Les was soon to be appropriated and

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
acts as a politically, artistically and visually ground-breaking piece that
critics continue to analyse in depth. Picasso takes a radical break from
traditional compositional techniques and works in a politically left, anarchist
vein as a result from French colonial politics in 1905-6. Contextually this meant
that his work was already fully charged with political meaning; which leant
towards making Les Demoiselles hugely
significant within the art world and established itself as the forefront of
Cubism. In this essay I will focus on Les
Demoiselles significance through the lenses of race and gender,
particularly focussing on the idea that the art itself, acts as a result of attempts
to subvert western ideals in order to establish itself as anarchist modernist’
art. This essay will try to uncover the modernist attempts at demolishing a
reductive view arguing against French Colonial exploitation, whilst paradoxically
considering “Africa the embodiment of humankind in a pre-civilised state” and
by “preferring to mystify rather than to examine its presumed idol-worship and
violent rituals”. 1

The racial and political dialogue that underpins Les Demoiselles d’Avignon holds extreme
significance, not only within the intentions and aims of Picasso but to the
transformation of modernism and the avant-garde art produced in France in
1907.  It is perhaps wise to firstly
highlight the colonial exploitation that surrounded Picasso and the group of artists
that he interacted with. The political activity within France in the time in
which Les Demoiselles was created,
triggered many significant factors when analysing the image. The colonial
exploitation at the time, bought African art and such ideals into the view of
French culture and this was soon to be appropriated and formed into indulgent
idealised images of a “primitive” 2state.
The image of Africa that was created by the modernist circle within pre-World
War 1 France, heavily idealised and merged the many cultures within Africa into
one unanimous depiction. The assumption of African Culture evolved around the
anxiety and hyperbole of mystic tribal masks and heavily sexualised African
figures. Such mysterious and foreign images were circulating France, which
allowed cultural appropriation and became the starting point of many racist
caricatures. This particular movement of appropriation of the African culture
was identified by Patricia Leighton writer of “The White Peril and L’Art negre: Picasso, Primitivism, and
Anticolonialism” as “Primal Spiritism”. 3She
identifies that with the alliance of Africa, artists such as Picasso, took
inspiration from its brutal colonial history and morphed the image of Africa
into an image of mysticism and violence. In 1905 to 1906, the political left
responded to the abuse against the indigenous people in the French and Belgian
Congo’s and this course of events triggered allusions to the mysterious,
unknown and brutal image representations of “Africa” and its people. Paintings
like Picasso’s Les Demoiselles were
created, arguably as a response to the political and historical activity at the
time and were perhaps a social criticism of colonial exploitation by the somewhat
anarchist avant-garde artists. Of course it would be daft to forget that the
lust for creating a new mode of art that induces shock reactions and exotic
ideals was apparent too. Picasso strived for what Leighton claims was a
“self-conscious undermining of French tradition” 4and this
led to the discovery of appropriating cultures, not just African but also the
Iberian style in 1905-1906. It was by this time that Picasso had transformed his
work into the realms of Cubism which was seen to be crude as it emphasised the two-dimensional
flatness of the canvas. At this point in his creative outset, Picasso had also already
formed works that were influenced by the Barcelona modernists and was inspired
to introduce more alien and unknown cultures into his work, this began by
appropriating Iberian culture in 1906. The left wing avant-gardism in pre-World
War 1 Paris, became the culprit of the altering of the modern art produced in
1905-1906. It was then by 1907 that Picasso started to ‘primitivise’ his art.
The anarchist modernists’ aim in appropriating Africanism was intended to
critique western civilisation by glamorising a respectable “Primitivism” and by
“Embracing an imagined ‘primitiveness’ of Africans whose ‘authenticity’ they
opposed to a ‘decadent’ West.” 5This is a
key point when considering Les
Demoiselles as social comment for Picasso. This modernisation within his
work is best understood as a desire to subvert western artistic traditions
whilst appropriating the mysticism of a largely imagined primitive state.

