The artwork “Women of Avignon 2019” by Ygal Presler is a revision of the prominent masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, created in 1906-7 by Pablo Picasso. Presler, in his work, modified a reproduction of the original work, applying an additional deconstructive process in a technique similar to a lenticular print or an Agamograph. As the viewer moves in the room from one side of the image to the other, a transformation occurs, and the image gradually changes; the naked damsels from Picasso’s painting become adorned with the finest French couture clothing. Presler’s piece is more than a recent interpretation – but presents a possibility for time travel, both symbolically and physically, with the viewer’s movement. “Women of Avignon 2019” accentuates and updates the critical aspect of Picasso’s masterpiece. It raises questions regarding the impact and influence of passing fashions and design concepts on the art world’s conventions of aesthetic taste, which operate as a reflection of society’s relation to intimacy, culturalism, economy and itself.
In Picasso’s painting there are 5 naked damsels in a brothel in Avignon, depicted with a curtain backdrop and a still-life theme of a bowl of fruit that was popular at the time. The figures of the damsels and the backdrop are fragmented, flattened and distorted. In the revisited work, Presler modified a reproduction of the original work by applying an additional deconstructive process, using a technique similar to a lenticular print or an Agamograph. This is a kinetic and illusory technique based on the viewers’ movement in space and their angle of vision, in order to layer the single image with additional images and meanings. By turning the surface of the picture into a three dimensional relief with triangular grooves, the image becomes multi surfaced, allowing the presentation of two images simultaneously and changes gradually as the viewer moves from one side to the other. Bit by bit, and with the viewer’s shifting gaze, a transformation occurs and the naked damsels are becoming covered with the finest French couture clothing.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is one of the most recognised of Picasso’s paintings, and is considered to be the instigator of the entire Cubist movement, which symbolizes a new era in art, deviating from traditional representational art. The significance of the piece stems from the history of art discourse that followed the public display of the painting. The depiction of objects and their deconstruction in the painting were so unfamiliar and novel that no viewer stayed indifferent. There is still a vast debate regarding the full motives behind Picasso’s aesthetic choices in the painting, yet one thing is clear – the effect of the painting is provocative and shocking. John Berger, the British art critic, claimed that the painting’s shocking appearance is derived from this very deconstruction and the damsels’ direct yet distant gazes – like cattle facing death. Some of the women wearing African masks, whose geometric shape corresponds with the style of the painting, but also draws attention to their glazed and ghastly stare.
The fragmentation of objects in Les Demoiselles is part of Picasso’s attempt to show each painted object’s true and whole presence: as opposed to renaissance tradition and linear perspective, that achieve the illusion of depth by allocating one vanishing point and thus one point of view, Picasso constructed the objects in his painting from fragments of multiple viewpoints all at once, suggesting a multiplicity of gazes on the prostitutes, who are showcasing themselves. This technique transforms the viewer into a living part of the painting – as another visitor to the brothel who faces the prostitutes’ gaze, and is being exposed to the violent nature of this encounter.
When Presler revisits this painting and reconstructing it in an Agamograph style, he is not only introducing a new interpretation, but presents the audience with the possibility for time travel. Wherein Picasso’s formal deconstruction aimed to create the object’s totality by showing its multiple spatial facades, Preseler is now introducing an additional dimension – the viewer’s mobility through space and time. As the viewer moves through the space, his current point of view changes the actual appearance of the piece, thus the travel through time occurs both symbolically and physically. By standing directly in front of the piece the viewer can experience both the historic image and Presler’s contemporary version simultaneously.
The women of Avignon of 2019 are no longer naked. They are adorned with leading elite fashion brands of this time. One can identify brand logos of Louis Vuitton, Prada, Dior, Channel and others. Elite fashion is one way for an individual to express her socio-economic status with a cultural item. When an item of clothing becomes an item of fashion, it means that it has become an active agent or component of the social symbolic system, holds value and meaning as part of culture, and a testament to the social affiliation of the person who wears it. This could explain the transition of elite fashion to common people’s fashion, and one of the lowest classes on the street, such as the prostitutes of Avignon. Similarly to the use of African masks in the original painting that cover and hide the women’s faces, the women of Avignon of 2019 wear a fashionable cultural merchandise to mask their cultural identity. The piece showcases consumer society and sheds light on the cultural phenomena of Status Consumption, which describes the process in which individuals strive to improve their social status by the consumption of products that symbolize status for themselves and others.
The transformation of a certain cultural item into an item of fashion also exposes the inherent paradoxical nature of fashion: fashion or current fashion acquires its meaning from the steady shifts between conventions and their disruption; between what is the right item to wear and what is original and unexpected; conformity and individualism. Fashion combines these paradoxes and neutralizing them in the form of banality. The original designs of elite fashion, under customer demand, attain endless cheap imitations in the vast global market. In this way fashion cancels its own prestige and uniqueness. To compare this logic to the process of painting and art would be to see Picasso’s painting as a remark on the common traditions of his time – they became so fashionable that it holds the same tensions as the experience of intimacy in a brothel.
The artwork by Presler “Women of Avignon 2019” is not merely referring to Picasso’s masterpiece as a ready-made object, but adds layers of meaning. It accentuates and updates the critical aspect of Picasso’s masterpiece. It raises questions regarding the impact and influence of passing fashions on the art world’s conventions of aesthetic taste, which operate as a reflection of society’s relation to intimacy, culturalism, economy and itself.
Berger, John (1965). The Success and Failure of Picasso. Penguin Books, Ltd. pp. 73–77.
Lomas, D, 1993. A canon of deformity: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and physical anthropology’. Art History, 16(3).
Steinberg, L. The Philosophical Brothel. October, no. 44, Spring 1988. 7–74. First published in Art News vol. LXXI, September/October 1972
Clark, R.A., Zboja, J.J. and Goldsmith, R.E., 2007. Status consumption and role-relaxed consumption: A tale of two retail consumers. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 14(1), pp.45-59.
Esposito, E., 2011. Originality through imitation: The rationality of fashion. Organization Studies, 32(5), pp.603-613.