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Les Demoiselles dAvignon

Les Demoiselles dAvignon (see appendix, figure1) was the prototype of the art movement Cubism. It was painted by the artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and its style resembled nothing within the antiquity of the Western world. Its intentions were of a revolutionary nature; and its achievements were nothing short of its expectations. As Cubism developed, its representation of the subject became increasingly void of naturalistic appearance, until it was bordering on pure non-objectivity.

This direction that Cubism had embarked upon was due to Picassos suggestion that to accurately depict a three dimensional object within the confines of a two dimensional surface the traditional method of portraying an objects empirical image does not justify its form and volume. To overcome this fault in representation, Picasso envisaged the whole image in its most basic form and from this painted what he had now perceived as an accurate conversion of three dimensional reality to a two dimensional medium.

Following this concept, artistic direction had forever been altered, and the 1910s proved to be a turbulent time for a movement which without Cubism is unlikely to have existed. This was the Abstract. No twentieth century painting has attracted more attention than Picassos great brothel composition Les Demoiselles dAvignon of five confrontational whores posed theatrically on a stage (Richardson, 1996, p14). Les Demoiselles dAvignon was begun by Picasso in 1906 and finished in 1907, and has been attributed as the first Cubist picture (Barr, 1936, p30).

The figures on the left are still reminiscent of the robust sculpturesque classical nudes which in 1906 followed the delicacy and sentiment of the artists rose period, and Barr continues in his description that the figures on the right, there angularity and grotesque masks with concave profiles and staring eyes draws influence heavily from non-Western negro sculpture (Barr, 1936, p30). This extreme fragmentation of form marked a fundamental break with existing modes of pictorial expression (Moszynska, 1990, p11).

These five horrifying figures, prostitutes who repel rather than attract left his closest supporters and critics with sentiments of mixed reaction; It was the ugliness of faces wrote Salmon that froze with horror the half converted; Guillaume Apollinaire murmured revolution; Leo Stein burst into embarrassed, uncomprehending laughter; Gertrude Stein lapsed into unaccustomed silence; Matisse swore revenge on this mockery of modern painting; and Derain expressed his wry concern that one day Picasso would be found hanging behind his big picture (Huffington, 1988, p93).

In his reply Picasso said to cause a reaction, it is not necessary to paint a man with a gun when an apple can be just as revolutionary (Huffington, 1988, p93). In saying this Picasso was not referring to the subject matter, but in the way the object was depicted. Braque, who met Picasso in the fall of 1907 when he first saw Les Demoiselles dAvignon, knew immediately that nothing short of a revolution was intended. It made me feel said Braque in his reaction as if someone was drinking gasoline and spitting fire (Huffington, 1988, p93); he was shocked but also stirred as hed never been before.

Georges Braque was to become Picassos counterpart in the development of Cubism. Les Demoiselles dAvignon was Picassos assault on the problems he associated with the traditional methods of painting and their inability to overcome them. These problems were the basic tasks of painting, as Kahnweiler explains, these were to represent three dimensions and colour on a flat surface and to be able to comprehend them in the unity of that surface (McCully, 1981, p60). However, to represent and comprehend, he intended only in the strictest of sense.

The simulation of form through chiaroscuro was too shallow; Picasso pursued the depiction of the three dimensional through the actual drawing on a flat surface. Not concerned with an aesthetically pleasant composition, but uncompromising, organically articulated structure. In addition there was the problem of colour, and the final and most difficult act of the amalgamation, the reconciliation of the whole upon the canvas (McCully, 1981, p60). Les Demoiselles dAvignon was the beginning of Cubism, the first upsurge of a desperate clash with all of those problems attacked at once.

From Picassos belief and the creation of Cubism which followed, the 1910s was a time of turbulence for artistic development as art suddenly became a socially and politically potent mechanism with limitless potential; hence there was an influx of new artistic styles. Those taking direct influence from Cubism (see appendix, figure 5) primarily produced designs with geometric qualities present, and all with an increasingly non-objective, or abstract nature.

These include constructivism, Neo-Plasticism or the New Plastic, Futurism, Orphism, Suprematism, Vorticism, Rayonism, Purism and various elements recognizable in Hungarian Activism. Dada also followed the abstract concept cultivated by Cubism, and embraced the freedom on which the abstract was founded. A roaring automobile that seems to run on shrapnel is more beautiful than the victory of Samothrace – Marinetti (cited in Dempsey, 2002, p88). Pioneered in Italy in 1909, Futurism was announced to the world by the flamboyant poet and propagandist Filippo Marinetti.