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There were two colonies that were particularly
significant in creating the mysticism and barbarism that Picasso incorporates
within his appropriation of African art and within Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The first colony being the Dahomey which
resided in West Africa. This colony was apparent in inspiring mystical
absurdities and spiritualisms that were also caricatured or portrayed using the
tribal masks and figurines. The second colony contrasted with French and
Belgian Congo’s in West Africa and this influenced the white colonialists and
systematic destruction of tribal life that Picasso was so averse to. The
political context behind Les Demoiselles
also becomes imperative in challenging the artistic tradition that Picasso was
so used to abiding by. The figures within Les
Demoiselles show the savage nature that was assumed as normative behaviour
from African culture at the time. Leighton astutely writes:

“They mock
such sexual display and, as ‘Africanized’ figures, aggressively challenge the
‘bankrupt’ Western artistic tradition. Africa, as imported into the work,
represents not an idyllic, pre-European society, but the very opposite of
‘civilized’ Europe and, as such, a threat to it.” 6

Picasso’s political viewpoint of protecting such
indigenous colonies is somewhat contradictory as it is overpowered by an
interest in seeing the worst, appropriating vital features of the colonies, and
by using his western power to publicise such construed images. Picasso
identifies the exploitation of these figures whilst romanticising and appropriating
tribal features and exploiting such shock ideals within his work; through this Les Demoiselles d’Avignon resulted in
being the most shocking artistic act within such a politically vigorous time.

Picassos some-what shocking depiction of brutal colonial
history combined with a desire to portray such mysterious primal spirituality
(gained from the Dahomey and the French and Belgian Congos) aligned with what
was seen as savagery. This combination of the mystic and the savage, was then
made even more complex with the use of the exploited; a group of seemingly
white figured prostitutes. This supposed new and modernist’, and somewhat
anarchist and political painting becomes a repetitive exploitation of two
highly fetishized ideals: the “primitive” and the “prostitute”. This strategy
of “anarchist critique-by-inversion” 7becomes
almost paradoxical. Whilst attempting to reach the contemporary avant-garde,
Picasso arguably subverts back to traditional westernised political, moral and
social order. Not only this, but he falls back into a reductive standpoint of
artistic order as well, exploiting the female form and the foreign. Whilst supposedly
attempting to subvert western ideals of art, the paintings crude symbolist and
flattened cubist forms, contradict with the modernists’ outrage at the colonial
satires on black Africa. The horror induced by the mystic tribal masks, not
only romanticises the ideals of the violent savage, but alienates and threatens
the viewer.  As Leighton puts forward,
“The complex interweaving of the ideas and events forms an important part of
the dense and sophisticated fabric of associations that Les Demoiselles d’Avignon summoned up at the time for the circle to
whom Picasso showed it.”8

As well
as looking at Les Demoiselles as a
piece that is heavily laden with racial implications, it is important to
observe this piece through the lenses of both gender and race combined. Les Demoiselles takes the form of an
eroticised exotic group of prostituted female figures. By using the term
exotic, I not only mean the figures faces covered with African tribal masks but
also, the concept of identifying this group of women as prostitutes. Les Demoiselles would have been
predominantly aimed at the white, heterosexual male viewer. This is an
important contextual point that bears a lot of significance; within modernist
art to feature a woman poised in the position of a femme fatale or the raunchy
prostitute, was not uncommon. This was a particularly modernist’ and symbolic
approach, as it tested and subverted the cultural and social boundaries that
were within the art scene at the time. Such an avant-garde breaking of
boundaries would surely exhibit traits of modernism itself, but Picasso’s Les Demoiselles is an example of more
than just modernist provocation. In Anna C Chave’s text, New Encounters with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon: Gender, Race, and the
Origins of Cubism, she points out that the women serve as “the very grounds
of representation, both object and support of a desire which, intimately bound
up with power and creativity is the moving force of culture and history”.  9By not
only attempting to subvert western ideals, with the use of tribal masks and
highly eroticised figures, Picasso diligently reminds us that there is a larger
boundary between the audience and the piece of work; one that is formed
racially, sexually, and through gender and class.

separation between the viewer and the painting occurs firstly with the use of
the tribal masks- assuming this viewer is a heterosexual white male audience in
1907- the masked nude prostitutes signify a threatening sexual boundary and
mystery. Chave states that the use of prostitution “marks the indelible social
boundary between the sexes: between men, who can routinely contract for the
sexual services of women, and women, who have never had a comparable
opportunity”.  10However,
the figures in Les Demoiselles do not at all look vulnerable, instead they have
stances of power, and an almost predatory allure to them. Picassos subverts the
ideals of classical themes of vulnerability or sexual innocence that was often
used and these figures within Les
Demoiselles perform quite the opposite; “The radical treatment of the
traditional idealized nude female announces the end of the old world of art
with a new, staggering violence”.11 The
female form staged in such a threatening way, dictating what would be seen as
an excess of sexuality and most importantly masked, portrays aggression and in
some cases makes the viewer fearful or anxious. The context of prostitution and
these figures having belonged to some sort of brothel displayed for to the male
viewer, again identifies Picasso’s staggering awareness of exploitation and the
appropriation of it. Whilst seemingly exploiting the exploited in Les Demoiselles, the figures animalistic
sexual display is not only entrancing but threatens its viewer with the concept
of eroticising of the exotic.

