I must have been quite young the first time I saw Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon at the Museum of Modern Art, barely into my teens. I knew little about Cubism, less about Iberian sculpture, and nothing at all about the title's supposed reference to a brothel in Barcelona; I am not sure I even knew what a brothel was. All I knew was that this was a great masterpiece by the greatest artist of our time, and I responded with appropriate awe and admiration. I had grown up with a tastefully framed reproduction of a rather saccharine Blue Period little girl over my bed, and the Demoiselles - angular, colourful, mysterious, aggressive, like nothing I had ever seen before - seemed to me a great improvement from every point of view. The last thing that would have then occurred to me was that the painting had anything to do with the visual representation of sex. The latter I associated with stolen glimpses of Varga Girls in my uncle's copies of Esquire, with their satiny, airbrushed bosoms, svelte, impossibly long legs and perversely high-arched feet. Sex also had something to do, on the other hand, with the two most terrifying and exciting images in Thomas Craven's Treasury of Art Masterpieces: with Fouquet's Agnès Sorel as the Virgin, where the sitter's globular white breast thrusts it-self provocatively out at the viewer above a tightly-laced bodice; and with Grünewald's green, twisted, lacerated body of Christ on the Cross, which, since it figured suffering and Christianity, both outside the pale in my progressive Jewish family, I associated, not unreasonably, with the equally forbidden realm of the sexual.
LRB 6 March 1997 | PDF Download