Where? Floor 5, Gallery 2 of the Museum of Modern Art
What do you see? Five nude women in a brothel. The women are not interacting with each other. The woman on the left holds back a curtain to show the other women. The woman to her right and the woman in the middle are looking boldly at the viewer while exposing their bodies. It is unclear whether they are standing or laying down. Look, for example, at the second woman from the left. Her legs are partly crossed, she has a sheet between her legs and her arm behind her head. The woman in the middle and the two women to her left have relatively normal faces. The two women on the right wear African masks. During the time that Picasso created this painting, he was interested in African artifacts, such as African tribal masks. The woman on the bottom right has her head turned around 180 degrees to look at the viewer, while the standing woman on the right appears from behind a curtain. Picasso uses a lot of angular shapes, like triangles and diamonds, in this painting, to simplify the painting and make it quite abstract. In the foreground is a table in an impossible position to hold the bowl of fruit. In the bowl, we can recognize an apple, a pear, grapes, and a pink slice of melon.
Backstory: The French title of this painting is translated as ‘The Young Women of Avignon.’ Avignon refers to a notorious street in the red light district of Barcelona, Spain. Picasso was familiar with this area as he frequented it while skipping school as a teenager and he had also lived nearby it. Picasso, however, disliked the title of this painting which was given by his friend André Salmon for an exposition in 1916 of which the painting was a part of. Picasso preferred the title ‘Mon Bordel’ which means ‘My Brothel’ or ‘Le Bordel d’Avignon’ which means ‘The Brothel of Avignon.’ Fellow artists and friends were initially shocked by this painting as the women in this painting were so ugly. Nowadays, this painting is considered to be one of the most revolutionary paintings of the 20th century, and it is one of the works that marks the beginning of Modern Art. One of the closest, earlier works to this painting is probably The Large Bathers by Paul Cézanne in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, created between 1898 and 1905. This is a painting that Picasso had seen shortly before finishing Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In 1939, the Museum of Modern Art completed a $24,000 transaction to acquire this painting.
What is Cubism? The idea behind cubism is that all forms in nature can be reduced to three solids: cube, sphere, and cone. This reduction was an idea of Paul Cézanne. Basically, the objects in a painting are analyzed, divided into pieces, and then painted in a more abstract form. Thus, realistic details like perspective and color are omitted and replaced by the three solids proposed by Cézanne. There are different stages of cubism. The first paintings with elements of cubism emerged around 1907, and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso is by many considered to be the first painting with cubist elements. In the following years, the idea of cubism was further developed leading to even more abstract works. The period starting in 1909 is called High Cubism, and this transitioned around 1914 into Late Cubism.
Who is Picasso? Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was born in Malaga, Spain. In his teenage years, he moved to Barcelona, but most of his adult life he lived in France. He was an artistic talent and has created many paintings, sculptures, and poems. Picasso was an innovative artist who developed a large number of art styles. Every few years he drastically changed his art style. For example, between 1901 and 1904, he was in his Blue Period. Two great examples from that period are La Vie which is at the Cleveland Museum of Art and Old Guitarist which is at the Art Institute of Chicago. Between 1904 and 1906 was his Rose Period. In the decade after his Rose Period, he developed various forms of cubism. Together with Georges Braque, Picasso pioneered the cubist art movement, inspired by artists such as Cézanne, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec.
Fun fact: Based on sketches by Picasso, we know that he initially planned to include two additional figures in this painting (see one of those sketches here). On the left was a medical student arriving at the scene with a textbook in one hand and a skull in his other hand. A sailor, representing a client, was sitting in the middle of the five woman. Picasso wanted to make the point that, at that time, the women often carried sexually transmitted diseases, like syphilis, which could be deadly for them and their clients. Sometimes you could see the symptoms of these diseases in the faces of the prostitutes, and this may be the reason that Picasso added two masks to the painting. Picasso, however, decided to not include the two men in the final painting to make the message a bit more abstract.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster of canvas.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Floor 5, Gallery 1 of the Museum of Modern Art
What do you see? The arrival of the evening in Grandcamp on the Northwest coast of France. The sky is a beautiful combination of white, silver, and gray. On the right is the Atlantic Ocean with a single sailboat. Seurat painted the sea and the sky using small horizontal brush strokes to indicate the direction in which the sea and sky are moving. In contrast, he painted the using dots of paint, which you can see very clearly when standing close to the painting. Some of the objects are very unclear from up-close. For example, look at the sailboat on the sea. However, from a distance, all the dots and small brush strokes come together, and the different elements of the painting become very clear. From a distance, we have no problem identifying a sailboat in this painting.
Backstory: In 1885, Seurat spent his Summer in Grandcamp, Normandy, on the French coast. That Summer he painted several seascapes. Two examples of other works he created in Grandcamp that Summer are Ruins at Grandcamp in the Musée d’Orsay and Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp in Tate Modern.
