Was it just new forms for old feelings? Are new feelings even possible? And were not these forms somehow recycled and repackaged from pre-Christian era civilizations? In any event, the innovations of modern art cannot be explained adequately on formal and technical grounds….
Cézanne would never have interested me a bit if he had lived and thought like Jacques Émile Blanche, even if the apple he painted had been ten times as beautiful. What forces our interest is Cézanne’s anxiety — that’s Cézanne’s lesson; the torments of van Gogh — that is the actual drama of the man. The rest is a sham. —Picasso
Such images are abundant in modern art — distortion and fragmentation are the clichés that dominate understanding of the modern figure — but the reasons why they have become epidemic are not examined in depth. We are told that the modern figural artist means to generate perceptual ambiguities and uncertainties, affording new sensations rather than telling old stories, even if the perplexing contradictions — visual antimonies, as it were — are composed into a kind of narrative. This formal, indeed, technical explanation of their illogic hardly does justice to the conspicuously “abnormal” character of the figure, which often seems disrupted to the point of absurdity, and sometimes seems on the verge of total disintegration. We have become accustomed to them, but from an everyday perspective they are strange indeed.
The figures that Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque painted at the height of Analytic Cubism (1910-11) seem completely disintegrated, and as such only nominally figures. Indeed, they have a mosaic quality, being a patchwork of tessera-like gestures, each an expressive end in itself. They look like fragments of a shattered whole, as though Picasso and Braque were archaeologists who had pieced together shards of some murky ancient figures they dug up from the depths within themselves, even if the peculiarly archetypal result seems incomplete, indeed, a kind of chaotic construction of fragments that does not quite add up to a harmonious figural whole, however memorable. The conventional art historical explanation of them as rendering the figure simultaneously in two and three dimensions — as both flat and rounded — misses the motive for this simultaneity.
“Indeed, it has been called the first truly 20th-century painting. Picasso’s painting was so avant-garde — so unpredictable, unprecedented — that it made the avant-garde art that preceded it seem quaint, indeed, obsolete. Paradoxically, Picasso was almost excommunicated from the avant-garde for painting it. Henri Matisse initially thought it was a hoax or joke, ridiculing modern art. No doubt he felt threatened by it. Georges Braque, who had just met Picasso, and who was soon to develop Cubism with him — Picasso remarked that they were tied together like two mountaineers or a married couple — said to him that he “wanted to make us eat tow or drink kerosene.” In other words, Les Demoiselles was in bad taste, even to those ready and eager to accept anything avant-garde.
And that is part of its point: the disavowal of what had hitherto been regarded as good taste, as though that is what art is ultimately about. The undermining, overthrowal and dismissal of the whole idea of tasteful art is central to its message. Its lack of taste — its contradiction and refusal of taste, as though to deny that the value of a work of art resides only in its tastefulness, that only the consensus of taste, which is a social measure, makes it significant — is what makes the Les Demoiselles revolutionary. In a sense, it is truly avant-garde because it refuses to be pleasing, because it disaffliates itself from the usual measure of artistic success — to give pleasure, or to represent pleasure in a pleasurable way, the way, for example, Matisse’s Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life) (1905-06) does. A somewhat more tempting, very different grouping of naked young women, it was painted only a short time before, but suddenly seemed passé, both in its attitude and forms. It was the anti-sociality — it was much deeper than a matter of being “tasteless” — of Les Demoiselles that Picasso’s colleagues intuitively recognized and found offensive. And that anti-sociality was rooted in the expression of painful feelings.( Kuspit )
One of the most important canvases of the twentieth century, Picasso’s great breakthrough painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was constructed in response to several significant sources. First amongst these was his confrontation with Cézanne’s great achievement at the posthumous retrospective mounted in Paris a year after the artist’s death in 1907. The retrospective exhibition forced the young Picasso, Matisse and many other artists to contend with the implications of Cézanne’s art. Matisse’s Bonheur de Vivre of 1906 was one of the first of many attempts to do so, and the newly completed work was quickly pu
sed by Leo & Gertrude Stein and hung in their living room so that all of their circle of avant-garde writers and artists could see and praise it. And praise it they did. Here was the promise of Cézanne fulfilled—and one which incorporated lessons learned from Seurat and Van Gogh, no less! This was just too much for the young Spaniard.
“Most of all, this is a painting about looking. Picasso looks back at you in the central figure, whose bold gaze out of huge asymmetrical eyes has the authority of a self-portrait. It’s interesting that we’re trained to see transvestite self-portraits in the art of Leonardo or Marcel Duchamp, but it doesn’t often occur to us to understand this painting in that way, misled as we are by the caricatures of Picasso as a patriarchal voyeur. What he painted in 1907 is a work of art that looks back at you with furious contempt.
What struck Picasso about African masks was the most obvious thing: that they disguise you, turn you into something else – an animal, a demon, a god. Modernism is an art that wears a mask. It does not say what it means; it is not a window but a wall. Picasso picked his subject matter precisely because it was a cliche: he wanted to show that originality in art does not lie in narrative, or morality, but in formal invention.”