio Zuloaga discovered in Cordoba in 1905, bought for 1,000 pesetas and hung in his studio near the Bâteau Lavoir. The only Old Master that Picasso was free to ogle away from a museum, it played a crucial role not only in the “Demoiselles” composition and visionary treatment of space and dematerialisation of form, but also in its awkward, not-quite-square format, which lends Picasso’s women the tension and compression of El Greco’s crammed, writhing figures.

This Spanish line of descent would dominate had Derain not dragged Picasso, in spring 1907 when the painting remained unresolved, to the dusty, empty Ethnographic Museum at the Trocadero. Picasso spent the rest of his life lying about this visit, changing his story (“Art nègre? Connais pas”) but he returned again and again to the museum, and the more he identified with tribal art, its savage vitality and abstracting quality, the more he floundered on how to reconcile its revelations with his incomplete masterpiece.

Then, in summer 1907, he repainted the right-hand Demoiselles with the hideous African fright-masks that owed everything to what he had seen at the Trocadero and which deliver the painting’s greatest shock – the more so because of their disjunction with the Iberian stylisations on the left. Adding the masks was, Richardson believes, “a calculated risk, taken very late in the game”. Picasso did not repaint the other heads, nor did he ever sign the painting, and for years – until it became MoMA’s star turn, and its stylistic disunity a modernist glory – he insisted it was unfinished. “Les demoiselles” holds within it, therefore, a touching doubt: the angst of modern art as well as its trail to the future. It is surely this lack of resolution at a pioneering moment, like the ambivalent Mona Lisa and the puzzle of “Las Meninas”, that is so resonant now, and keeps us spellbound.

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