Beyond Impressionism: Impressionism developed under the lead of Édouard Manet in the 1860s and by the 1880s, Impressionism gained some popularity. However, among the next generation of artists, there were several innovative painters that went beyond Impressionism, usually labeled under the umbrella term Post-Impressionism. Seurat developed Neo-Impressionism, which is discussed below. Van Gogh used brighter colors and expressed his emotions in his paintings. Toulouse-Lautrec was a brilliant observer and drawer and started to develop advertisement posters. Gauguin developed Synthetism by focusing on the purity of colors and forms. Cézanne changed the way in which color was applied to the painting to create shapes and depth. Together, these artists have laid the groundwork for Modern Art as developed during the 20th century.
What is Neo-Impressionism? An art movement created by Georges Seurat in 1884. Neo-Impressionism involved a scientific interpretation of colors and lines. The paint was applied in pure, unmixed dots and blocks of colors, creating a strong sense of organization. Scientific principles guided the choice of contrasting colors such that the colors interacted optically (instead of mixing the colors in the painting). This creates a special effect for the viewer. Looking at the paintings from nearby, one sees a lot of dots of pure colors. However, from a distance, these colors interact beautifully, and the painting becomes a unified whole of almost unmatched clarity. One great example of this style from 1892 is Femmes au Puits by Paul Signac in the Musée d’Orsay. A later example from 1902 is Old Woman by Pablo Picasso in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Who is Seurat? Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859-1891) was born and raised in Paris. He only became 31 years old and died in the midst of his career from an unknown disease. He was a Post-Impressionist painter. He can be classified even more accurately as a Neo-Impressionist painter. He received a classical art training at the traditional École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. While his painting style was far from traditional, his ideas benefited greatly from his education. He used a scientific approach to painting, whereby different colors can create different emotions and combining specific colors can create harmony in a painting. He decided not to combine colors in a painting, but instead to apply the colors separately, using small dots, and let the viewer combine the colors in his/her mind. The best-known painting by Seurat is probably A Sunday at La Grande Jatte – 1884 by Seurat in the Art Institute of Chicago.
Fun fact: Seurat completed this painting in 1885. Only three years later, he added the border of the painting. He did this to increase the brightness of the colors. This addition perfectly fits with the ideas and style of painting that Seurat used. The colors are carefully chosen to complement each other, and the contrasting colors in the border make the painting itself, and especially the sea and the sky stand out more.
Where? Floor 5, Gallery 1 of the Museum of Modern Art
When? June 1889
What do you see? This painting is an imaginative version of a starry night in Saint-Rémy in France where Van Gogh was staying at that time. The various elements in this painting are certainly inspired by what Van Gogh observed in reality, but he created his own ideal version of the starry night. In the painting, we can observe some trees, a village, and mountains under a night sky full of stars (or more precisely a collection of 12 celestial bodies). In the foreground, you can observe a big wavy cypress tree. The cypress is an element that comes back in multiple Van Gogh paintings, such as the Wheat Field with Cypresses in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On the top right is a crescent moon. The brightest celestial body in the painting, just to the right of the cypress tree, is the planet Venus. The celestial bodies light up the sky (indicated by the use of white paint in the night sky). The church tower in the middle foreground is probably the Saint-Martin church in Saint-Rémy. Van Gogh, however, did not include the dome of the church in this painting. In the village surrounding the church, several houses still have their lights on. On the right side of the painting, between the village and the mountains, you can see a forest. The curvy lines used for the cypress tree and the clouds in the sky create a sense of movement in this painting. Notice also the clear contrast between the turbulent sky and the quiet life on earth. The cypress in the form of a big fire is the only element that connects the earth and sky with each other.
Backstory: The painting is created between June 16 and 18, 1889 when Van Gogh was staying in the hospital of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole at Saint-Rémy. In a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote: “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.” He mixed this view both with some other elements that he observed in the area of Saint-Rémy and his imagination to create this painting. Van Gogh used thick broad strokes of oil paint to create this painting and it was probably created in a single day (even though the idea for this painting was already occupying his mind for over a year). If you look carefully, you can still see some pieces of the canvas in between the broad strokes of paint.
Symbolism: There is some debate on whether this painting should be interpreted symbolically. One symbolic explanation for this painting centers around the cypress which connects the earth to the sky in this painting. The cypress tree is associated with cemeteries and death. In this painting, it could be the connection between life (which happens on earth) and death (which is when you go to the stars according to Van Gogh). Van Gogh wrote in one of his letters “We take death to go to a star.” Van Gogh, who would eventually commit suicide, was interested in death and he expressed some ideas that one would go to the stars after death.
