About 'Les Nouvelles Demoiselles d'Avignon' by Johannes Wickert
(Oil on canvas, 230 x 200 cm)
Essay by Dr. Hanna Peter-Raupp, historian of art, Cologne (GER)
In his "Nouvelles Demoiselles d'Avignon", Johannes Wickert quotes Picasso in an ostensible attempt to set to rights that world of images which Picasso had put out of joint at its opening.
Is it meant as homage or as sacrilege? At any rate it is a provocative response to Picasso, and thus a challenge involving claims which must be justified.
The female nude has become the ideal and paradigm of western art in general. The anecdotes about painters of classical antiquity suggest that even at this early period the representation of naked female beauty was considered one of the highest achievements of art.
The best-known of these anecdotes – that in which the Greek painter Zeuxis, commissioned to paint a beautiful Helen for the town of Kroton, insists on having the five most beautiful girls as models so that he can unite the most beautiful parts of their bodies to an ideal figure – has found a distant echo in the pentad of the "Demoiselles".
The Renaissance and Baroque painters, foremost among them Peter Paul Rubens, breathed a new, more luscious and sensual life into the goddesses, graces and nymphs of antiquity. To the avant-garde of the 19th century, the classical nude was the quintessence of artistic autonomy.
The quotation becomes the hallmark of this autonomy. It testifies that art, far from being the slavish imitator of nature, has its own self-set standards to contend with. But because "originality" is always expected of the modern artist, there is invariably an additional element of provocation inherent in the quotation.
Thus the quotation of nude motifs from "Old Masters" became the leitmotif of an aggressive modernity. In 1864, in his scandal-provoking "Déjeuner sur l'Herbe", Edouard Manet quotes an idyll of Giorgione's together with a group of figures from Raphael's "Judgement of Paris" which in 1518 in an engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi had itself "shocked the whole of Rome" ("ne stupì tutta Roma", as the biographer Giorgio Vasari puts it).
For Paul Cézanne "Les Baigneuses " became a lifelong challenge, the central theme in his search for self-reassurance as an artist, and again and again he sought and found support and fresh energy in encounters with originals from the 16th and 17th centuries.
Picasso’s "Demoiselles d'Avignon", painted in 1907, the work which founded cubism and broke all the artistic taboos of the time, for its living also depends on the presence of the classical tradition.
In the poses in which the three women on the left present themselves, the composition of the "Judgement of Paris" shines through. The woman standing in the middle quotes the "Venus of Milo" – the very essence of classical female beauty throughout the 19th century and right up to Picasso‘s time.
The connection between the five women and the five girls of Zeuxis in Kroton permits a further classical association: this very Zeuxis was famous for his ability to paint still lives of such deceptive realism that the birds came to peck at the painted grapes. In his "Demoiselles", Picasso has also accorded a place to the still life. In doing so, he is taking a shy at Zeuxis as the reputed founder of classical painting: that painting which relies on a combination of ideal beauty and illusionistic powers of persuasion, the prototype of the very conception of art which Picasso parodies and demolishes with subtly calculated violence.
As against this violence, it might at first sight appear as though Johannes Wickert were attempting to reverse Picasso's demolition work. We find no comparable deformation or fragmentation here; instead, we find a composition of classically austere arrangement, grouped around a central figure on the middle axis of the picture, the disposition of the figures in space apparently determined by the logic of perspective.
The gathering of the curtain on the left compares the picture to a stage, the action to a performance – likewise an old conceit pointing back to Baroque traditions.
An unequivocally upright format takes the place of Picasso's bewildering quasi-square (244 x 233.7 cm).
Yet all that this picture does is to make certain latent features of Picasso's "Demoiselles" itself clearly visible. Picasso, too, had created a composition classically balanced around a middle axis, and in accordance with a well-tried traditional prescription had opened the group of figures with the figure in profile on the left. His composition, too, includes space. It is created by the overlapping of the figures and by the contrast between warm colours suggestive of closeness and cold colours suggestive of distance.
Picasso even defines the observer's viewpoint in the classical manner halfway up the picture so that the lower half seems to be viewed from above. Johannes Wickert fixes this viewpoint in the pubic triangle of the standing woman.
