Installation view of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907) at the Museum of Modern Art (via Phil Roeder/Flickr)

Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907) made serious news this October at the reopening of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. MoMA’s expansion was an opportunity to rearrange its rendition of modern art history; this included modifying its former gallery-sized shrine to Picasso’s famous painting of five distorted, nude women staring at the viewer. Instead of surrounding “Les Demoiselles” with only the Cubist works that it supposedly inspired, it now shares space with “American People Series #20: Die” (1967) by Faith Ringgold and “Quarantania, I” (1947–53), a sculpture composed of five white anthropomorphic forms by Louise Bourgeois. Installation shots of this gallery illustrated countless articles about the revamped MoMA, suggesting the realization of the new narrative the museum hopes to tell.

A recently released scholarly book also showcases a surprising new reinterpretation of Picasso’s monumental painting. “It is hard to imagine that much more could be written about Pablo Picasso’s iconic painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” begins Picasso’s Demoiselles: The Untold Origins of a Modern Masterpiece (Duke University Press, 2019) by Suzanne Preston Blier, a Harvard professor of African art history. “Generations of scholarly writings have left the canvas rich in academic patina, but the viewer and reader are often dissatisfied and hungry for more.”

While the painting is widely considered a canonical and important Modernist work, no one is 100% sure what it means. The accepted interpretation is that it depicts five prostitutes in a brothel, eyeballing a male patron. Art historians generally agree that it’s inspired by African art, and count it among the works that birthed Cubism. These are the Art History 101 bullet points, and scholars don’t usually wander far from these well-rehearsed explanations.

(image courtesy Duke University Press)

Surprisingly, though, in light of its African art connection, few if any African art historians have written about the painting. “My expertise in African art allowed me to explore the canvas with fresh eyes,” Blier writes. She insists, in fact, that she is the person to read this artwork. She asserts: “Taking in hand the array of new sources that came to my attention through my African art research, it became clear that this is a story that only I can tell. I began to see how uniquely positioned I was.”

Her chapters lay out new evidence that she has collected regarding the painting, which she processes like a detective working a cold case. She attempts to prove that Picasso looked at sources never discussed before, in order to create a painting of five women representing different continents and a complex view of sex and motherhood.

These new sources start off strong, with a photograph taken in Picasso’s studio in late March of 1907 that has apparently been overlooked in studies of “Les Demoiselles.” The snapshot shows the wife and daughter of artist Kees van Dongen posing in front of the newly started canvas. Behind them is the painting with all five of its demoiselles visible. Scholars have long assumed Picasso suddenly repainted the heads of the two rightmost figures based on African masks. The photo reveals that they were originally painted as they appear in finished work, and they were the first figures to be painted in detail. “The two African mask-wearing demoiselles were a key part of the work from the very beginning,” Blier explains. The image also dates the canvas to the last 10 days of March 1907, earlier than MoMA’s June–July 1907 date.

But Blier’s sources, like the painting, grow more abstract after this. She cites a mini-library’s worth of esoteric illustrated books (all of which she came across while working on other projects), and claims that they reveal insights into the canvas. Picasso clearly saw and studied them, the author insists, without ever exactly explaining how.

The first of these books is Die Masken und Geheimbunde Afrikas (African Masks and Secret Societies, 1898) by German ethnologist Leo Frobenius, a text Blier first read in graduate school. “While I knew relatively little about the painting then, this book, I soon realized, was key to solving an enduring mystery of the iconic work, specifically the sources Picasso used for his African mask forms,” she writes.

She begins her Frobenius chapter by describing how she personally rediscovered the book, and then leaps into how specific masks from its pages relate directly to Picasso’s paintings, studies, and drawings from this period — without mentioning whether she found any evidence that Picasso actually saw this book. Blier even claims that Frobenius impacted Picasso more than the African sculptures he is known to have seen in person in 1907 at the Parisian Trocadero museum. Some of her side-by-side image comparisons are compelling, to be sure, but others are less so and it’s hard to buy into this theory without proof that Picasso had seen the book.

Another book she discusses at length is Die Rassenschonheit des Weibes (The Racial Beauty of Women, 1900) by German-Russian gynecologist Dr. Carl Heinrich Stratz, in which Stratz assembled nude photographs of women from different regions. The book had a large print run, with multiple editions, and was available in Parisian libraries and bookstores.

“Which Stratz edition(s) Picasso most likely saw is not clear,” Blier admits. “At present we have no concrete evidence — other than the similarities within the artworks and the images themselves — that Picasso used photographic sources of this type.” And yet, an entire chapter is devoted to this tome (which problematically gathers photos of nude women from around the globe), in an attempt to demonstrate that Picasso wanted to present a timeless view of women of all ages and from around the world, in the largest canvas he had painted to date.

Blier’s approach is fresh, but her proof is somewhat thin. “Many of Picasso’s friends could have easily furnished him with those books addressed in this volume that he appears to have scrutinized for his demoiselle experiments, and his German friends could have provided translations,” she writes. In cases such as this, Blier seems to be forcing her evidence to fit the mold she envisions.

The word “likely” appears in Picasso’s Demoiselles again and again and again, often when Blier is drawing her strongest conclusions. She seduces the reader with a tantalizing reinterpretation of the painting, based on sources she claims no Picasso scholars have addressed before, and then fails to prove that the artist did, in fact, see those materials. As a result, the connection between Picasso and the books she introduces as his inspiration for “Les Demoiselles” — like the shattered planes of the painting itself — don’t quite seem to line up.

Many sensed a similar disconnect when “Les Demoiselles” was unveiled in its new digs in MoMA’s Gallery 503 this October. It was satisfying to see Picasso and Ringgold share a room, but many critics wrote that the pairing didn’t sit right.

Maybe these attempts — clearly the result of significant study, debate, scholarship, and thought — are missing the expanded, museum-sized point. Instead of approaching old school modernism with 21st-century perspectives, maybe we could sprinkle a bit of the layered academic patina that Picasso has been afforded onto some new artists? As Hyperallergic contributor Ilana Novick wrote in her review of the new MoMA, “Why not more Ringgolds?”

Picasso’s Demoiselles: The Untold Origins of a Modern Masterpiece by Suzanne Preston Blier (2019) is published by Duke University Press and is available from Amazon or your local independent bookstore.

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Karen Chernick

Karen Chernick is a writer based in Philadelphia, by way of Tel Aviv. Her work has also appeared on Artsy, The Forward, Curbed Philadelphia, Eater, PhillyVoice, and Time Out Philadelphia.

2 replies on “A Tantalizing, If Flawed Reinterpretation of Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon””

  1. Interesting hypotheses but…where it states:

    Behind them are the painting’s two leftmost figures. Scholars have long assumed Picasso suddenly repainted their heads based on African masks. The photo reveals that they were originally painted asthey appear in finished work, and they were the first figures to be painted in detail. “The two African mask-wearing demoiselles were a key part of the work from the very beginning,”

    shouldn’t you have written: the painting’s two rightmost figures? Since they’re the ones wearing the african masks.

  2. Thank you for your article. Fun to read. While speculation, in my opinion, can be entertaining (especially at a party), it remains speculation, whether it comes from the Hoi Polloi or the Halls of Ivy. And without facts, except for its entertainment value, in this case it’s nothing more than, as you say, “a tantalizing reinterpretation of the painting, based on sources she claims no Picasso scholars have addressed before, and then fails to prove that the artist did, in fact, see those materials.”

    Beyond all that, “interpretation” is pretty much a bore. What matters to this ancient PhD of a plebeian is the painting itself. How it matters, not why it matters.

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