Wednesday, January 10, 2007

HB2LDd'A (or, An Excuse to Revisit Modernism) Open Thread

As Jonathan Jones notes in The Guardian today, the year 2007 represents the 100th birthday of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Jones calls Picasso's painting the birth of "Modernism in the arts" and argues how, as such, this anniversay provides as good an excuse as any for reflecting on what Modernism has done for/to the visual arts. Perhaps because the movement is such a rich and complicated one, Jones' exploration of what the painting means gets a bit muddled by the end, IMHO, but he starts off extraordinarily well in explaining why LDd'A is worthy of special notice:

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. This is why it's misguided to see Les Demoiselles d'Avignon as a painting "about" brothels, prostitutes or colonialism. The great, lamentable tragedy of 18th- and 19th-century art, compared with the brilliance of a Michelangelo, had been to lose sight of the act of creation. That's what Picasso blasts away. Modernism in the arts meant exactly this victory of form over content.

I would love to spend all day drawing the lines from 1907, at which point, apparently, in order to regain sight of the act of creation, subject matter was shoved to the back burner of importance, to today, where we find a fierce insistence in certain quarters that subject matter regain the central position in visual art (i.e., that art be "about" something, especially something relevant to everyday life, again), but, alas, I'm pressed for time.

Don't let that stop you from having a go at it though....


Anonymous markcreegan said...

Well, I take issue with a few things in Jones' essay. Firstly, no question that Demoiselles (and cubism itself) was a major work in the formalist or Greenbergian line. But to say it was a starting point of a shift from content to form in art ignores Cezanne and perhaps Manet and the impressionists. What were they? Chopped livah?

ALso, as it may be true that Demoiselles was not ABOUT prostitutes and colonialism, it makes logical sense to examine the work in the light of these issues because it points to what exactly were the causes/influences/fuel of avante gard art in the early 1900s. And if this painting was indeed a "transvestite self-portrait", shouldnt we look at those external factors to determine which "self" Picasso is depicting?

I would also say that I am opposed to any idea of hegemony of form over content (obviously). But the fact of the matter is, once artists were free of strict rules of subject matter (namely that history painting was the supreme form (ha!) of expression) it was THEN that formal invention explodes. SO it was precisely the exploration of subject matter in different ways that aides the formal issues. They go hand in hand is what I am saying (and that is true today i think).

oh and that durn camera had something to do with it too.

As far as when the primacy of form was supplanted by content? Well, Duchamp kept that fire lit, but I suppose you would have to say it was the generation right after Ab-Ex (Raushenberg, Johns, etc) that really got the ball rollin'.

Nothing new here folks (i have absolutely no orignal ideas about anything)

1/10/2007 10:57:00 AM  
Anonymous markcreegan said...

oh but what I LOVE is that painting is 100 freekin years old and STILL peeps call it ugly and (therefore) NOT ART!

1/10/2007 11:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Marcia Tucker tribute....Friday, Jan 12, 2007, 3pm.....Tishman Auditorium 66 West 12 St.... there!

Better late than never....


1/10/2007 11:10:00 AM  
Anonymous markcreegan said...

I wish I could attend that tribute. Tucker was wonderful!

Since this is open thread, I have a question for anyone, How does one become an art advisor? I would imagine you would need an extensive and broad knowledge of art (esp contempory art right now)

Check! The only thing I am lacking is an understanding of the market- what stuff is worth and all that. But that is learnable, no?

Basically I am asking because one day I would like to buy my wife a mink coat (or the equivalent acceptable to my vegetarian wife).

Thank you

SO lets see. Artist...Professor...; lets watch as I struggle to open ANOTHER impossible door

1/10/2007 11:31:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mark :

The first thing you need to do to become an art advisor is to marry somebody with money. All of us did. Seed money dear. It is very important.


1/10/2007 12:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

I choose Cezanne as leader (starter) of modernism (formalism taking over subject).

I love Manet but that's still a little too about the subject.

It's clear with Cezanne (and Monet) that reperating the same subject over and over again is about something else.


Cedric Caspesyan

1/10/2007 02:24:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

The radicalness of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is beyond any painter working today.

1/10/2007 11:04:00 PM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

I'm confused. The picture you posted isn't Les Demoiselles d'Avignon -- it's a different picture of the same subject matter.

1/15/2007 04:39:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


It's a study for's the details:

Pablo Picasso. Study for Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. 1907. Watercolor, 6 3/4 x 8 3/4". Philadelphia Museum of Art, A.E. Gallatin Collection


1/15/2007 06:46:00 PM  

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