Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907 has long been seen as the work of art that defines the beginning of modern art. Celebrating its revolutionary engagement of flatness and form, writers from the 1950’s and 1960’s placed Les Demoiselles in conversation with Modernism. In 1988, Patricia Leighten began publishing research on the historical circumstances of Les Demoiselles. As Rage Against the Machine argues, “He who controls the past now controls the present.” In the mid-twentieth century, modernists had tight control of the art world. They wrote history according to their own philosophies, uplifting the things they most valued– formal issues. Problems arise within this myth, as it is difficult to explain everything as a pre-deterministic journey towards a modernist ideal, where art is separated from life. Leighten revealed how Les Demoiselles “was intensely responsive to historical and social forces.” Failure to critically consider the African influence, or subject matter, in terms of the political climate of 1907, had disguised the radical nature of Les Demoiselles and cast Picasso as a white-male genius and neo-colonial hero. Some academics have tried to dismiss her as “politically correct,” but when Les Demoiselles is read in the context of its own time and in comparison to other anticolonial work, remarkable similarities are revealed.
In comparison with other anticolonial work, Les Demoiselles reveals similarities not only effect, but also in conceptual techniques and form-concept relationships employed by the artists. Study of these techniques and relationships provide a framework for considering the creative reworking of social problems. Art, like Les Demoiselles, can be used as an anarchist tool for social change.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is but one example of free expression that has been co-opted by dominant paradigms. As art historians, teachers, and students we must strive to study, teach, and learn about art in the context that is was made. Without that knowledge, we cannot be fully critical, and we risk participating in reinforcing the dominant hegemony.
Brian Dailey, 01 Golf, IL
Sponsor: Christina McOmber