Picasso came to Paris from Malaga, Spain, a town known for its bull-fighters. Picasso in his less experimental days he depicted these bull fights in a number of pencil sketches that captured the flare, dynamism and thrill of the arena. However, he never content to simply reflect in a realistic way the world around him. Society was changing the very first years of the 20th century: the modern world had lived through the Reformation, the Revolution and Industrialization. Now it was becoming a world where new socialistic and atheistic ideologies were competing with old world beliefs still being clung to by certain leaders (like Franco in Spain, for instance). Picasso saw the importance of fashion and trends in this new age of modern art. In the first years of the 20th century, he painted in blues -- then in pinks (the Rose Period) -- then in cubes (starting with Georges Braque the movement known as Cubism). Gertrude Stein became his patron and in 1907 he painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, "usually regarded as his most important painting" (Johnson 658). Thirty years later he painted Guernica for the Communist-supported Republicans in Spain. This paper will analyze these two works, examining their differences as well as the social/political statements that underlie each one.
Picasso came to maturity at a time when the world was, in a sense, rejecting maturity. The old world principles of art, morality, philosophy and government that had brought Europe through the middle ages had been swept away by a series of revolutions all across Europe. The revolution was young and new. In France, it had promoted liberty, equality and fraternity. Rousseau promoted self-fulfillment without restraint. Picasso came from Spain, which under Franco would try to retain its Catholic roots (and would be labeled Fascist for doing so). Picasso, like the Communists, whom he would publicly join in 1944, rejected the old world mentality that Franco and the old world Spaniards embodied. He was for the new -- the avant-garde -- and his first "major" work, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, shows it.
Clement Greenberg states that "the avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own term…" (531) -- and Picasso tried to do precisely this. With Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Picasso took the boundaries established by the Post-Impressionists and obliterated them. Here was something new, something deliberately abstract and less recognizable than what had come before. Picasso was taking art in a different direction -- for what reason? The subject of Les Demoiselles may tell us. The painting is of prostitutes -- a curious subject for any artist: they represent the fringe of society, a moral vicissitude perhaps. But Picasso does not simply represent as he sees them in real life. No, the prostitutes are almost primitively (and deliberately) reproduced in unorthodox lines designed to jar the eyes of the viewer. One might well consider Picasso's intention in so disrupting the gaze, but at this point in his career, it is certain that Picasso knew exactly how to represent the decline of civilization. The distorted images of Les Demoiselles were a kind of unflattering reflection of an unflattering reality.
But that is not all. As Johnson notes, Picasso's "distorted paintings of women are closely linked to the pleasure he got from hurting them, both physically and in other ways," (Johnson 256). Was Picasso involved sexually with the subjects of his painting? If what Johnson says is true, it is quite possible that Picasso's reflection is not merely just that of a deterioration in society but also of a deterioration (towards detestation) within himself. Whatever the ultimate reason, Picasso was breaking artistic conventions as well as social conventions. With Les Demoiselles, he not only foreshadows the coming violent wars and revolutions of the 20th century -- he also implies that they will be huge, just as the painting is, measuring at 243.9 x 233.7 cm.
A Changing World
What changed in Picasso's style over the next thirty years? Perhaps not that much. Guernica is certainly more highly stylized and immersed in the Symbolist movement. Its content is politically motivated and politically charged. Commissioned by the Republicans of Spain as a monument to the "barbarism" of the Franco regime and the German bombers, Picasso's Guernica represents not so much a change in style as it does a change in patronage. His social sphere had always been somewhat radical -- but now radicalism was being institutionalized. The Civil War in Spain was the result of two conflicting ideologies vying for power: the old world one (led by Franco) and the new modern, socialistic one (led by the Republicans the Communist sympathizers -- like Orwell (at the time) and Hemingway). Ideology was never hugely important to Picasso. Making fashion art, however, was -- and Guernica is "fashion art" with a political twist.
Tom Wolfe implies that ideology was never the driving impetus behind modern artists' work, but rather "le monde, the social sphere described so well by Balzac, the milieu of those who find it important to be in fashion" (Wolfe 13). Like so many others, Stein was Picasso's portal to le monde in the early 1900s. By the 30s, however, the portal had shifted: Picasso would be the darling of the leftists -- the champion of the downtrodden, of the brutalized -- sympathetic to all who suffer in war (and there is plenty of suffering depicted in Guernica).
Comparing Les Demoiselles and Guernica, one sees the same reaching for the abstract in both. Yet the former is colorful; the latter is not. Painted in grays, whites and blacks, Guernica is meant to be visually stark: it depicts the cruel oppression of a tyrannical regime. The world in Guernica is empty of beauty: its subjects are dead, dying, wailing or frightened. War is not only everywhere around them, it is inside them. Their very natures are distorted and stretched and divorced from reality. The same, to a certain extent, is true in Les Demoiselles -- and for that reason they are similar in style.
Johnson argues that another reason they might both be similar in style is that "Picasso believed that wars between women stimulated his creative powers. While he was painting Guernica, an old-fashioned (by now) Symbolist piece d'occasion condemning a Nazi air-raid in Spain, Picasso was the amused spectator of an angry match between two rivals, Marie-Therese Wlater and Dora Maar, on the floor in his studio" (663). Johnson argues that Picasso was delighted by the way the women in his life (his mistresses) would quarrel with one another. This, primarily perhaps, was his inspiration, in both Les Demoiselles and in Guernica.
Picasso's technique was tied to the themes he expressed in both paintings. In the earlier one, the technique is deliberately Cubist -- a movement that seemed to punish its subjects by ridding them of human or realistic characteristics. Indeed, one of the women in the painting seems to have what looks like a horse's face, it is so badly devoid of sympathy and humanity. But Johnson reminds us that Picasso "always tended to see women as objects rather than subjects, let alone partners" (658). Picasso did have several relationships and children, but "his honored friendships were always with men" (658). His relationships with women tended to be uneasy, violent, and explosive. One theory for why he painted the women of Avignon as he did is that he wished to "display his contempt for the degradation they had brought on him" (Johnson 658). The theory is not without its reason: after all, Picasso did call the painting his "first exorcism picture" -- as though by depicting the prostitutes of France in such a way, he were attempting to exorcise an evil spirit from his consciousness.…