Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon: From Montmartre to MOMA

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Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon: From Montmartre to MOMA
Pablo Picasso’s infamous painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was born in Paris during the spring-summer of 1907, deep in the bowels of a ramshackle former ballroom turned into a piano factory that became about 20 living spaces and studios for artists, poets, and other bohemian characters. These five strange depictions of female personages launched a myriad of responses from various art historians and journalists over the last century, like flies to honey. Why is this? Do these hideous harridans exude a magical magnetism like the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey? I think so. There must be something kinky in all this Picassoesque perversity. Why else would a painting that initially provoked shocked silence now generate the lion’s share of Picasso publications? Gelett Burgess, “The Wild Men in Art,” (C) Architectural Record, May 1910 (written in 1908) These five lurid ladies became Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies from Avignon) nine years after their birth for a July 1916 exhibition called L’Art Moderne en France. It was the first time Les Demoiselles d’Avignon appeared in public, selected by the curator, poet/critic André Salmon, who had already introduced the painting in his first book on art, La Jeune Peinture française (Young French Painting), published in 1912. The American public already had access to the image in a black and white reproduction, published in an article called “The Wild Men of Paris,” in Architectural Record, May 1910, two years prior to Salmon’s historic assertion that Cubism began with Picasso’s still hidden “philosophical brothel.” Contextualized among the Fauves (Wild Beasts), whose aggressive work dominated the Salon d’Automne and Salon des Indépendants exhibitions in 1905 and 1906, the American writer Gelett Burgess chose the title Study, indicating that the work had not reached completion. Salmon’s title considers more pressing problems, as he navigated the contemporary guidelines for public decency. The word “bordel” (brothel) could not appear in print.  Picasso claimed he always hated the title. But did he change it? No, he did not. Salmon, L’Art Moderne En France 1916 cover photograph (C) L’Art Moderne En France Salmon, L’Art Moderne En France 1916 page with Demoiselles cropped (C) L’Art Moderne En France
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Lead photo credit : Beth Gersh-Nešić, Masked-Up: Demoiselles de Covid-19, June 12, 2021 From the author’s Demoiselles de New York series (C) Beth Gersh-Nešić

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Beth S. Gersh-Nešić, Ph.D. is an art historian and the director of the New York Arts Exchange, an arts education service that offers tours and lectures in the New York tristate area. She specializes in the study of Cubism and has published on the art criticism of Apollinaire’s close friend, poet/art critic/journalist André Salmon. She teaches art history at Purchase College in Westchester, New York. She has recently published a book with French poet/literary critic Jean-Luc Pouliquen called "Transatlantic Conversation: About Poetry and Art."