Whose avant-garde to follow? The Joy of Life or The Young Ladies of Avignon?


Picasso – Transfigurations, 1895-1972. Photo taken at the 2016 MNG exhibition, MTI/ Szigetváry Zsolt

As a language of communication, art has to conform to the norms of communication in order to convey most efficiently the message it seeks to deliver. It is for this reason that a recurring critique against art is that the artist has not mastered the skill of proper communication.


Much incomprehension in modern art stems from the accusation that the artist cannot paint or draw, implying that he cannot use the language of art properly, hence he is a swindler, trying to deceive the audience without merit. As negative propaganda can also generate interest, sheer provocation or scandal can create undeserved fame, damaging the livelihood of artists and the credibility of “true” art.


This was precisely the accusation made against Matisse’ The joy of life. Painted in 1906, Matisse could exhibit his picture only because he was member of the selection committee of the Salon des Indépendants (Society of Independent Artists), and his work was therefore exempt from having to receive the jury’s permission.


Leo Steinberg[1] quotes the objections Paul Signac, then vice-president of the Salon, and head of the jury made to a friend:


“Matisse seems to have gone to the dogs. Upon a canvas of two and a half meters, he has surrounded some strange characters with a line as thick as your thumb. Then he has covered the whole thing with a flat, well-defined tint which, however pure, seems disgusting. It evokes the multicolored shop fronts of the merchants of paint, varnishes and household goods.”


Hardly a year later, Matisse himself became outraged at Picasso’s 1907 painting entitled Les Demoiselles d’Avignon which he considered “an attempt to ridicule the whole modern movement.”


The stakes of the rivalry between the two artists was competition for leadership and the new norms to be followed in art. Matisse is identified with initiating the fauvist movement, while The Young Ladies of Avignon, originally titled The Brothel of Avignon is among the first masterpieces of cubism. Both works transcend perspective, but Picasso’s experiment, itself inspired by Paul Cézanne’s earlier, analytical experimentation, created endless room for further exploration in that respect.


The two rivals, later friends would revere each other in curiosity and awe stemming partly from the diverging paths their art took them over the years.



A 100-piece collection of Picasso’s works was exhibited at the Hungarian National Gallery in 2016 with the help of the Musée National Picasso-Paris.

[1] “Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public” Harper’s Magazine, March 1962. Reprinted in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, New York: Oxford University Press, 1972, pp 3-4.


#mng #HungarianNationalGallery #Matisse #TheJoyofLife #Picasso #LesDemoisellesdAvignon #TheYoungLadiesofAvignon #TheBrothelofAvignon #avantgarde #fauvism #cubism

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