Picasso's Working Girls ask, 'Who's a Prostitute?'

Where I see strong, challenging women in Pablo Picasso's 1906 ground-breaking cubist painting "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," some others see sexual exploitation and victimhood. Perhaps it's an indication of just how subjective the experience of art can be. It could also be an indication of the politics of the critic. Exploring the differences of perception makes for interesting dialogue so long as we don't confuse our perceptions with the artist's intention, which may in most ways be irrelevant to our experience of the work.

Writing in the July 9 issue of Newsweek, artist and art critic Peter Plagens calls "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" the most influential work of art of the last 100 years for being the catalyst of the cubism that involved breaking apart objects, twisting them into new shapes, and reassembling them in surprising new ways.

Plagen says, "Without cubism, there would have been no 1920 dada photomontages or 1930 surrealist fantasies. Without those, there'd be no dizzying James Bond title sequences, "Matrix" movies, those animated promos in the corner of "The Closer, " or even some of the ads and layouts in this magazine."

As a benchmark in the worlds of fine and commercial art, the painting's place is indisputable. In the world of sexual politics, the painting wouldn't recognize itself to hear modern critics. Some scholars, Plagens says, say the compositional harshness implies sexual violence. Some art historians argue it's a painting of nudies meant to be gazed at by men. Porn a la Picasso. "That doesn't make the painting a very pretty picture," Plagen says.

It's amazing what five pink prostitutes can accomplish if you take them out of the closet--where they lived from their creation until 1939 when they moved to MoMA--and give them about a hundred years. In this painting of five nude women in a brothel who display their bodies with pride, Picasso combines lots of peach and pink, African masks, exactly one realistic hand, a fruit arrangement, and his own face atop the prostitute in the center of the canvas.

The working girl in the middle is looking right at you, and the effect is unnerving. What do you want? Why are you staring? She's waiting for an answer. The painting incriminates you for being there, for seeking out prostitutes. It would seem that Picasso's placing his own image amid the prostitutes would imply his identification with them rather than some form of chauvinism. Indeed, the faces are so unnerving that they draw the eye away from the featurless bodies of the women.

How did Picasso, who was 25 when he painted this piece, see himself as a prostitute at work in a brothel? In what way did he feel exposed and vulnerable? Why are the women masked? Is prostitution a ritual? Does it require the prostitute to create a false self for her patrons? Is this what artists do? And what about their stoic faces, which convey feelings of isolation. Can individuals who prostitute themselves--in any capacity--connect with anyone?

Sexual exploitation can be an archetype of other forms of spiritual compromise. The big questions about life and why we're here and what we do are not gender specific. But it's not worth talking about. Better to paint a picture.

See also: Picasso, My Grandfather