Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D'avignon: A Perspective On Colonial Bias And Cultural Appropriation Within Modern Art

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The world of western art and its history is often viewed in a rose-tinted lens. We as critics and as casual viewers will theorize about European and American artists of our time and earlier, relaying how they alone changed tradition and opened new standards. However, we do not share this same view regarding ethnic artists. We view it as primitive, something the most simple of artists can do, a faceless source of inspiration for the painters and designers to which we shift our focus. Colonial bias has affected our views on art in a global aspect, giving us a standard we expect from every background and culture, regardless of their history in art. When this set standard is not reached, we do not view it as an equal. Instead, ethnic arts and culture are seen as an aesthetic, a phase, something meant to be appropriated and used strictly for the west’s viewing pleasure.

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This bias settles onto the viewers of western art and the creators of these pieces as well. Moreover, in idolization, academia tends to ignore this, stating an artist’s use of ethnic cultures in works is out of appreciation. In some cases, it turned into a form of white-saviorism. Where those would claim none would know or defend the culture’s appropriation had it not been for this selfless western artist. Such is the case with Pablo Picasso and his work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. This piece, considered one of Picasso’s many masterpieces, consists of five sex-workers, the two on the furthest right sporting abstracted versions of African masks. The European artist had engaged with African arts as a source of inspiration. However, these were through expositions and the works of ethnographers. So he could not have genuinely gained the true meaning and impact of the masks used, nor did there seem a recorded attempt to. Was there indeed a respectful connection to African culture, or did Picasso, like other western artists, view it as an object for his work?

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was a turning point in Picasso’s career; it had directed the artist towards the path of Cubism and happened to be heavily influenced by primitivism. Primitivism, within the art world, has its roots within 20th-century Western interest in the culture and art of Native America, Oceania, and Africa. This context alone holds a problematic tone, as it categorizes these cultures as the other, something believed to be less sophisticated and refined compared to European and American art. In itself, the term is charged, and seeped in Western bias, something I remain aware of throughout its use in this paper. Not to say that Western artists could not find inspiration from Non-Western sources, as art practices throughout history would “discover” styles from ethnic cultures and incorporate them within their art. Nevertheless, there is discussion to be had on the bias that often ran behind and led to these inspirations.

In the case of Picasso, it was the preference of aesthetics over the educational purpose of the African objects seen within his work. He and artists within his circle would collect and share multiple primitive objects amongst each other.[footnoteRef:1] Due to France’s colonization of Africa, however, the culture of the objects was lost, impossible for artists to receive. Alongside the preset colonial bias within Picasso, this would prevent the item from reaching its true potential when used in Western art. This choice of presenting the objects as such would separate them from their culture, “…the artifact becomes imbued with a perpetual air of mystery, which further separates Western and non-Western art.” It was not just African objects he would use towards this piece, however, but the figure of African individuals as well. In her catalog Picasso and Photography: The Dark Mirror, Anne Baldassari argues that Picasso had another source of African imagery via his collection of postcards, taken by ethnographer Edmond Fortier while in West Africa.

Baldassari shows that a multitude of postcards holds specific poses akin to Picasso’s works. While this discovery is argued over, it brings with it a more depressive tone of colonial bias and objectification. Anthropometric photography holds an objectifying manner to it, recording only the physical features of the subject. These images were used to reinforce the imperialist idea of Western supremacy and justify the colonial rule, as well as provide ‘exotic’ material for the viewer to personally enjoy. The very existence of these images was to dehumanize multiple cultures and peoples, show them as a sort of tourist attraction or exotic flavor for the west to enjoy. It would fit in perfectly with Western art, and in turn, Picasso’s obsession with African influences. For like the objects, the people, too, were taken away from their humanity, they merely became aesthetics for the artist to use within their work.

It did not mean, however, that Picasso and other artists of the time sat idly by during Africa’s colonialization. The inspiration drawn from the “dark continent” was the driving force in debates against French colonial policy, as well as a public outcry from anarchists and socialists alike. Despite this approach, Picasso did not broaden this same criticism towards his works. He embraced the reductive views of Africa’s culture and people into his work; the very same used to promote colonial justification. It is here where colonial bias holds its own. Even with their anti-colonialist views, Picasso and his fellow artists’ choice to keep Africa a “mystical” area and incorporating an imagined primitiveness to its people was no less stereotypical as the works they opposed.

The artwork in focus is no exception to this. Seen with the two women on the far right, Picasso would adopt African forms as a personification of disorder against the standards of modern art. Within Les Demoiselles, the two women consisting of the African-looking masks are often seen by critics as bestial or ugly. Scathing labels still used against Black people, especially Black women, to this day. They are seen as more aggressive and unwelcoming compared to the other figures within the painting. As Chave states in her article regarding this painting, within the critics’ eyes, “the two figures in Africaneaque masks is a narrative of regression: of normality regressing into deviancy…contained eroticism lapsing into raw animality.” Les Demoiselles sets up these vaguely African figures as shock factors; if anything, they disrupt the piece as a whole, representing a zone of chaos and wilderness. However, he does not paint these women as black women, which would have made the discussion of these associations of exotic sexuality much more present.[footnoteRef:9] Instead, Picasso places the masks onto white women, combining two themes; but this choice in itself is insensitive, as appropriating these references into white culture harms the culture he claims to appreciate.

