On Tuesday, Nov. 6, the Department of Art History welcomed the Alan Whitehill Clowes Professor of Fine Arts and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, Suzanne Blier, to lecture on one of the most intensely studied and canonical of modern paintings: Pablo Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Famously, Blier taught Vassar’s first course in African Art as a graduate student at Columbia University in the 1970s. Her lecture was both a welcome homecoming and a gentle reminder of the critical gaps still extant in the department’s course curriculum—African Art being one of those critical gaps. Introducing Blier, Professor of Art on the Conover Mellon Chair Molly Nesbit indicated that the lecture was as great a time as ever to “replant the seed and get the conversation going [about African Art at Vassar, again].” Now one of the eminent scholars of her field, Blier presents new evidence on “Demoiselles”’ African origins.
After recognizing the life and influence of the departed, legendary art historian and former Vassar faculty member Linda Nochlin, who attended Blier’s lectures on African Art, Blier wasted no time reiterating the established narrative of historical inquiry into Picasso’s “Demoiselles.” The lines shifted by her evidence, if they disturb a narrative, only do so to refill the painting with urgency. This is no easy task, as the painting’s infamous 1907 exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants shocked and provoked in a way hardly imaginable for today’s gallery hopper.
The painting is a large canvas depicting five women in a rather strange, encumbered space. The figures, frozen in a brown, womblike cavern, are prostitutes. Posing for the viewer, their gaze confronts ours—our gaze, the solution to the equation for a night of salacious activity. These women are waiting to be bought. In much the same way as later cubist paintings, Picasso’s “Demoiselles” deploys the concept of the classical nude but in a flat, highly geometric and lined space to suggest the grotesque. This is art as commodity, to offend and to disgust. Crucial to Blier’s lecture, the two women on the right are adorned with African masks.
The prevailing narrative suggests that something actually lay beneath the masks—that Picasso painted over two human faces. Most art historians contend that Picasso covered the two faces with something foreign, and something he thought to be savage, in reaction to a fear of women and of sex. Standing in polite opposition to this narrative, Blier presents evidence suggesting that, on the contrary, by dating a photograph taken by Picasso of a friend and her child standing in front of the canvas, the masks persist actually as an original element of the painting. Blier suggests a level of intentionality present in the painting at its outset, previously unknown to art historians, now open for debate.
Blier then ascertained the specific imagistic influences that resulted in the masks of the finished painting. She indicated that that the masks were not ones that Picasso would have seen in the flesh, but rather in any four books on African Art. Not shying away from Picasso’s history of racist male chauvinism, Blier noted that one of these books, a collection of photos with commentary by gynecologist Carl Henrich Stratz on the supposed “social evolution of women” (with Dahomey Amazons as the starting point and European women as the end), is not only deeply racist in scope but also perturbing in that its photographs of children verge on pornography. There are figures in this book that appear in poses quite similar to the crouching figure in the “Demoiselles.”
But as Blier charts one historical narrative, from thence emerges a deeply personal one. Blier, never shying away from the personal, is following Picasso through Paris in the early 20th century—a journey that took her to various bars, museums and books. One must leave the frame, moving far from its aberrant elements, to make one’s way back in. Her lecture reminds us that the act of historical inquiry is always personal. But in the same way, an historical inquiry can only approach reality—truth, the proper order of things—as close as our own remembrances of things past. Fragmented, they recede from view as we draw them ever so close.
History is never reconciled with the present. When it speaks, it speaks in insecure absolutes. When it congeals, it slips away from itself, refusing submission to the autocratic impossibilities of narrative. With the arrival of new evidence, for any piece of art so historically pivotal, a light emerges just under the door of absolute knowing. It bleeds into the room, filling it with lively, electric conversation. Now, there are new wars to be waged, and more cards to be played. Now there are new questions, with new, impossible answers. Blier has set the stage for further inquiry. This is art history—a living history, squirming and writhing against its own picture frame.