Psychologically Repressed Suffering And Its Sublimation and Formalization In Aesthetics

“What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or has a lyre at every mood of his heart if he is a poet, or even, if he is a boxer, just his muscles? On the contrary! He is at the same time a political being, constantly alive to world events that can be heart-rending, fiery or happy, and he responds to them with his whole being. How could he possibly not show any interest in other people but put on an ivory indifference and detach himself from the life which he has received so abundantly? No, painting was not invented to decorate houses. It is an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy.”
P. Picasso Ingo F. Walther, “Pablo Picasso (Genius of the Century)”, Taschen, 2000, p. 70

“The bodies are seen at once from the front and the side, in a way not naturally possible. Lines, hatchings and blocks of color are used to make…de-formations in parts of the women’s bodies…”
Carsten-Peter Warncke, “Pablo Picasso 1881 – 1973”, Taschen, 2006, p. 158

“This is a painting of nudes in which there is scarcely a curve to be seen – elbows sharp as knives, hips and waists geometrical silhouettes, triangle breasts… Picasso started out with the idea of a brothel scene.”
Jonathan Jones, “The Guardian”, January 2007

Picasso, “The Brothel on Avignon Street” in large format
Picasso, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon/The Brothel on Avignon Street”, 1907

Picasso was angry that not without insistence of his friends (who knew the climate defining expectations of the art market) he had to title his painting “Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon” instead of “Brothel on Avignon Street”, although hundred years ago the atmosphere in Europe was much less puritanical than in US today, but for Picasso’s inspiration it was still pretty stifling. We see five nude women in action in the brothel they work at. But are there really five women or just one at different stages of her working day routine? Well, Picasso himself referred to the five female figures in the painting, but his intuition, it seems, left the question not completely closed. Indeed, don’t the women look a bit alike; I‘m even ready to say – “a bit identical”? Three of them (one on the left and two on the right) reflect Picasso’s impression from African statues with mask-like faces, and the two in the middle – his encounter with Iberian statues. The dissimilarity between the two groups can, indeed, be explained by two different formal principles of their representation (mask-like vs. the rigid/frozen faces). But these principles can correspond to different psychological condition of the protagonists at different moments of their functioning in the brothel – “The face of the woman on the left, also mask-like but less distorted than the two right-hand faces” (Carsten-Peter Warncke, Ibid, p. 160). We’ll inquire about the existential “reasons” for the comparative degree of “distortion” of the face of woman on the left and that of the two women on the painting’s right.

Of course, it could be excessive to insist that instead of the five women Picasso depicted only one at various phases of her daily/nightly job. It can be five women but similar in their typicality, five as one, five on the level of the plot of the painting, but one in essence, in its meaning. It can be the same woman walking into the brothel, then performing a striptease on the stage, after this stepping behind the stage for further action with a secured customer(s), and, finally, completing/finalizing her task (Picasso represents this “completion” metaphorically as eating a fruit combo – we will return to this culmination point later).

Let’s concentrate on the facial expressions of the protagonists/protagonist of the painting. The woman on the left who is, as if, entering the painting/brothel quarters – is one of the three with a mask-like facial expression. It seems, Picasso “puts masks” on demoiselle/s of the Avignon brothel (makes the human face, as if, retreat into or die into a mask) either to emphasize the suffering which a person cannot allow herself to experience fully (because to live means to work which is not always fun), or to mark the moment of making the unpleasant decision to do what is necessary to survive. The woman on the left made a decision to enter her working place as she does it every day in spite of her desire not to be there (her face is not completely distorted into a mask – it expresses her intention of entering the brothel in spite of…, it is focused straight ahead on what is awaiting her while her gaze miraculously is directed not at what is in front of her but at the viewers, as if, taking them as witnesses of her predicament). The mask-face of the standing woman on the right (between the blue draperies) points at an even more terrifying darkening of her face (a monstrous shadow reflecting what she feels in the depth of her soul) the moment before she has to complete her obligations with the customer(s) of the brothel. The facial expression of the sitting woman is even more horrifyingly distorted – “In the ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon’ I painted a profile nose is into a frontal view of a face. I just had to depict it sideways so that I could give it a name, so that I could call it ‘nose’.” (Picasso in Ingo F. Walther, Ibid, p. 37) The piece of fruit she is eating is, as if, transformed into a curved knife. She cannot completely avoid looking at the reality of her destiny but her eyes are dislocated, as her mouth. Her “profile nose on frontal view of her face” signifies her desire to turn away from what she has to do (turn away from a customer in action).

The facial expressions of the two central figures make their faces rigid, even mask-like, but not to the degree of becoming faces-masks. Theirs is the mimics of striptease, imitating the appeal to customers, trying to demonstrate openness to engagement while unable to hide completely the real emotions of somebody who feels locked into brothel-dancing. We can see sadness, even despair in dancing girls’ eyes, but these feelings are not beyond communication, like the eyes of the two women on the right. The faces of the dancers are almost identical, like in identical twins, but with a slightly different hairdos – or is it the dancer/s manipulate her/their hair while dancing trying to look as sexy as possible (as if, it is erotic passion that is moving her/their hair like waves). The left dancer’ face is, as though, asking for compassion, while the soul of the dancer at the right has already leaving her face that is then becoming desperately frigid.

