'Picasso and the Painting that Shocked the World': How a picture of five women ignited modernism

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Miles J. Unger, author of “Picasso and the Painting That Shocked the World.”

Picasso and the Painting That Shocked the World
By Miles J. Unger
Simon & Schuster. 480 pp. $32.50

Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka

An “exorcism painting.”
That’s how Pablo Picasso described Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which some experts consider the first example of cubism and which all acknowledge as a primary portal to modernism.
Created in 1907, the painting was so revolutionary it rattled the artist himself. Picasso rolled up the canvas and stashed it away, stung by peers’ scorn and wrung out by the eight months he’d spent conjuring it in his seedy Montmartre studio.
Only Georges Braque, with whom Picasso would soon share an uncharacteristically cooperative partnership, quickly gleaned the canvas’ utter originality. It took years for the cognoscenti to reckon with and admire this remarkable work.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is a group portrait of five prostitutes in a brothel. Its semi-sensical planes are spliced and splintered. The figures’ primitive, angular proportions are wildly distorted, echoing ancient Iberian sculptures Picasso had seen at the Louvre, and the two women on the right have faces reflective of African masks that the artist admired. A platter of fruit in the foreground is stony, a curiously off-putting emblem of what should be inviting.
Les Demoiselles is “a cathartic painting, a great cry of lust, anger, anguish, and release – a form of black magic in which Picasso summons his demons in order to vanquish them,” writes Miles J. Unger in Picasso and the Painting That Shocked the World. Unger, a culture writer for the Economist who has also written books on Michelangelo and Winslow Homer, closely chronicles Picasso’s painful but liberating exorcism, the social and aesthetic factors that contributed to it, and the cubism it messily birthed.
If you’re an art lover, this is an engrossing read. Unger draws not just from his own wide knowledge and considered taste but from an imposing array of journals, memoirs, biographies, and periodicals. From these he offers a historically and psychologically rich account of the young Picasso and his coteries in Barcelona and Paris.
The author escorts us into the painter’s bare-bones studio, so cold in winter that tea froze in its cup. We accompany the volatile, sparkling-eyed charmer to the slummy muraled cafes and dance halls where artists, writers, journalists, and models drank, flirted, and quarreled. We stroll the dark streets where muggers lurked in wait for day-trippers eager to sample the hillside Montmartre demimonde on Paris’ periphery. We venture into town to visit the cluttered storefront galleries of sometimes unscrupulous art dealers.
Most of all, Picasso wanted to be like no one else. Fiercely competitive, he amplified ugliness to counter the prettiness of his professorial arch-frenemy Henri Matisse. Their quest to be at the sword’s tip of the avant-garde inspired and exhausted them both.
Given his later fame and wealth, it’s easy to forget that Picasso’s first journeys to Paris to become an artist ended with his retreat to Spain, seeking handouts and reassurance from his family even as he ridiculed their parochialism.
But by 1907, Picasso’s Paris buyers had finally come around to the melancholy blue-period paintings redolent of death and mourning after the suicide of his artist and poet friend Carlos Casagemas. Aficionados were also embracing the opium-warmed reveries of Picasso’s rose period. Any other painter in that situation would have simply kept churning out those sought-after blues and roses. Finally, a signature style!
Not Picasso. Though self-centered, calculating, jealous, and sometimes cruel, he was also truly visionary – or, more accurately, in an unrelenting quest for whatever vision came next, as long as it was altogether original. With Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, he ruptured the planes of the two-dimensional canvas. In affinity with Cézanne, he asserted the painting as an object in itself, not a mere rendering of objects.
Les Demoiselles tore apart and reordered reality, turning a traditional sensual motif into a grotesque, scary grouping of angular, naked forms that burst every which way out of their frame, sexually confusing and intimidating us while testing our visual sanity.
“The women themselves may be singularly unsexy,” Unger writes, “but the rhythmic push and pull to which space is subjected diffuses the erotic charge across the entire surface of the canvas. … Working mostly at night in the cramped, filthy, ill-lit studio, this man, who thrived on conviviality, was forced to become a solitary pilgrim to a goal he could not see and could barely even imagine. … For weeks on end, these ‘monsters’ were practically Picasso’s only companions as his friends fled and his domestic life spiraled downward.”
Readers enamored of this crucial moment in art history might complement Unger’s detailed telling with the more panoramic and accessible “In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and the Birth of Modernist Art,” by Sue Roe. The two books together wonderfully capture the forces and events that culminated in a painting that Picasso’s writer friend André Salmon called “the incandescent crater from which emerged the fire of present art.”


Alexander C. Kafka has written about books and the arts for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the Chicago Tribune. This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.