Professor Suzanne Preston Blier rethinks Picasso’s ‘Demoiselles’

Wheaton College welcomed Harvard Professor Suzanne Preston Blier for its 9th Annual Mary L. Heuser Lecture in the Ellison Lecture Hall of Watson Fine Arts on Feb. 7. Professor Blier provided diverse possible sources, interpretations, history, significance and extensive research of the influential 1907 Pablo Picasso  painting, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”.

Picasso’s “Demoiselles” is part of the Museum of Modern Art’s collection in New York, entering into the western canon of modernism. It depicts five nude female prostitutes in a brothel as they pose and wait to be chosen, representing, according to Blier, a “caste of global women from multiple eras of multiple identities.” Their gestures, facial expressions, body positions as well as the painting’s composition, colors and inclusion of African masks suggest that Picasso was influenced by and engaged with many different sources.

Professor Blier talked about Picasso’s various sources of inspiration. These included plaster casts, masks and classical works in Paris museums; works on evolution, anthropology and sexual transformation; modern-day powerful Amazon women, his personal relationship with Fernande Olivier and controversial photographic journals of women. This multiplicity of ideas led to enhancing the complexities of the canvas’ meanings. “Taking into account key evidence, photographs, sources [and] x-rays, we come up with a different reading of the painting,” Blier said, “I want to emphasize… that what Picasso did that was so different, and particularly in his study for “Les Demoiselles”, was not to illustrate a work, per say, but rather to engage it.”

The lecture also included  Picasso’s concern with “the multiple roles that women may assume as workers, as mothers and in other ways.” The artist presented  female figures from a different perspective that supports the notion of fluid and unfixed roles. Blier said that the women may be seen “not just as sex objects, but also as potential mothers of the various generations of humankind.”

For Blier, “Les Demoiselles” is a representation and reflection of what was happening at the time or during the period, “seeing it in its complexity.” The evidence of Picasso’s sources “become really vital today and thinking back though the past, as he is rethinking the whole universe in which he is living and the ways in which our and these sources allow one to understand the world in a much broader and…more complex way” Blier said.

The lecture was followed up first with a Q&A session on Picasso’s painting on certain parts of the talk. The event concluded with a reception open to all those who attended to further continue the discussion on the “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”.