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Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon

In their articles, “The Demoiselles d’Avignon” and “The Demoiselles D’Avignon and Dionysian Destruction,” John Golding and Ron Johnson, respectively, employ disparate methodologies in examining Picasso’s groundbreaking painting. Although Golding and Johnson approach the painting differently, it is important to see how one author can be understood as a springboard for the other.[1] Golding’s argument is rooted in a formal investigation, in which he scrutinizes the style and ingenuity of the composition and successfully traces and analyzes the primitive sources from which Picasso gained inspiration. His methodology attempts to reconcile past art historical conjecture of Demoiselles d’Avignon, forming a more concrete, objective conclusion, free of non-observational testimony. In his article, Golding has laid out a solid framework in which the painting can more readily be discussed. Indeed, Johnson utilizes this framework as a jumping-off point for his own methodology, which focuses on the cultural and conceptual context of the painting. Johnson attempts to rectify certain “uncharted” aspects of Demoiselles d’Avignon, such as the background, the character, the potential of Picasso’s primitivism, and the work’s conceptual principles.[2] He illuminates these issues by discussing the major stages of the painting to provide a more in depth understanding of the work and means to why it was painted.

John Golding’s research illustrates that “Negro” sculpture and Cezanne’s paintings were used considerably by Picasso as sources for Demoiselles d’Avignon, and “were to be major influences in the creation of Cubism and the only important influences in the development of a style which was to be very self-contained.”[3] Golding argues that these two influences first appear together in Demoiselles d’Avignon, thus we attribute the painting as the origin of the history of Cubism (this does not mean the work is a Cubist painting, however). Cezanne’s conceptual and perceptual practices of simplifying form were instrumental in Picasso’s execution of Demoiselles d’Avignon. It is in the painting’s simplification and reduction of form, mask-like heads, and in its sculptural, angular quality of the figures that Picasso’s interest in Negro sculpture becomes apparent. Demoiselles d’Avignon achieves the principle aesthetic and conceptual qualities of Negro sculpture, “[creating] a finished product that would contain the quality not of a representation, but a symbol – a recreation rather than a reinterpretation.”[4]

Golding’s conclusions are based on comprehensive research of each aspect of the painting, following all stylistic, aesthetic changes before the work was complete. In fact, Picasso made several abrupt changes to the canvas, evidenced by radiograph revealing the under paint. Golding references the two Iberian reliefs from Osuna, from which Picasso gained inspiration for his painting as of 1906 and from which the mask like, angular faces are initially attributed. However significant these reliefs were in 1906, by 1907 with the completion or alleged abandonment of Demoiselles d’Avignon, the influence of Negro art visually presided over the Iberian influence. By 1907, Picasso was extremely interested in Negro art, as primary sources such as correspondences between Picasso and Gertrude Stein, Picasso and Andre Salmon, and the 1937 conversation between Picasso and Andre Malraux attest. Such correspondences note that Picasso used these sculptures as a tool to exorcise his own demons. To him, these tribal objects acted as a visible representation of an invisible force that would function to stave off dark forces.

Golding’s article, which employs both scientific and historical evidence, is concrete and convincing. However, his thorough research on Picasso’s primitive influences takes precedence over the other aesthetic qualities of the painting that cannot be explained by Negro sculpture. One crucial stylistic development in the painting not shaped by Picasso’s involvement with primitive styles is the combination of various views of a subject in a single image. Demoiselles d’Avignon is the first work to be painted in this revolutionary stylistic development, a style that marks the “beginning of a new era in the history of art.”[5] What Golding seems to lack in his argument (i.e. reasons for areas of the canvas that cannot be attributed to specific, exact sources), Johnson’s argument makes up for as he “probe[s] beyond the obvious influences of Cezanne, Gauguin, and primitive art to see how Picasso grasped more subversive attitudes and philosophies previously developed in literature, drama, and poetry.”[6] While Johnson, like Golding, too traces and analyzes the primitive sources from which Picasso gained inspiration, he more so focuses on cultural institutions, specifically Nietzsche who significantly affected and stimulated Picasso’s work.

