Pablo Picasso, Bathing, 1908.
Art,  Art and Design,  English

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – The breakthrough on Cubism

The text below is the excerpt of the book Cubism (ISBN: 9781783103874), written by Guillaume Apollinaire, Dorothea Eimert and Anatoli Podoksik, published by Parkstone International.

In 1907, one painting signalled the prelude to a change in painting: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. When Pablo Picasso first exhibited this bordello scene with five female figures, even the collector Sergei Shchukin and his friend Georges Braque considered the painting to be “a loss for French painting”. However, the significance of this new view of reality was not lost on Braque.

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, Cubism
Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907. Oil on canvas, 243.9 x 233.7 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

In this work, Picasso crafted for the first time a clear and rational lens without any aesthetic allusions. Taking Cézanne’s analysis of shape further, Picasso fragmented the forms into small cubes. It was the task of the viewer, when standing before the canvas, to put this puzzle of various spatial views together into a whole. Moreover, the muted colours signalled another new direction for painting.

However, most of the novelty lay in the independence of the painting from the preconditions given by nature. This was the artist’s response to the changed preconditions of science regarding space and time, using Cézanne’s demand that in nature one should seek out the sphere, the cone and the cylinder as the basis for his compositional ideas. At the 1909 Salon des Indépendants, the critic Louis de Vauxcelles spoke of cubes, and Cubism was born.

Pablo Picasso, Bread and Fruit Bowl on a Table, 1908-1909, Cubism
Pablo Picasso, Bread and Fruit Bowl on a Table, 1908-1909. Oil on canvas, 164 x 132.5 cm. Kunstmuseum, Basel.

Major Artists

Pablo Picasso (Málaga, 1881 – Mougins, 1973)

“Picasso always considered himself a poet who was more prone to express himself through drawings, paintings and sculptures.” (Pierre Daix).

The great Spanish artist was born to an artistic family. His father, a painter and professor at the School of Fine Art and Crafts, taught him the basics of formal academic technique. He then studied at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid, and before his eighteenth birthday he had joined the ranks of the self-styled “modernists”, non-conformist artists and writers.

His early works, blue-tinted paintings influenced by a trip through Spain and the death of his friend, Casagemas, were grouped into the so-called “Blue Period” (1901-1904). Towards the end of 1901 the desire to express these feelings of sadness more directly pushed Picasso towards the field of sculpture. The predominance of form in his paintings undeniably testifies to this interest. Picasso began to sculpt because it corresponded to his need to impose strict limits on himself, to achieve the most ascetic means of expression.

Pablo Picasso, Head of Fernande, 1909, Cubism
Pablo Picasso, Head of Fernande, 1909. Oil on canvas, 61 x 42 cm. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf.

Between 1905 and 1907 Picasso entered a new phase characterised by a more cheerful style with orange and pink colours, the “Pink Period”.

During the autumn of 1907 the artist spent long hours carving strange, fetish-like figurines and primitive dolls and making sketches for future sculptures. By that time Picasso had already discovered African wooden sculpture in the ethnographic museum at the Palais du Trocadero and, like many other artists, had bought several statues and masks. This “art nègre” influenced his style and especially the idea he had of pictorial representation. At the end of the year, nude females, a subject that had become important for him, were the object of the composition of the large painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. This painting, undoubtedly the most important painting of the 20th century, was a response to Matisse’s Blue Nude and Derain’s Bathers.

Pablo Picasso, Farm Woman (Full-Length), 1908, Cubism
Pablo Picasso, Farm Woman (Full-Length), 1908. Oil on canvas, 81.5 x 55.5 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

Just as African art is usually considered a factor leading to the development of Picasso’s characteristic aesthetics in 1907, the lessons of Cézanne are perceived as the cornerstone of this new progression. This was just a first step for Picasso, who still needed to further develop his methods of creation in order to break away from the influent analysis of Cézanne. However, the asymmetry of the frame, the extreme geometrisation of the lines and the violent deformation of the bodies were carrying the premises of a revolution, the Cubist revolution, and above all, the entry in the modern era. The painter Georges Braque explained that: “Cubism’s main direction was the materialisation of space.”

This was followed by a period of intense creativity during which Picasso, together with Braque, explored all the possibilities this new system had to offer. Painting, collage and even sculpture became outlets for his creativity. Due to his unified vision during this period, his painted and sculpted works were tightly linked and his Head of Fernande (1919) illustrates the parallel that Picasso could draw between the two media; this work is considered to be the first Cubist sculpture.

Robert and Sonia Delaunay (Paris, 1885 – Montpelier, 1941 and Gradiesk, 1885 – Paris, 1979)

The year 1909 marked the meeting of Robert Delaunay and Sonia Terk and the confluence of two lives that were never to part. Both grew in a suffocating bourgeois milieu, from which their artistic expressions allowed them to escape. His parents divorced, Robert Delaunay was educated by his mother’s sister. Brought up in St. Petersburg by her maternal uncle, whose name she adopted, Sonia Terk arrived in Paris in 1905, having acquired an artistic education in Germany. At this time, Robert Delaunay had already created his first Post-Impressionist paintings, which blended the influences of Gauguin and the Pont-Aven School together with the pointillism of Seurat.

Robert Delaunay, The Cardiff Team (Third Representation), 1913, Cubism
Robert Delaunay, The Cardiff Team (Third Representation), 1913. Oil on canvas, 326 x 208 cm. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges-Pompidou, Paris.

For some years before their first encounter, the artists evolved parallel to each other, similar to the parallel curves that later became characteristic of their paintings. Robert Delaunay’s interest in the work of Seurat inevitably led him to experiment with colours and study the chromatic theories of Chevreul. In 1907, the painter discovered the Cubism of Braque and Picasso, and he began to associate with other artists for inspiration, including Metzinger, Léger and Le Fauconnier.

Registered with the Académie de la Palette, a regional educational authority, upon her arrival in Paris, Sonia Terk presented her first personal exhibition in 1908 at the gallery of Wilhem Uhde, whom she married in order to become a naturalised French citizen. The two artists soon met through their mutual connection with the gallery, and the young lady divorced Uhde to marry Robert Delaunay, whose child she was already carrying. Their union produced little Charles, but also a new artistic interpretation of Cubism, which Apollinaire called “orphism”. In this period Robert Delaunay, whose work now betrayed a Cézanian imprint, began his series of prints based on the monuments of Paris (Eiffel Tower), which marked the dawn of his theories on colour.

Robert Delaunay, Circular Forms: Sun and Moon, 1912
Robert Delaunay, Circular Forms: Sun and Moon, 1912. Oil on canvas, 200 x 197 cm. Kunstmuseum, Zurich.

Learn more on 3 parts of our Cubism articles:

Part 1

Part 2

And Part 3

Explore more on Cubism:

The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Museum of Modern Art

Tate, UK

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