Now let’s look at the bodily expressions of the protagonists/protagonist of “Avignon Brothel”. On the level of the “plot” the woman on the left of the canvass is keeping the brownish curtain of the stage where the two central figures are strip-dancing, but according to the position of her body she is marching forward to fulfill the demands of her job. Strip-dancing is only the beginning of the brothel-ritual. From gesture of an arm raised above the head, as if, opening the body (the left dancing figure), to a gestures of both arms up, as if surrendering the body to the customers (the dancer on the right), from slightly opening with the white cover the paradise for men – only to hide it again in the next moment, strip-dancers made the viewers of the painting (sublimated customers) become involved in a feeling of reciprocity with the demoiselles, and our attention/expectation moves along to the standing figure on the right who is closing the celestial draperies to meet us behind/above them where culmination of visit will take place. Finally, we reach the sitting figure with the most tormenting yet stifled emotions distorting her face more than all the preceding phases of the brothel women/woman’ feelings. “If we look at the woman on the right in the foreground, it is impossible to work out exactly how she is leaning on her arms. Her body and head are formed completely differently, both her back and her face are visible at the same time, her eyes and the areas round her mouth contradict all laws of nature… [Her body is] reminiscent of Picasso’s Rose Period, where women, with their deformed heads and bodies, look as if they had been knocked about with an axe.” (Ingo F. Walther, Ibid, p. 37)

We feel that the emotions of the sitting prostitute are strong but we cannot recognize them immediately. This non-recognition on the part of the viewers starts with the protagonist who doesn’t want concentrate on what she really feels or she will not be able to go through with completing her job. What she really feels in her unconscious/semi-conscious is “masked” by Picasso (who is intuitively following her desire to block her real feelings) by his “formal” stylistic elaborations (influenced by African sculptures). But what‘s the big deal about eating fruits, even if you are doing it while being busy working at the whorehouse? Why for a woman “to make such a face” while consuming the sweet fruits of nature at her disposal? Here, we must try to understand what Picasso’s intuition compressed into the image of the woman at the end of a chain of actions as a part of her job at the brothel. Picasso, himself was often a visitor of this and the like places and not only in order to painterly observe life there. For him, as for the protagonist/s of his painting, sexual intercourse as such, even anonymous and alienated is not the problem. The problem is the necessity to survive on it – to transform sex into a survival tool (human spontaneity into a calculation, indulgence into bookkeeping, desire into strategy).

The psychological trauma which Picasso depicts in his “Les Demoiselles…” is the prostitutes’ awareness (which they pushed into unconscious) of being survivors on their bodies, betrayers of their feelings and killers of their Eros. It is their bodies and their deepest feelings rooted in their body-ness – are symbolized by the fruits the women/woman eat/s in the middle of the whorehouse (the fruits are located right in the center of the painting – at the base of its central axis, under the legs of the central figure (strip-dancer on the right – the third figure on the painting, the one with a face petrified by the awareness of the inevitable transition from strip-dance to final action with a customer). The centrality of the body/fruits in the painting makes it not a signifier of sexual intercourse but a metaphor of self-cannibalistic mode of living that is not only a prostitutes’ destiny but more and more the very modality of life where “survival” includes the necessity to sacrifice our sincerity, our genuinness, free speech, free thinking, human holistic reason, humanistic education and the right to participate in deciding the future of human societies. More and more we have to “eat our being” in order to physically survive.

It is not sexual intercourse – what makes the sitting woman on the farthest right to impulsively try, as if, to turn away in the very moment she offers herself, but the cash she needs to get for it. That’s why we cannot see if she has turned to her client or away from him. That’s why her nose is in profile while her face is frontal. She has turned to and turned away at once. It is her position towards sexuality, not sexuality itself – what makes her to question herself and the very condition of the human world and push her awareness into her unconscious to prevent it from intervening with her survival.

But the ultimate point of the painting is the unconscious, not the conscious and obvious nature of suffering on the part of the woman/women of the brothel (suffering that has”transformed her/them into Iberian and African statues”). If torment could be conscious – it wouldn’t be necessary to express it symbolically (through form – through the rigid [striptease-phase] and the masked [intercourse-phase] face(s) and the fragmented and angular bodies). It would have been enough to represent it naturalistically or “realistically” (then it would be a propaganda against prostitution), without “extreme” metaphorical strategies. Prostitutes and their customers are adults and they know what they have to do to satisfy their needs and to survive on their trade correspondingly. The suffering that belongs to the unconscious cannot already be called just suffering. By psychologically repressing their suffering the prostitutes are capable to continue to function in the society as it is. The unconscious nature of suffering corresponds to the “formal” way of expressing it (the very birth of metaphor [the metaphor’s subject and vehicle] is a result of the artist’s rapport with the unconscious emotions). “The triumph of form” many critics emphasize in relation to this Picasso’s painting, corresponds, it seems, to the very duality of the emotional matrix it catches and to the complicated and contradictory nature of the human feelings. “In ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ Picasso re-conceived the entirety of the European art tradition from the roots up, and uses its constituents to create a new visual language… The absolute aesthetic impact of painting and the autonomous status of draughtsman-ship and color were established… Where once content and form, message and image had needed to harmonize; now form became dominant, and indeed became the content.” (Carsten-Peter Warncke, “Pablo Picasso”, Borders Press, 1998, p. 71)

The general visual composition of the painting can be summarized as a representation of functioning of the brothel in five stages – entering the brothel, making strip-dancing, moving to the back quarters of the brothel, and participating in a sexual apotheosis that produces the ultimate psychological fragmentation in the “harlots” (and in customers also in less dramatic way). The chain of actions is depicted by Picasso from left to right (clockwise) and makes the woman/women’s face(s) and body/bodies as a semantic marking. Does this composition refer to the busiest hours at the brothel (from 10-11 pm, to 5-6 am)?