If we take a closer look at the relationship between colour and pictorial space, we realise that the initial impression of "perspective" in Johannes Wickert's "Demoiselles" is an illusion. The reddish brown beneath the figures does represent the floor in the foreground, but it goes on to ascend behind the back of the figure in profile on the left in a way which can hardly be defined in representational terms. The blue of the background does not permit us to ascertain exactly where the wall begins or what it is the woman facing the front is actually sitting on. The curtains which are drawn back for us give the impression of a spatial vista ("perspective") which in fact is not there. Segments of coloured surface form abstract intervals between the representational shapes.
Picasso sharply contrasts the "warm" yellow and brown of the foreground with the "cold" whitish grey and blue of the background.
In Johannes Wickert's painting, a subtly differentiated scale of blue shades generates an atmosphere which stresses the spatial unity of the scene while at the same time evoking the magic moment in which every movement of the figures comes to a standstill.
The figures of the women themselves present a crass contrast to the original. As against Picasso's deformations, their bodies retain their organic integrity. As against the primitivistic line-drawings and barbaric masks, their faces express individual personalities. Their very feet have their own respective "physiognomic" identities. This attentiveness to the significance of ostensibly commonplace things is characteristic of the painter Johannes Wickert.
The shock effect of Picasso's "Demoiselles" derives from the contrast between the uncovering and flaunting of naked bodies and the ugliness thereby displayed.
He deforms nature, at the same time refusing to comply with the demand for artistic beauty. Picasso aggravates the provocative effect by demonstrating in every detail of his picture that far from being an ingenuous barbarian he is very well aware of the classical tradition and has a consummate grasp of its rules.
To try to repeat the shock effect of this provocation would be merely idle epigonism. Instead Johannes Wickert has used Picasso's painting to undertake his own fresh artistic explorations.
As a "people-painter", which is how he sees himself, he shows that there is no credible pathway back to the classical ideal. His posing women are neither ideally proportioned in the classical sense, nor do they come up to present-day "model" standards. They have obviously been painted from life and thus represent the actuality of the time being.
By virtue of their very ugliness and primitivism, Picasso's "Demoiselles" display a demonic sexuality. The name Avignon, as is well known, did not only signify the town on the Rhône, but was also the name of a brothel in the Carrer d'Avinyó in Barcelona. The original idea for the picture was inspired by prostitutes offering themselves for selection by a client.
Since painting took up the theme of the brothel interior, i.e. since the Dutch genre painting of the 16th and 17th centuries, it has been part of the business of such pictures to reveal the inseparability of temptation and danger, physical beauty and moral ugliness, the vanity and evanescence of sensual pleasure. Picasso's "Demoiselles" do indeed preserve the memory of this moralizing tradition: a symbolic relic of his previous phase as well as an expression of "machismo" and the familiar disgust with himself experienced by the visitor to the brothel "afterwards".
Johannes Wickert has discarded and dispensed with this association with brothels. Although the visual focus of the picture rests on the crotch of the woman standing in the middle, she and her companions are lacking in erotic or aggressive "appeal". The women are not offering themselves for sexual use, but are posing as artist's models. Their postures and their arrangement in groups have been laid down by the painter in accordance with Picasso's original. The brothel scene has turned into a studio scene.
This studio is run on professional lines; the art of painting is demonstrated not to have come to a halt with Picasso in the 20th century.
The use of colours to structure the surface rather than to generate space is reminiscent of Matisse and the "fauves". The still life with fruit on the deliberately crumpled drapery of the white cloth has a consciously artificial look which calls Cézanne to mind.
The emphatic contours and angular moulding of the female nudes are the manifest result of a vision which has passed through the filter of the "Neue Sachlichkeit".
The conclusions to be drawn are obvious:
Johannes Wickert has not duplicated Picasso, nor has he reverted to the pre-Picasso age. What he has achieved is a highly consistent demonstration of the fact that even after Picasso the nude as the artistic theme par excellence still remains a challenge for the painter. He has paid his respects to Picasso – to this extent the picture can in fact be understood as "homage". But at the same time he has shown that there are other significant aspects of "classical modernity" apart from the art of Picasso.
As a reminder of the great age of painting in the first two decades of the last century, Johannes Wickert's "Demoiselles" revives the conception of art history which has its roots in the Romantic period, the term "Romantic" in this case signifying the endeavour not to abandon historical works of art to the past, but to activate them for the present.
Thus this artwork proves to us that at our time classical pictorial traditions can still constitute productive challenges to an artist, if only he dares to take them up.