Other versions of the Starry Night? Van Gogh was already interested in the idea of painting a starry night in 1888 as expressed in several letters to his friends and brother. Indeed, in 1888 he painted two versions of a starry night. The first version is Café Terrace at Night which is in the Kröller-Müller Museum in The Netherlands. The second version is Starry Night over the Rhône which is in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. However, these two paintings did not fulfill his idea of a perfect starry night. Instead of a starry night above a town, he was more interested in a starry night above a landscape and a more imaginative version of the night sky.
Who is Van Gogh? Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was born in Zundert in The Netherlands. At the end of his life, he created many paintings that fall under the post-impressionist style. Van Gogh has produced a large number of paintings during his life and most of them have been painted in the last two years of his life. In addition, many letters that he wrote, many of which to his brother Theo, have been saved. In these letters, he explained his ideas about painting and they form a valuable source to interpret some of his works. The work of Van Gogh was not really appreciated during his life, but his work has become famous after his suicide in 1890.
Fun fact: While this is nowadays considered to be one of the best paintings by Vincent van Gogh, he did not seem very proud of this painting. When he wrote a letter to his brother Theo after he left Saint-Rémy, he did not mention this painting as a good one. In fact, he listed several paintings, including the Wheatfield with Cypresses, as “a little good.” About the other paintings from that period, including this painting, he writes “the rest says nothing to me.” His brother Theo seems to agree that The Starry Night is not his best work. He was worried about the more imaginary nature of this work compared to the somewhat more realistic paintings he created before. He advised Vincent to stick to still lifes and flowers as that would have more therapeutic value for the mentally troubled Vincent.
Where? In the Museum of Modern Art, but currently not on display.
What do you see? A nude woman from Tahiti sits on a blue and white blanket. She is sitting in a dignified position with her back very straight, like the old Egyptians depicted people in art. She has some white flowers in her hair and in her left hand she holds a flowering mango (seed) that she seems to offer to the viewer. This flowering mango symbolizes fertility and was the sacred fruit of the Areoi society. On the bottom right is a three-legged table (called an umete in Polynesian) with more mangos in different colors. The woman is sitting against a background of pink flowers. In the background is the beautiful landscape of Tahiti which shows some mountains, water, trees, and a piece of the sky. Gauguin kept this painting relatively simple and did, for example, not include any shadows. He created a very colorful painting where the colors are not all very realistic.
Backstory: This painting is also known under the Polynesian title Te Aa No Areois as can be seen in the bottom left corner. The painting was bought in 1936 by William S. Paley, a trustee, and the later president of the Museum of Modern Art. It was the first Gauguin painting acquired by the MoMA. Gauguin signed and dated the painting on the left side of the table with fruit in the foreground. The composition of the painting is similar to another Gauguin painting entitled Her Name is Vaïraümati (or Vairaumati Tei Oa) which is in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. This painting deals with a similar theme, which is the origin of the Areoi society.
Who are the Areoi? Also referred to as the Arioi, it is a secret religious society in French Polynesia which does not exist anymore. At its origin is a myth about the god Oro who has intercourse with the most beautiful woman on earth, Vaïraümati, which results in the creation of a new race. The society had a hierarchical structure with several classes or ranks. While everyone, both men and women, could theoretically enter into each class within the Areoi, the highest classes were in practice mainly accessible for people from the higher classes of society. The highest class was reserved for priests. Access to the society depended on your beauty, religious knowledge, recitation skills, and dancing skills. Moving up through the ranks was confirmed by increasingly large tattoos. Members of the society had sexual freedom until they married and were not allowed to get children. Most of the French Polynesian islands had their Areoi order, and they all had a place of worship and several houses in which the members met and where members of the other islands could stay.
Who is Gauguin? Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was a post-impressionist painter from Paris. He was a self-taught painter without any formal education. He spent a large time of his youth in Peru where he developed his taste for traveling and exotic countries. In 1891, he moved to Tahiti in French Polynesia where he stayed until 1893 when he temporarily moved back to France. In 1895, he returned to Tahiti where he spent most of his time until his death in 1903. He is widely known for the idyllic and colorful paintings he made in French Polynesia. His work has had a big influence on artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Other well-known works of Gauguin from his first period in French Polynesia are Hail Mary in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and In the Vanilla Grove, Man and Horse in the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Fun fact: The girl in this painting is the Tahitian mistress/wife of Gauguin. Her name is Tehura, and she is 13 years old at the time of this painting. Soon after this painting, she was pregnant. She is depicted as Vaïraümati, the wife of the god Oro, who gave birth to a son who formed the beginning of the Areoi. Gauguin wanted to paint the origins of this secret society which he claimed to have learned from Tehura. However, it is now assumed that Gauguin learned about this society through a travel book by Jacques-Antoine Moerenhout. In fact, Tehura was not aware at first that she was depicted as the mother of the Areoi.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster of canvas.