I too am against everything. I too believe that everything is unknown, that everything is an enemy! Everything!
- Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso's black period, also known as époque négre or negro period, refers to the years 1906 and 1907, in which Picasso falls under the influence of African art, on which he bases a series of drawings, paintings and woodcarvings that would lead to the creation of his seminal work Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.
While the young Picasso was trying to find his identity as an artist he would swing back and forth between stylistic refinement and crudeness. His classicist background cultivated his love of refinement, but also limited his artistic vocabulary. During the course of the 19th century, classicist art had come to the end of its rope, leading to the lustless virtuosity of men like Corot and Mauve and several new art movements sought and found ways to create art that matched the times, as classicist art was no longer able to. First the impressionists, then the post-impressionists (Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin) and finally the Fauves (led by Matisse) managed to shock traditional art into submission, opening up wide roads of artistic expression.
As a sixteen year old, and under the influence of his conservative parents, Picasso saw no future in innovation and only wanted to become a classicist. When Pablo realized that he himself was unable to progress following the classicist road, he turned to avant-garde art, but still based on the aesthetic values of his classicist roots.
This changed when the loss of a friend led to Picasso's blue period. Under the influence of his grief, and also the Spanish old master El Greco, Picasso's previously romantic style made way for a gloomy, sinister style which was far more expressive and for the first time he was beginning to show a style of his own, instead of copying other artists' styles, as he had previously done.
Then, when his living conditions in Paris improved and Fernande Olivier would become his partner, his style regained its romantic, aesthetical quality during Picasso's rose period. Near the end of the rose period, and perhaps related to a short visit to Holland, Picasso's style became more direct and more intent on the structural, rather than the aesthetical side of art.
Picasso would always remain an aesthetic at heart, but every now and then his urge to innovate made the structuralist in him surface, often resulting in shocking effects. His artistic ambition was such that he endured long periods of personal hardship in order to be able to innovate and rise above his more conservative colleagues. Like Van Gogh found a catalyst in Japanese art, Picasso came under the spell of African art and used its primitive power to shake off his classicist mannerism that offered no possibilities to innovate.
Before Picasso started his Back Period he came into the possession of some ancient Iberian sculptures that he got from an acquantaince who had stolen them from the Louvre museum in Paris. In Les Demoiselles d'Avignon the faces of the three women on the left are based on the Iberian sculptures. So as to avoid compositional monotony, Picasso based the faces of the two women on the right on the African totem art, that he had also collected.
Throughout Picasso's career, periods would be concluded by a major artwork that contained all the new things he had learned. The painting Life concluded and summarized his blue period and The Family of Saltimbaques did the same for his rose period. Now it was up to the Demoiselles to show what he had been up to during his black period.
Later in his life, Picasso would deny he had been inspired by African art, while making the Demoiselles (partly because of political, patriotic reasons - Picasso preferred to emphasize the Iberian nature of the painting), but there seems to be ample evidence that he was familiar with, and was already collecting African art while making the Demoiselles.
Picasso acknowledged that a visit to the Trocadero museum changed him, but he didn't say why, he never gave African art the credit it deserves. Some pieces of African art in the Trocadero are as much "wonders of the world" as the pyramid of Giza or the works of Rembrandt, not technically of intellectually, but for their incredible emotional intensity. Throughout Picasso's work you can see references to some of the African masks he saw at the Trocadero, but rather as pale, timid caricatures, totally lacking the power of the originals - maybe that's why Picasso always was so secretive about his African influences. Picasso's unique gift to art was his unparallelled flexibility, that allowed him to identify, absorb and use in his own art, much of what the history of human art had to offer.
One reason for Picasso's interest in African totem art (totem refers to African woodcuts that served to excorcize evil spirits), was that he identified with the element of excorcism. Whether or not related to the dying at the age of four of his younger sister Conchita (compare with Edvard Munch, to whom a similar event led to a life-long trauma), Picasso had an intrinsic fear about him and many of his paintings bear a strong sense of death. Perhaps Picasso's friend Alice Toklas best summed up Picasso's disposition when she first saw the Demoiselles. She described the painting as "painful and beautiful...and oppresive but imprisoned".
That may well describe how Picasso felt during his Black Period, during which he was caught between the commercial expectations of his dealers and his own artistic ambitions. According to some biographers the young Picasso saw himself as the new Messiah of art.
In no small part, Picasso's black period was a reaction against the mainstream art trade. During his rose period, Picasso had indulged in expressions of Parisian elegance (paintings that are now more popular than cubism), but then the French restraint got so much on his nerves that he would call upon the totems of Africa and a brothel in Avignon to paint the Demoiselles (d'Avignon). The shallowness of impressionism (as he perceived it ¹ ) became Picasso's battle cry and until his dying day Picasso would attack even the great Monet.
Picasso's Rose Period had secured him a stable living, but making aesthetically pleasing Parisian society scenes had hurt his pride as an artist and a man. His Black Period would become a mad dash for artistic integrity, something he valued above all.
