Anatomy of a brothel. How Picasso created `Les Demoiselles D'Avignon'

THIS APPEARED IN THE 3/21/88 WORLD EDITION. THERE'S a grain of fact in even the grossest simplification. A lecturer I encountered years ago was fond of declaring that ``art is always about politics, religion, or sex.'' Art can also, of course, be about such things as beauty, environment, science - or even art itself. All the same, it's amazing how often works of art do fit that rather crudely stated dictum.

Take Picasso's seminal painting of 1907, ``Les Demoiselles D'Avignon,'' for example. It's not about politics or religion. ...

This enshrined and endlessly admired ``turning point'' in the history of 20th-century art depicts five prostitutes in a brothel. The ``demoiselles'' are painted without sentiment, sympathy, or even humor - but with a deliberate ferocity and primitivism that amounts to unmitigated deformation.

Picasso was 25 when he painted ``Les Demoiselles.'' Few paintings have been as shockingly anti-classical (or few, for that matter, as maliciously misogynous). Yet it is this very defiance - the sheer dynamics of its fury - that have paradoxically made the work both a masterpiece of dismay and a powerful stimulant to the modern imagination.

The current exhibition at the Mus'ee Picasso here literally anatomizes the painting, which has been brought across the Atlantic from New York for the ``very last time.''

But this is hardly a one-work show. In fact it proves beyond all question that ``Les Demoiselles'' is not at all what it appears to be - a spontaneous combustion on canvas. It was not born suddenly and fully formed like some mythical deity. Its arrival was fraught with doubts and complications. Nor did it rise like a phoenix out of the ashes of all previous Western art. At least 16 sketchbooks were more or less filled by the artist with figures, faces, and compositions during the lengthy gestation period for what he clearly knew was going to be a kind of masterwork. Visitors approach the show via a line of facsimiles of these chop-and-change preparatory drawings.

At the same time, hung on the staircase wall is a large painting by El Greco, ``La Vision de Saint Jean,'' which Picasso must have seen in the Paris studio of Spanish painter Zuloaga. It is possible to perceive common factors between this picture and ``Demoiselles.''

In other words, Picasso was still being influenced in his thinking by earlier art - despite all his flouting of the past. In fact, the show displays the other ``things seen'' by Picasso as he worked up to ``Demoiselles'' - Ingres' ``Le Bain Turk,'' Cezanne's ``Bathers,'' a weird ceramic figure called ``Oviri'' by Gauguin, and Matisse's ``Nu bleu.''

But in the event these emphasize not Picasso's debts but the sheer originality of his ``Demoiselles.''

Many critics have also made much of how Iberian carving and, possibly, African art influenced Picasso. The exhibition follows suit. But, here again, one is inclined to conclude that Picasso was affected more by the primitivism of such work - by its ritualistic function, feeling, and its un-European conventions - than by its precise forms. The mask-like heads he painted so aggressively in the final work are very much his re-creation of primitive art in his own terms.

The show demonstrates the care with which the man worked toward ``Demoiselles.'' At the same time, it gives a tremendous sense of his bursting creativity. This is because each drawing, each furious oil-sketch, seems to have exploded from his pen or brush like a firework. It's an extraordinary mix of patience and impatience.

Originally he planned to include two men - one a sailor, another a doctor, carrying either a skull or a book, in the composition. Both disappeared. The overall number of figures decreased. A primitive directness of expression was in evidence in the earliest ideas for the work - and they remind one that Picasso was by no means novel in this interest. Some of his figures at this stage are Gauguinesque.

The show is set out so that one arrives at the final work in the last gallery. This buildup works very effectively, and even suggests something of the shock the painting must have given Picasso's friends when they first saw it. We are so familiar with it today that it isn't easy to imagine its impact.

(Oddly enough, that original impact was muted anyway because it was only his friends who saw it. It did not get its first public showing until 1916 in Paris. It wasn't publicly seen again until it had found its way to America, where it was shown at the Seligmann Gallery in 1927. Finally it was bought by the Museum of Modern Art in New York two years later. In spite of this initial lack of publicity, however, the picture's reputation has grown steadily to its present status.)

``Demoiselles'' has often been described as the ground-breaking work in the development of Cubism - the style invented by Picasso and Braque very soon after. It is difficult, however, to show stylistic links between any part of ``Demoiselles'' and the kind of work known as Cubist. More convincing is the notion that it is a sort of radical culmination of Expressionism.

Whatever it is, it marked a profound psychological shift in Picasso's own art. It has tempted numerous writers to find the phrase that sums up their admiration for it. Andr'e Breton saw it as ``une image sacr'ee.'' Kenneth Clark called it ``the triumph of hate.'' Robert Rosenblum recently described it as a ``pictorial earthquake'' and a ``tumultuous theater of sexuality.'' It could be argued, however, that it is much more an expression of disgust at sexuality than any kind of celebration of it. If his harlots are conceived as primitive idols, they inspire little enough awe and no love.

Picasso himself called the painting his ``premi'ere toile d'exorcisme.'' A canvas of exorcism. It's as good an explanation as any. Perhaps it's about some sort of religion after all.

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