PRINT December 2020


Suzanne Preston Blier's Picasso’s Demoiselles: The Untold Origins of a Modern Masterpiece

Photo: Brian Green

In Picasso’s Demoiselles: The Untold Origins of a Modern Masterpiece (Duke), Suzanne Preston Blier presents a deeply nuanced investigation into the mysteries of the links between Pablo Picasso’s Les demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, and African art and the African presence in Europe. Weaving together an intricate tapestry (genealogy?) composed of the works of other artists (André Derain, Henri Matisse) and writers (Gertrude Stein) in Picasso’s circle; the scene at his studio, Le Bateau-Lavoir, in Montmartre; then-extant collections of ethnographic photographs of nude women of color; and the African sculpture in Paris at the time, Blier makes a convincing argument that there was nothing either dismissive or even trite about Picasso’s embrace of the “primitivism” of African art. Drawing on references to his ancestral roots in Málaga, Spain, its closeness to Morocco, and even his connection to an Afro-Cuban branch of his family, Blier suggests Picasso saw all primitivisms as “magic,” and magic as good and necessary to the making of art. The book, which features hundreds of illustrations (some quite minuscule, though all can be found on Google), is full of a vast and intriguing array of highways and forays into every possible connection that might suggest itself to construct this argument.

As a Black feminist, I found most persuasive Blier’s proposition to table the idea of Les demoiselles as a brothel scene and see it, rather, as a reference to the turn-of-the-century fascination with the portrayal of racial types. Les demoiselles d’Avignon, Blier hypothesizes, offers Picasso’s version of this in the form of five female figures. But rather than relying on more conventional (either photographic or naturalistic) portrayals of human types, Picasso reinvented type to encompass a new language of cultural iconography, subsequently known as Cubism, which he would continue to deploy strategically throughout his career. In retrospect, his decision to embrace the human form rather than flee from it entirely, as did many subsequent modernists, seems both laudable and courageous.

Michele Wallace writes about Black visual culture and is the author of Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (Dial Press, 1979).