During a bad experience with hashish he became hysterical and cried out that he "wanted to kill himself because he had nothing left to learn; that one day a wall would impede his development and prevent his understanding of penetrating into the secrets of art he wanted to make new and fresh" ¹.
From there on he would make art that was "bien couillarde" (had balls).
One of Picasso's greatest fears was to be inadequate as an artist. He revered Cézanne for the "anxiety" that his work expressed; an anxiety possibly caused by Cézanne's limited technical ability, a problem he solved by a number of structural innovations, which inspired Picasso to do the same. "To Cézanne, painting was a matter of life and death", according to Picasso.
Les Demoisselles d'Avignon
In the world of modern art, the year 1905 belonged to Henri Matisse. During the Salon d'Automne (Paris art show) Matisse had shocked the art world with innovative paintings and a new -ism was born when art critic Louis Vauxcelles referred to Matisse and his followers as the "fauves" (wild animals), hence "fauvism". Matisse had become the Messiah of contemporary art, a role Picasso had envisaged for himself. During 1906, Picasso became ever more restless, resulting in long days and nights of continuous drawing and sketching. He was preparing for Les Demoisselles.
His subject matter was a brothel and the five figures in the painting represent prosititutes. Picasso's sketchbooks show his countless attempts at solving the compositional problems he had, with ordering the five figures in a manner that was both logical and artistically convincing. He finally cracked it by an using a canvas of unusual dimensions, following El Greco's painting "The Fifth Seal", which is almost square, a little higher than wide. Towards the end of his Rose Period, Picasso had already started his pictorial experiments with bodily disfiguration, but to his contempories nothing he had made before was so radical as Les Demoisselles. The contrast between the sexuality and femininity on the one hand and the "African masks" on the other hand would shock even Picasso's friends, who were avant-garde artists themselves.
As mentioned above, to Picasso African art represented exorcism, but also masculinity. As such, Les Demoisselles is a quaint combination of stylistic and sexual extremes. Masculinity and femininity, as well as painterly refinement and crudeness. This fullfilled Picasso's desire to be "bien couillarde" as an artist, but also reflected his bohemian lifestyle and his mingling with people of "convoluted sexuality".
The irony of the matter is, that these very people (Picasso's friends), who were sexually experimental and basically did everything that "God forbids", were so shocked at seeing Les Demoisselles that they declared Picasso insane and avoided him for a period of time. Picasso had reached his goal of surpassing Matisse and become the leading artistic innovator, but abandonned by his friends he experienced the public reaction to innovative genius.
From there on Picasso would become very cautious with his artistic relationship with the general public and essentially hid his more innovative works - Les Demoisselles was sold only in 1925. During his cubist period, Picasso used Georges Braques to draw most attention from people interested in cubism, also because Picasso realized that his Spanish nationality wouldn't help his case in France. Although Picasso wanted to be an innovator more than anything, Les Demoisselles made him keenly aware of the social risks and he quickly learned (and proved to have a talent for) walking on political egg shells.
La Bande à Picasso
La Bande à Picasso refers to Picasso's circle of friends which formed during the first decade of the 20th century. The core of La Bande was formed (besides Picasso himself) by three poets: Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob and André Salmon and Picasso had written "rendez-vous des poètes" on the door of his studio at the Bateau Lavoir.
Most artists have a "second art form", in which they dabble at various degrees of success, in Picasso's case this would be poetry.
It's doubtful, as some hard-core Picasso devotees assert, that Picasso was one of the major Spanish poets of his time, but his interest in poetry was lifelong and profound. La Bande à Picasso would also be joined by painters, but, possible rivals as they were, Picasso would remain closer to his poet-friends.
Although highly intelligent, Picasso was not a typical intellectual and he used his poet-friends to complement his own, hands-on approach to art. Picasso had a fantastic ability to learn from, and use, the ideas of other artists and such was the "great cannibal of modern art".
La Bande à Picasso in a broader sense was Picasso's careful selection of the best minds of Parisian modern art. As an established artist, he could be very generous towards emerging young artists, as long as they could contribute to Picasso's own artistic-intellectual wealth.
To the benefit of his band, Picasso was also a notorious matchmaker, and took pleasure in finding suitable partners for his friends.
As such he set up Apollinaire with Marie Laurençin, an eccentric and highly sexed young paintress. Nobody in La Banda really liked her, for her manipulative and effect-oriented manners, but because she was an artist of considerable talent, she was good enough for Apollinaire. Laurençin described how the men of La Bande would constantly insult each other, unless they were drunk and treated each other with excessive politeness.
Women played a secondary role in La Bande and many biographers regard Picasso as "misogynistic" (hateful of women), but one has to see Picasso in a Southern European context, in which men romanticize women to divine proportions, to the point that daily reality forces them to take more distance than a "cool Northerner" will.
This Picasso biography continues with Picasso's cubism.
1. A Life of Picasso, part II (1907 - 1917), John Richardson, Random House, ISBN 0-394-55918-5
2. Picasso, by Carsten-Peter Warncke - Ingo F. Walther, Taschen GmbH, ISBN 3-8228-1260-9.