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Les Demoiselles d’Avignon: Pablo Picasso\’s Controversial painting

“Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.”— Pablo Picasso


After hundreds of sketches and several months of painting, Picasso changed the face of the Western art world by producing Les Demoiselles d\’Avignon. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is a large oil painting created in 1907 by the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. The work portrays five nude female prostitutes in a brothel on Carrer d’Avinyó, a street in Barcelona. Les Demoiselles was revolutionary and controversial and led to widespread anger and disagreement, even amongst the painter’s closest associates and friends. At the time of its first exhibition in 1916, the painting was deemed immoral.

Through his iconic works, this well-known painter has allowed us to view his extraordinary work. The artist incited a fury by touching a contentious artwork. Les Demoiselles d\’avignon painting became one of the most controversial paintings in the world.  The five ladies in this intriguing artwork have shattered faces and jumbled bodies that are influenced by both Iberian sculpture and African tribal masks. Picasso distorted the women\’s features to a degree that had never been seen in European art. The figures are stylized with flattened and faceted outlines to create an expressive aesthetic impact. There isn\’t a clear source of light; instead, highlights and shadows are dispersed throughout the image and structured in angular patterns to add drama.

With its blunt portrayal of female nudity, Les Demoiselles d\’Avignon surprised and infuriated spectators when it was first exhibited in July 1916. A review published in Le Cri de Paris described it as such: “The cubists are not waiting for the war to end to recommence hostilities against good sense. They are exhibiting at the Galerie Poiret naked women whose scattered parts are represented in all four corners of the canvas: here an eye, there an ear, over there a hand, a foot on top, a mouth below. M. Picasso, their leader, is possibly the least disheveled of the lot. He has painted, or rather daubed, five women who are if the truth be told, all hacked up, and yet their limbs somehow manage to hold together. They have, moreover, piggish faces with eyes wandering negligently above their ears.”


“The world was not ready for Picasso’s new masterpiece. When the artist unveiled the painting in his studio, it remained there for quite some time and it was not well-liked. Only his intimate circle of friends, artists and dealers were allowed to see it. Matisse considered the work to be a ‘bad joke’. He believed Les Demoiselles d’Avignon undermined and mocked modern art. Despite his criticism, he borrowed aspects of this painting for his famous work Bathers with a Turtle. Most of Picasso’s friends were shocked by the obscenity of the painting. Undeterred by the reaction of his peers, he exhibited the painting for the first time in 1916 at the Salon d’Antin. The public deemed it to be immoral and the title of the painting had to be changed to Les Demoiselles d’Avignon from The Brothel of Avignon. Picasso never liked this title and often referred to the painting as ‘My Brothel’. Despite the widespread anger towards the painting, some art lovers did offer to buy it, but Picasso refused. He kept the painting with him till 1924 until his friends urged him to sell it to the designer Jacques Doucet for around 25,000 francs. Picasso however, did not need to sell anything by that time. He, after all, was one of the most famous artists at the time and could easily sell anything for a much higher price. The reason why he sold the painting for a lower price to Doucet was that Doucet promised he would hang the painting in the Louvre Museum, Paris. Before dying, however, Doucet never mentioned it in his will and chose to sell the painting to private collectors. In 1937, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art bought it for $24,000.” This is what Indian Express has to say on the controversy of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.


But as we can see from the development of art, it might take some time for the art community to recognise and value innovative works. This unquestionably applied to Les Demoiselles d\’Avignon. Les Demoiselles d\’Avignon is regarded as a significant work of art today. Although it continues to spark contentious discussions, it also shows how art develops through time and tests the bounds of what is considered acceptable in the art world. Picasso, like the impressionists before him, cleared the path for other artists to express themselves via the employment of completely new styles and techniques. This masterwork established contemporary art and served as a model for the Cubist movement. The painting currently hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, New York City and has an estimated worth of about $1.2 billion.

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