Futurism was initiated as a literary movement, but expanded to embrace other disciplines as young Italian artists enthusiastically joined the society. The unifying principles of Futurism, Barr explains was the belief that violence was good in itself, the value of war as a hygienic purge, the beauty of machinery, the glories of the dangerous life, blind patriotism and the enthusiastic acceptance of modern civilization. It was politically pro Fascist; philosophically Bergsonian; ethically Nietzschean (Barr, 1936, p56).

Bordering an anarchic nature, they wished to destroy the influence of history by destroying museums, ravage feminism and all utilitarian cowardice, as these smothered artistic enterprise. In the Futurists attempts to portray their dogma in an artistic medium, they turned to the Cubist techniques of disintegration and the principle of simultaneity – the simultaneous presentation of different aspects of the same object in a single work or art (Barr, 1936, p56).

This resulted in the distinctive style of Futurism, and their portrayal of movement was symbolic of embracing the future, of moving forward and the voidance of any primitive influences which existed only in the past. The Futurists announced that a running horse has not four, but twenty legs, and as seen in Horse and Rider (see appendix, figure 2) (Dempsey, 2002, p88). In 1913, Marinetti wrote a manifesto which included this statement; we wish to enclose the universe in a work of art. Objects no longer exist.

This was the basis which led Futurism to achieving the most abstract paintings of 1910 to 1920 (Green, 1980, p99). Cubism, Piet Mondrian repeatedly stressed, opened the way for the new plastic (Holtzman & James, 1987, p14-15). Mondrian was in search for what has been called Pure Painting – this is pure non-representational art, completely free from any links to reality. Pure painting was achieved through the expression of the straight line and determinate primary colours, as seen in Composition A (see appendix, figure 3) (Dempsey, 2002, p122).

Having been a Cubist painter from 1911-1914, Mondrian became dissatisfied with the limitations of the Cubist ideals which restricted him from disassociating his work from representation. Although acknowledging that Cubism took the great step towards abstraction (Holtzman & James, 1987, p15), Mondrian abandoned Cubism as it did not accept the logical consequences of its own discoveries; it was not developing abstraction towards its ultimate goal, the expression of pure reality (Mondrian, 1942, p1).

He saw no point on dwelling on a remnant of a decoded naturalism, but favoured a reality pure of all natural appearances and semiotic codes. Of all the modern movements of the 1910s, the one which most resembled the ideology of postmodernism was Dada. Dada adopted the new freedom of form with such enthusiasm it was considered a state of mind and way of life as much an art movement. Dada was formed during and after World War 1 to express their anger at the war.

They targeted not only social and political institutions, but also the art establishment as the escalating horrors of war proved the failure and hypocrisy of all established values. They believed that the only hope for society was to destroy those systems based on logic and reason and replace them with ones based on anarchy, the primitive and the irrational (Dempsey, 2002, p115). Dada pushed the abstract into mediums outside tradition, outside what they called corrupt Western post-renaissance tradition, into areas untouched by empiricism (Ades, 1980, p58).

This break from tradition was initiated by Picasso, but left it retarded at Cubism. It was here where Dadaists took and exploited it to such a degree that the very foundations of what was considered art were questioned, as in Duchamps readymade piece, fountain (see appendix, fig 4), a porcelain sculpture taken from a public toilet, signed R Mutt, this provoked the art world to question their supposed open-mindedness, while simultaneously making a pointed commentary on the weight a signature has in the valuation of a work of art (Dempsey, 2002, p115).

The direction of art has forever been altered due to Cubism. In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso’s intention was to shake the foundations of the art world, to result in a revolution. He had exhausted methods of traditional painting, and in his search for a new style he created what Robert Hughes has described as one of art histories greatest collaborations (Hughes, 2002, p2).

The techniques of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was to be known as Cubism, and its style tore apart existing western artistic structures, and the ideology given to it by Picasso paved the way for the abstract, which prospered in the years following it’s creation. Some of the most prominent movements which drew their influence from Cubism included Futurism, Dada, and Neo-Plasticism, or the New Plastic. Abstraction as a movement is still today a major medium in the art establishment.

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