Today, as we artists muddle through the nuts and bolts of putting our
ideas, impressions, and environmental visions into concrete form with paints on
various prepared surfaces, we hardly think at all of the many art movements of
the past hundred years. In the Post-modern era, art movements have become passé.
There may still be regional differences in our art, just as there is in our
music or the way we pronounce words--what we would call accents--but in general,
we pretty much all speak the same language, at least in the Western world. This
makes it all the more difficult for us to comprehend the stunning advent of the
most powerful art movement of the twentieth century, and the effect it had upon
painting in particular for the next fifty or more years. This "bombshell"
exploded from the enormous easel of Pablo Ruiz Y Picasso in 1907, a stroke of
genius (many strokes, actually) seemingly with a life of its own that may well
have taken the Spanish painter himself by surprise.
When Picasso began
Les demoiselles d'Avignon, judging from his preliminary sketches, he had
in mind only to paint the parlour of a brothel on the Carrer d'avinyo (Avignon
Street) in Barcelona. Drawings show a seated sailor, five nude women, and a
student with a skull. The composition appears to have been loosely based upon a
small painting by Cézanne (itself a study for a monumentally larger work). As
the work evolved, the sailor and student (skull and all) bit the dust. What was
left was the five women in poses suggestive, not of sex but violence, faces
evoking visions of horror rather than eroticism. There is a demonic quality many
have said calls to mind Picasso's fascination with African masks, especially in
the two figures on the right, yet the artist himself claims his interest in
African tribal sculpture for the most part came months after this work was
completed. (Many believe Picasso repainted the African faces at that time.)
Whatever the case, if contemporary accounts are to be believed, not only his
friends, to whom he privately showed the picture, but Picasso himself, seem to
have been quite stunned by what he had wrought. It was several years before the
work was publicly displayed.
The Ladies of Avignon was merely the
flashpoint. By the time it was shown, Picasso and others were harvesting a crop
of equally revolutionary works that came to be called Cubism. The seed was
planted and the art that sprouted from it could be likened to Jack's beanstalk.
Nothing like it had ever hit the art world. Working in association with Georges
Braque, the two explored this new visual discovery in paintings virtually
indistinguishable from one another. Picasso's Seated Woman from 1909 or
Braque's The Portuguese from 1911, are interesting measures of their
progress which continued through most of 1912. Though they remained aloof from
what was developing into a full-fledged artistic revolution with the publication
by others of various treatises on Cubism (one of which went through fifteen
editions and was translated to English), the two artists and their work were the
most influential art forces in the first half of the twentieth century. Artists
such as Marcel Duchamp (Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2) and Fernand
Léger (Disks), as well Robert Delaunay (Homage to Bleriot)
followed in their giant footsteps almost before their paint was dry. Fifty years
later, the abstractionists of the New York School, such as de Kooning (Woman
I), were still speaking their names in awe, and using mental images of their
work to guide their owns brushes.