Furthermore, this is not the first time Picasso would seem to ignore how Africa’s people had influenced his work or how they were represented. In Gikandi’s essay, they discuss the fact that while Picasso had an intimate relationship with objects of African culture, yet not the same level of interest towards the African people as producers of culture beyond anti-colonial movements in which he participated. Gikandi would also go on to present how the artist would separate the art from the culture to use in his struggle against established conventions of Western Art. Picasso was known to be irritated by “Negro influence” on his work, despite his praises on the magical influence African objects on him. Admittedly, a rather concerning notion from an artist we revere for their anarchist work. Why would one so involved in criticizing France’s colonial exploits be frustrated at the fact a non-Western culture influenced his work?

Again, this is where colonial bias would settle in. Picasso had joined in the outcry over France’s crimes of dehumanization of the African people, yet he would strip the cultures affected into a primitive output for his art to use. In doing so, and with institutions of commentary following suit, African art and culture are barred from modernism, despite engendering it in the first place. Of course, this blame is not entirely on the artist himself. Picasso’s introduction to African objects was through a colonialist circumstance, removing any chance of genuinely knowing the natures of the objects he would appropriate. This removal from culture, as well as personally not being affected by the horrors Africa faced, do come into play in regards to how Western artists would see ethnic peoples.

In all, Les Demoiselles is an example of appropriation as well as an example of colonial bias. There have been many writings on whether Picasso himself intended this in his works or not. And while I do agree on the environment at the time causing these views, we must not exempt the artists, nor the institutions, entirely from their actions. Picasso had worked with the harmful stereotypes of Africa in order to boost his success. Western bias is very much an issue within the art world, feeling the need to evacuate Others from the scene of modern art in order to “preserve” institutions of high arts. As both an artist and a Person of Color, it is essential to discuss these issues when we can in order to rethink both how we view art, as well as how we decide who is allowed into it. 

Works Cited

  • Chave, Anna. 1994. ‘New Encounters with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon: Gender, Race and the Origins of Cubism.’ ART BULLENTIN 597-611. http://annachave.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/New-Encounters.pdf.
  • Cohen, Janie. 2015. ‘Staring Back: Anthropometric-style African Colonial Photography and Picasso’s Demoiselles.’ Photography & Culture (Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 2015) 8 (1): 59-80. doi:10.2752/175145215X14244337011162.
  • Gikandi, Simon. 2003. ‘Picasso, Africa, and the Schemata of Difference.’ Modernism/modernity (John Hopkins University Press) 10 (3): 455-480. http://shifter-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Gikandi-Picasso-Africa-and-the-Schemata-of-Difference.pdf.
  • Hummer, Madison. 2018. ‘The Appropration of African Objects in Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.’ Senior Thesis, Trinity College, Hartford, 160. Accessed 2019. https://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1760&context=theses.
  • Leighten, Patricia. 1990. ‘The White Peril and L’Art Negre: Picasso, Primitivism, and Anticolonialism.’ The Art Bulletin 72 (4): 609-30. doi:10.2307/3045764.
  • Chave, Anna. 1994. ‘New Encounters with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon: Gender, Race and the Origins of Cubism.’ ART BULLENTIN 597-611. http://annachave.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/New-Encounters.pdf.
  • Cohen, Janie. 2015. ‘Staring Back: Anthropometric-style African Colonial Photography and Picasso’s Demoiselles.’ Photography & Culture (Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 2015) 8 (1): 59-80. doi:10.2752/175145215X14244337011162.
  • Gikandi, Simon. 2003. ‘Picasso, Africa, and the Schemata of Difference.’ Modernism/modernity (John Hopkins University Press) 10 (3): 455-480. http://shifter-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Gikandi-Picasso-Africa-and-the-Schemata-of-Difference.pdf.
  • Hummer, Madison. 2018. ‘The Appropration of African Objects in Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.’ Senior Thesis, Trinity College, Hartford, 160. Accessed 2019. https://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1760&context=theses.
  • Leighten, Patricia. 1990. ‘The White Peril and L’Art Negre: Picasso, Primitivism, and Anticolonialism.’ The Art Bulletin 72 (4): 609-30. doi:10.2307/3045764.
  • Myers, Fred. 2006. ‘Primitivism, Anthropology, and the Category of Primitive Art.’ In Handbook of Material Culture, by Chris Tilley, Webb Keane, Susanne Kuechler, Mike Rowlands and Patricia Spyer, 267-285. SAGE Publications Ltd.
  • Picasso, Pablo. 1994. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
10 Jun 2021

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