In the course of 1906 Picasso turned more and more resolutely away from subjective expression, and, as becomes fully apparent in the light of his subsequent development, concentrated on objective, formal problems. He thus shares in the general artistic current of those years, even though the path he follows is his own and unique.
Significantly enough, it was only then, shortly before the death of Cézanne, that the epochal importance of Cézanne’s contribution to painting began to be realized. Ten Cézanne canvases were exhibited at the Autumn Salons of 1905 and 1906; the memorial exhibition of 1907 for the first time conveyed the overwhelming greatness of this painter who had repeatedly come to grips with the fundamental problem of representing the third dimension on the picture surface.
The Fauves, who under the leadership of Matisse made their first public appearance at the Salon of 1905, also subordinated subject matter to form conceived as an end in itself, but they followed Gauguin in their one-sided concern with color and decorative values, and neglected the spatial problem raised by Cézanne. For that reason Matisse, whom Picasso met in 1906, did not influence him to any important extent. Picasso was interested precisely in discovering the laws governing the representation of threedimensional form on the flat surface, whereas Fauvism with its fanatical cult of color was in a sense a continuation of Impressionism, which ultimately gave up any attempt to render volumes.
Only Cézanne, who sought to combine the Impressionist heritage with a solid structuring of the picture surface, could be of possible use to Picasso—and Picasso realized this with his usual clear-mindedness. Picasso’s hour struck when, after following a fruitful but somewhat isolated path, he assumed leadership of a movement that is justly regarded as the greatest revolution in painting since the Renaissance, namely, Cubism.
Like all great innovations, Cubism was prepared by intellectual efforts whose lasting influence no one could foresee, not even the directly participating artists. The best proof that Cubism has genuine historical roots is that various young painters associated with it—Picasso did not invent it single-handed—reached similar results though each of them worked on his own. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that Picasso’s development toward Cubism is more logical and inevitable than any other painter’s. In his work Cubism occupies a central position. Perhaps only his fellow countryman Juan Gris, who died prematurely, is comparable to him in this respect; but Juan Gris joined the movement at a later date.
The first to recognize the far-reaching importance of the Demoiselles d’Avignon (Girls of Avignon), Picasso’s main work of 1907, was Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the soundest theoretician of Cubism. But in 1907 even Kahnweiler, who began to frequent the Bateau-lavoir at that time, could only divine the revolutionary significance of this extraordinary painting: what this first attempt held in store for the future was still utterly uncertain. The history of the composition itself, which we can retrace on the basis of numerous preliminary sketches, once again illustrates the process by which form asserts its supremacy over subject matter.
The earliest studies (page 140) show that the original seven symmetrically arranged forms included a sailor seated in the center; a student entering from the left, with a skull in his hand, introduced an element of allegory into the picture. In the following sketches the clothed male figures have been eliminated, and the females are rearranged in such a way that they fill the entire surface. Here nothing suggests a specific scene or locality—it was only later that Picasso’s friend André Salmon gave the picture its poetic title, which refers to a brothel in Carrer d’Avinyó ( Avignon Street) in Barcelona. A description of the painting could only record five nudes placed in a room bounded by curtains, and a still life with slices of melon in the foreground. The still life appears in all the studies.