the figure at the front of the image, squatting and almost mocking the viewers
with her backside, we can identify confidence within the figures obvious sexual
nature. Picasso’s figures do not look ashamedly vulnerable, instead, they
flaunt the lines that he has given them and exude mystifying confidence.
Contextually, of course, the idea of a woman being outwardly vocal or confident
with her sexuality, was a threat to society in general. The fear of a
prostitute that would’ve been openly brazen with her body would’ve been anxiety
inducing for both men and women. For a woman to be owning the space in which
they were granted, would’ve been hard to imagine. The primitivism and the
sexual display from these figures are divided into what seems like two parts.
The two paler figures making direct eye contact with the viewer, with a
hypnotic yet empty gaze, and another two figures with heads imposed on by the
tribal masks. On the outskirts, another two figures staring more menacingly at
these two almost (despite their facial expression) femme fatales with their
arms behind their heads. The figure crouching, in my opinion, intrigues me the
most. It is as if her back is to the viewer, yet her tribal mask has fully
rotated to face the front connecting directly with viewer. The directness of
this mask puts these figures in a confused position of power almost mocking all
those that view them with horror. The violence and the threat of such an
eroticised exotic image clearly became a thrill to Picasso, but undoubtedly, he
manipulates this thrill and intrigue into the appropriation of African and
colonial exploitation. The appropriation of the tribal masks used on the female
figures act as a masquerade. This is largely reminiscent of the racist
caricatures that he observed that involved similar uses of these Africanised
exotic figures and tribal masks. Rather distastefully, the appropriation and
mimicry of such sacred and powerful symbols belonging to the African culture reminds
us of Picasso’s racial, gender and class privileges and puts him in the
ultimate position of power and control; “Mimicry is an act of appropriation and
one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and
knowledge”. 12
The cubist techniques and flattening of the pictorial space, announces
two-dimensionality when using these sexualised female forms. As Steinberg says
in The Philosophical Brothel, “this
is an interior space in compression like the inside of pleated bellow, like the
feel of an inhabited pocket, a contracting sheath heated by the massed human
presence”. 13It
is important that as well as understanding Les Demoiselles as a loaded
political piece; it’s flattened cubist techniques show a determination to truly
make a dramatic emphasis on radical changes in techniques. By creating an
element of horror with in female prostituted form, this not only shows a fear
of such excessive sexuality, but a fear of the exotic and unknown objectified
in a sexually open female form.

Les demoiselles is hugely significant
in marking the movement of cubism coming into the fore of the art world, whilst
being ground-breaking in displaying the exploited and proving Primitivism to be
the result of such exploitation and appropriation. Les Demoiselles problematized the notion of the aesthetics and
startled its viewers with its new forms of representation. Not only this, but
by representing the exploited female and tribal appropriation, Les Demoiselles provides us with a
contextual glimpse into Picasso’s far left politically anarchist ideals. His
appropriation of African cultures, made way to argue his attempt to radicalise art and
celebrate the unknown and mysterious. However, through the exploitation of both
race and gender, Leighton and Chave both argue that Picasso subverts back to
traditional westernised political, moral and social order, taking his power and
objectifying and appropriating a culture and identity that isn’t his own.

Patricia. “The White Peril and L’Art nègre: Picasso, Primitivism, and
Anticolonialism.” The Art Bulletin 72, no. 4 (1990): 610

Ibid, 609

Ibid, 629

Ibid, 609

Ibid, 610

Ibid, 626

Ibid, 629

8 Ibid, 630

9 Chave, Anna C. “New
Encounters with Les Demoiselles D’Avignon: Gender, Race, and the Origins of
Cubism.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 76, no. 4, 1994, pp. 597–611. 


10 Ibid, 598

11 Leighten, Patricia.
“The White Peril and L’Art nègre: Picasso, Primitivism, and
Anticolonialism.” The Art Bulletin 72, no. 4 (1990):


12 Chave, Anna C. “New encounters with Les Demoiselles
d’Avignon: Gender, race, and the origins of cubism.” The Art Bulletin 76,
no. 4 (1994): 596-611.


13 Steinberg, Leo. “The philosophical brothel.” October 44 (1988): 7-74.