After Picasso: Reinterpretations and recreations of Les Demoiselles D’Avignon in Contemporary Art

From Firenze University Press Book: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Modernism

University of Florence
4 min readMar 13, 2023

Maite Méndez Baiges, University of Malaga

The artworks are, in general, the first interpretations of the artworks. They come from the nonchalance and anachronic impertinence of a shift in history. Georges Didi-Huberman (2000)

We referred earlier to the possibility of finding interpretations of Les Demoiselles that do not originate from critical or historical-artistic discourse but come from artistic practice itself that we are anxious to explore in this chapter. In fact there are numerous versions of Les Demoiselles made after Picasso’s version (or d’après Picasso in French). They include homages, copies, adaptations, pseudo-plagiarism, versions, replicas, commentaries, interpretations, apostilles, recreations or appropriations. We will take just a handful in order to try and clarify, above all, how far they are able to present new arguments on this masterpiece of modern art, especially the versions that have not been explored before in the conventional critical discourse. In 2007, on the occasion of Les Demoiselles centenary, the Francis N. Naumann gallery in New York held an exhibition entitled Demoiselles Revisited to which they had invited some twenty artists to produce works based on the painting or to come up with new versions of the same (Gersh-Nesic 2001, 1–16). The result was an extremely peculiar homage. Viewing the outcome, it is startling to see, on the one hand, the unashamed degree of sexualisation that Picasso’s young women were subjected to in almost all cases.

The general wish to underline the obscene character of the work predominated and even added more obscenity to the original. Nevertheless, along with this, the irreverence and even aggression the contemporary artists displayed towards the object of their “homage” cannot be ignored. The questions of race and gender inherent in the work are the order of the day and steal the spotlight. The general tone of these renewed versions of Les Demoiselles is ironic, grotesque, caricatural, as if none of the artists had wanted to miss an opportunity to inflict their sarcastic and even angry criticism on the masterpiece of Modernism. More recently, the exhibition Picasso.Mania, held in the Grand Palais in Paris from October 2015 to February 2016, with works by Sigmar Polke, Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Mike Bidlo, Faith Ringgold also revealed once again the repetition of motives involving questions of gender and race (Ottinger 2015). It is easy to infer that the hypersexualisation opted for by most of the contemporary versions of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon stems from the fact that once this aspect was unveiled, there was no going back.

Its sexual content had inevitably become the vein to explore at any price since it was virtually impossible, both for artists and art critics, to ignore or disregard it. As we have seen, it took various decades for the art critique to consider that its true interest lay in its content, but it is also possible to see that, once interest in the work was centred here, it did not budge an inch. Leo Steinberg, responsible for the state of the affairs and author of “The Philosophical Brothel,” predicted in a post scriptum of 1987, seventeen years after publication of the first version of his famous article and height of the regression of formalism, when he said “my argument for the sexual charge of the picture seems almost embarrassingly banal. But such is the nature of my melancholy profession: […] It is in the character of the critic is to say no more in the best moments than what everyone in the following season repeats; he is the generator of the cliché” (Steinberg 1988, 74). On the other hand, the humorous animadversion perceived in the collected works of this exhibition is, in some ways appropriate for several generations of artists who had only ever received modern art as its official culture: thus, their reactions went from mockery to parody to aggression and, who knows if, in some cases, guided by a real instinct to put the father to death.

Modernism and in all probability, its personification in Picasso, only seems to elicit an open antipathy and even aggressive instincts in these generations. And the aggression of this type of reaction to Picasso’s young ladies serves to reinforce even more the equation that identifies Les Demoiselles with the aesthetics of Modernism. The artistic versions of the work are, in their own way, an extension of the critical discourse on modern art using other means: an extension that takes place using tools other than those of the critic or the art historian. They are no longer the only professionals, with the encumbrances and advantages of their speciality, who pronounce authorised interpretations of modern art’s masterpiece. Now it is the artists, as we shall see, who shape this criticism in their own visual language terms, and through this, allow other types of discourse and other voices to be heard with all the nonchalance and anachronistic impertinence that Didi-Huberman mentions in the title quote of this chapter.

The artistic variations of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon emerge from the ranks of Pop Art, Appropiationism, Action Painting and Performance, from the Queer, the feminist and other standpoints. As we shall see, their strategies are mostly a game of gazes and counter glances that precisely underline the subjective and culturally conditioned character of all visual perception and interpretation of art.

All these Demoiselles d’Avignon after Picasso have in common an openly critical nature. The majority appear to concur with the arguments that we have seen in the last two chapters, those of feminism and post-colonialism that confirm the relevance of these two focal points in the critical reception of the painting today. Elsewhere they contain reflections on the notions of authorship, copying, authenticity, counterfeiting and, naturally, genius.

DOI: 10.36253/978–88–5518–656–8.08

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