Aveneu Park, Starling, Australia

A imposed on by the tribal masks.

A
separation between the viewer and the painting occurs firstly with the use of
the tribal masks- assuming this viewer is a heterosexual white male audience in
1907- the masked nude prostitutes signify a threatening sexual boundary and
mystery. Chave states that the use of prostitution “marks the indelible social
boundary between the sexes: between men, who can routinely contract for the
sexual services of women, and women, who have never had a comparable
opportunity”.  1However,
the figures in Les Demoiselles do not at all look vulnerable, instead they have
stances of power, and an almost predatory allure to them. Picassos subverts the
ideals of classical themes of vulnerability or sexual innocence that was often
used and these figures within Les
Demoiselles perform quite the opposite; “The radical treatment of the
traditional idealized nude female announces the end of the old world of art
with a new, staggering violence”.2 The
female form staged in such a threatening way, dictating what would be seen as
an excess of sexuality and most importantly masked, portrays aggression and in
some cases makes the viewer fearful or anxious. The context of prostitution and
these figures having belonged to some sort of brothel displayed for to the male
viewer, again identifies Picasso’s staggering awareness of exploitation and the
appropriation of it. Whilst seemingly exploiting the exploited in Les Demoiselles, the figures animalistic
sexual display is not only entrancing but threatens its viewer with the concept
of eroticising of the exotic.

From
the figure at the front of the image, squatting and almost mocking the viewers
with her backside, we can identify confidence within the figures obvious sexual
nature. Picasso’s figures do not look ashamedly vulnerable, instead, they
flaunt the lines that he has given them and exude mystifying confidence.
Contextually, of course, the idea of a woman being outwardly vocal or confident
with her sexuality, was a threat to society in general. The fear of a
prostitute that would’ve been openly brazen with her body would’ve been anxiety
inducing for both men and women. For a woman to be owning the space in which
they were granted, would’ve been hard to imagine. The primitivism and the
sexual display from these figures are divided into what seems like two parts.
The two paler figures making direct eye contact with the viewer, with a
hypnotic yet empty gaze, and another two figures with heads imposed on by the
tribal masks. On the outskirts, another two figures staring more menacingly at
these two almost (despite their facial expression) femme fatales with their
arms behind their heads. The figure crouching, in my opinion, intrigues me the
most. It is as if her back is to the viewer, yet her tribal mask has fully
rotated to face the front connecting directly with viewer. The directness of
this mask puts these figures in a confused position of power almost mocking all
those that view them with horror. The violence and the threat of such an
eroticised exotic image clearly became a thrill to Picasso, but undoubtedly, he
manipulates this thrill and intrigue into the appropriation of African and
colonial exploitation. The appropriation of the tribal masks used on the female
figures act as a masquerade. This is largely reminiscent of the racist
caricatures that he observed that involved similar uses of these Africanised
exotic figures and tribal masks. Rather distastefully, the appropriation and
mimicry of such sacred and powerful symbols belonging to the African culture reminds
us of Picasso’s racial, gender and class privileges and puts him in the
ultimate position of power and control; “Mimicry is an act of appropriation and
one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and
knowledge”. 3
The cubist techniques and flattening of the pictorial space, announces
two-dimensionality when using these sexualised female forms. As Steinberg says
in The Philosophical Brothel, “this
is an interior space in compression like the

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