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Friday, April 1, 2011

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

The First Abstract Watercolor, 1910,
Wassily Kandinsky
Some time ago, I argued that the first abstract painting in history came from the Russian artist, Wassily Kandinsky rather than from this country or France. From a historical perspective however, it is generally accepted that the first Modern Art painting came from the brush of Pablo Picasso, that being his 1907 masterpiece, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.  If there seems to be a paradox here, there is. An abstraction of any kind would certainly fall within the realm of Modern Art and yet Kandinsky is passed over in favor of a powerful, though much less abstract work, by Picasso. Part of the designation is political.  Picasso was a far more important artist at the time than Kandinsky, and he was to become even more important as time passed. Kandinsky's watercolor abstraction was a minor color exercise on a modest sheet of paper, easily ignored except for his prophetic title, First Abstract Watercolor.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907,
Pablo Picasso

Technically, Picasso's Les Demoiselles has history on its side. The crux of the argument in favor of Picasso comes from the word "first" rather than "Modern Art." It was painted over a period of six months starting with preliminary sketches in the fall of 1906 through early 1907 when it was completed. Kandinsky's watercolor is dated 1910. But Picasso's nearly eight-foot square painting was abstract only in a cubistic sense. It was artistically radical, it was groundbreaking, it was shocking, but it was not abstract in the non-representational sense. So actually, both designations are correct as it would appear we're comparing apples and oranges, not pomegranates. Of course Picasso's work is important largely because it was not abstract. Had his forms been merely unrecognizable shapes of colored pigment it would have been an incomprehensible exercise in art for art's sake.

Le Bain turc, 1862,
Auguste Dominique Ingres

Unlike Kandinsky's color exercise, Picasso's work was incrementally developed, based upon the early nude paintings of Ingres and Cezanne from which he borrowed several elements of poses and composition.  From the harem scene of Ingres Le Bain turc he seems to have been inspired by a number of nude female figures, and from Cezanne's Three Bathers comes particularly the figure in the lower right corner. But into this Picasso injects a first theoretical use of Cubism and his preoccupation with African masks. Even though prostitutes, in one form or another, had been subjects for artists at least back to Manet's Olympia, no artist, not even Cezanne, had ever painted female nudes and deliberately gone out of his way to make them ugly. In spite of its harmony of colors and ingenious vertical/diagonal composition, it is not an easy painting to look at. But then, this opening salvo in the war between modern and traditional art was intended to raise eyebrows, not the standards of feminine beauty.

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