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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Slayton: Demoiselles at the Fleming

Used by permission of the Fleming Museum and courtesy of the artist
This 2008 oil on canvas painting by Damian Elwes, "Picasso's Studio at the Bateau Lavoir," depicts the artist's studio in about 1907, when he was painting and privately showing his epochal painting, "Demoiselles dAvignon"

What makes a painting “great?”

It’s easy to assume that a great piece of art is the result of a great artist expressing his or her innate genius – sheer brilliance, manifesting itself.But a major exhibition now at the Fleming Museum in Burlington suggests that the reality is usually much more complex than that.

The show is entitled “Staring Back,” and it explores the creation, and ongoing legacy of Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon,” the painting which catapulted Picasso to the top of the avant-garde, scandalized the Paris art world, and led the way to the first major movement of 20th century modernism – cubism.

The painting is not included in the current Fleming Museum exhibit. Because “Demoiselles” is priceless, it never leaves the Museum of Modern Art in New York. At the Fleming, it is represented by a full-size photo-projection. Nevertheless, that works, since this is a show not of “Demoiselles,” but about it.

Janie Cohen, director of the Fleming and curator of this exhibit, was inspired to create it through her research into the painting, which she has studied for decades. Her article on African photographic influences in the painting is due to be published this month.

Her current show, “Staring Back,” uses multi-media effects, to playfully reproduce Picasso’s 1907 studio and explore the various sources of “Demoiselles d’Avignon.”

This is not a pretty painting. It depicts a brothel in which the women for sale stare out at the viewer.

As the Fleming’s show makes clear, Picasso here confronts not only the viewer, but the long artistic tradition of female nudes, transforming it from an exercise in human beauty into a harsh nightmare. He also plays with conventional artistic realism, fracturing the bodies of the women into geometric shapes. Some are twisted unrealistically; two wear demonic African masks.

The exhibit includes, electronically, all of the 700 or so sketches and studies Picasso made as he shaped and reshaped “Demoiselles.” There are also several recent artworks inspired by or referring to the painting.

Ultimately, what we come to understand is that Picasso brought many influences to the creation of this startling painting. Twentieth century geometry, the nude in art, African colonial photography, and – not least – his own raw ambition, all contributed to make it a great, important work of art.

Nudity and human sexuality are major themes of this show, as they are in “Demoiselles” itself. By taking them on deliberately, in an intelligent and analytical way, Cohen has created a masterful exhibit, one that shows just how complex that apparently simple term, “greatness,” really is.

NOTE: ARTIST'S TALK: Inside Picasso's Studio with Damian Elwes, Wednesday, April 1 - 6:00 pm

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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