A quick heads up! On April 24, Antonio Banderas will strut his stuff as Pablo Picasso in the latest installment of the National Geographic Channel’s Genius series.
Picasso is revered as one of the great geniuses of modern art. And, as Miles Unger points out, that genius was mainly his willingness, even dedication to defying rules and conventions. He is a rebel with a cause — to bring out the dark inspiration of the artist.
This comes out in the story of Picasso’s inspiration to create his famous “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon“. Unger tells the story this way
In 1906, Matisse paints “Bonheur de Vivre,” or “Joy of Life,” which was a smash success and propelled Matisse to the forefront
It looks like this
Back to Unger’s story
So Picasso starts thinking of a masterpiece to rival Matisse’s great work, but in his own, unique style. In 1907, he begins to create this counter-masterpiece, based on the image of a whorehouse, which is larger than life and full of demonic figures. If Matisse’s painting was the “Joy of Life,” Picasso’s might be called “The Horror of Sex.”
He gets his patrons, the Steins, to buy him another studio in his apartment in the Bateau Lavoir and sets down to recreate art from the ground up. Picasso is famous for the rapidity with which he painted, but he labored over this work for months, filling notebook after notebook. He is trying to reinvent western pictorial modes, drawing on primitive sources like Iberian art, which he was very influenced by. Later, he visits the ethnographic museum in Paris, where he sees African and New Hebrides sculptures, and Native American works, and is blown away by this completely different approach to form, which is much more conceptual. It is not based on trying to recreate the world that we see, but a symbolic, almost shamanistic approach to the human form.
What he creates after eight agonizing months of struggle is a completely new pictorial form. If you stand in front of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” the impact is incredible; it’s enormously in your face. He pressed everything up to the front of the canvas. There is no empty space, just jagged forms, these horrifying creatures who stare right back at you, the viewer. It creates a completely different way of relating to a painting than the traditional notion of a painting as a window on the world. It’s as if the window had been turned inside out, pressing outward into outer space.
It achieved a cult status — even though it is not something one enjoys looking at. Back to Unger
The strange thing about “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon,” which is usually regarded as the key work in the modern era, is that it was almost invisible for many decades. After Picasso painted it in 1907 it was shown a few times to his friends, but the reception was so terrible and people were so shocked and appalled by it that he rolled it up and put it away and it was not seen for many years.
It had already launched a revolution, though. People like Georges Braque and André Derain were blown away and began to paint in that style. Eventually, in a year or two, we have the full-blown movement known as Cubism. Though the painting is buried away, it has an almost cult status but nobody ever sees it until 1916 when André Salmon has a show and it finally gets its name. Then, in the 1920s, André Breton, the inventor of surrealism, rediscovers it and calls it the key work in the history of the modern movement. It spoke to him with its surrealist interest in sex and violence.
Eventually it travels across the Atlantic and Alfred Barr, who is founding the Museum of Modern Art, realizes this is going to be the key work around which he will build the museum. But its meaning has shifted drastically over the years. First, it was seen as the founding work of Cubism. In the 1970s, people began to see what was there all the time, which is a savage, violent sexuality. Today, after more than a hundred years, it’s hard to put oneself back in time and feel the sense of shock that people originally had. But I still think it’s a pretty tough, aggressive painting. It radiates a savage power even to this day