Johnson argues that the theory of creation through destruction aligned with Nietzsche’s nihilism and anti-religious attitudes explain Picasso’s aesthetic choices, specifically the combination of various views of a subject in a single image. According to the author, Picasso said, “A picture used to be a sum of additions. In my case a picture is a sum of destructions.” To Johnson, this “clearly expresses the Nietzschean outlook and the Demoiselles d’Avignon obviously visually fulfills the aesthetic viewpoint of Nietzsche’s definition of Dionysian art.”[7] Moreover, Nietzsche’s concept of creativity and style as explosive and destruction dominated the avant-garde in fin de siècle Spain and became a twentieth-century standard. In fact, author Phoebe Pool claims that many of Picasso’s Parisian friends were indebted to Nietzsche, undoubtedly influencing Picasso’s interest in the philosopher.[8] Johnson argues that Picasso’s absorption of Nietzsche’s attitudes toward women, his concepts of Dionysian tragedy “savage” sexual and mental urges is explicit in Demoiselles d’Avignon, as it visually translates Nietzsche’s ideology of creation through destruction. Johnson writes, “Nietzsche provided the blueprint and aesthetic philosophy for a superman of the arts, and Picasso put on this cloak of heroism to face tragedy and create through destruction.”[9]

Johnson’s use of primary sources and biographical information provides several indications that Picasso was significantly influenced and motivated by Nietzsche and Goethe, particularly in his early career. In fact, Johnson notes the 1901 issue of the Madrid art magazine “Arte Joven” that Picasso co-edited, in which there are a number of “ideas de Goethe” illuminating Picasso’s “developing irony” and primitivism. In this issue, Picasso wrote, “The true poet receives his knowledge of the world from nature and to depict it he does not need great experience or technique.”[10] Further evidence, such as Picasso’s illicit trading in thefts from the Louvre, suggests that he subscribed to Nietzsche’s anarchist, anti-religious views. Johnson affirms that this type of connection with such philosophical principles visually manifests itself in Demoiselles d’Avignon, as it transforms previous notions of primitivism used in modern art, such as pleasure and freedom, into something much darker and destructive.

Although Johnson’s argument is thorough, well researched, and thought provoking, it does not contain the same level of precision and concrete evidentiary support found in Golding’s article. However, the authors successfully argue their positions, such that we, the reader, consider both arguments as valid. Whereas Golding’s methodology arrives at the conclusion that primitivism, aesthetically and conceptually, was Picasso’s primary influence when creating Demoiselles d’Avignon, Johnson’s methodology arrives at a deeper understanding of Picasso, as an artist who not only absorbed the cultures of the past (i.e. primitivism), but who also was influenced by his contemporaries and contemporary cultural institutions, such as Nietzsche.



Works Cited

Golding, John. “The Demoiselles d’Avignon.” The Burlington Magazine 100, no. 662 (May 1958), pp. 155-163.

Johnson, Ron. “The Demoiselles d’Avignon and Dionysian Destruction.” Arts 55, no. 2 (October 1980), pp. 94-101.

[1] In fact, at the end of Johnson’s article, he expresses his gratitude for what he refers to as the “pioneering” work of John Golding on the Demoiselles d’Avignon, which he claims was most influential to him.

[2] Ron Johnson. “The Demoiselles d’Avignon and Dionysian Destruction.” Arts 55, no. 2 (October 1980), pp. 94-101.

[3] John Golding. “The Demoiselles d’Avignon.” The Burlington Magazine 100, no. 662 (May 1958), pp. 155-163.

[4] Golding, 162.

[5] Golding, 163.

[6] Johnson, 94.

[7]Johnson, 99.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Johnson, 100.

[10] Johnson, 99.

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