When Pablo Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, now considered a Modernist masterpiece credited with sparking Cubism, the painting was widely reviled for reasons Miles J. Unger unpacks in this book that considers not only Picasso's genius but the peculiarities of the Parisian art world that birthed Les Demoiselles.
If you’re an art lover, this is an engrossing read. Unger draws not just from his own wide knowledge and considered taste but from an imposing array of journals, memoirs, biographies and periodicals. From these he offers a historically and psychologically rich account of the young Picasso and his coteries in Barcelona and Paris ... Readers enamored of this crucial moment in art history might complement Unger’s detailed telling with the more panoramic and accessible In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and the Birth of Modernist Art, by Sue Roe. The two books together — Unger’s in close-up, Roe’s in the broad view — wonderfully capture how Picasso’s personal history, temperament and aesthetic development combined with the revolutionary currents in turn-of-the-century Parisian culture to bring about this unforgettable depiction of five primordial she-devils, a painting that Picasso’s writer friend André Salmon called 'the incandescent crater from which emerged the fire of present art.'
On the way to the hothouse, proto-Cubist summer of the Demoiselles, the shocker of his book’s title, Unger ably covers the El Greco-influenced 'Blue' and 'Rose' periods; the patronage of the Steins; and Picasso’s path-altering discovery of African art in the collection of the Trocadéro museum, the precise dating of which has divided scholars. Unfortunately, insistent platitudes and pigeonholing tend to mar Unger’s efforts. Picasso is 'bathed in the dazzling aura that surrounds all famous men' ... On the other hand, Unger appreciates Picasso’s boyhood talent without overegging its merits. He’s good on the Steins (particularly Leo’s insufferable condescension). And certain of Unger’s details were new to me. I had never, for instance, heard the rumor that Puvis de Chavannes was Maurice Utrillo’s biological father ... Writing in 1906, the year before the Demoiselles was conceived, the novelist and critic Eugène Marsan took his measure … 'Monsieur ... You might call him, to help you remember, the Callot of the saltimbanques, but you’d do better to remember his name: Picasso.’
Unger skillfully evokes a period when the stakes of art were so high that a painting had the power to destroy relationships. Picasso accepted the consequences. In an elegant metaphor, the author declares that 'those who had once shared [Picasso’s] vision and championed his cause were left behind on the platform while he sped off into the future.'