‘The enchantments of Oceania and Africa’: 1906–1909

Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation; it’s a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires.

- Pablo Picasso

In 1907 Picasso painted the complex and now iconic Les demoiselles d’Avignon. A dense and shallow composition of angular, contorted figures, it shocked and perplexed even his most avant-garde contemporaries. Matisse thought it an ‘audacious hoax’, a parody of the increasingly abstract treatment of figures in modern painting. Picasso himself called the painting an ‘exorcism’.

His studies for Les demoiselles d’Avignon on display in this room reveal the range of influences and approaches that went into producing this landmark work. They are not studies in the traditional sense but, typically for Picasso, explorations of possible types that may or may not be included in the final composition. Particularly evident is his growing fascination with tribal art, as seen in the mask-like, chiselled features and angular bodies that caused such extreme reactions to the final work.

Captivated by the Tahitian-inspired works of Paul Gauguin and the Pacific and African collections of the Louvre and the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro (now the Musée de l’Homme), in 1907 Picasso acquired a carved tiki figure that influenced his first wood carving, the totemic oak Figure 1907. The sculpture’s rough-hewn appearance captures the ‘naive’ quality of so-called ‘primitive’ art that Picasso and several of his contemporaries found compelling. Tête de femme (Fernande) (Head of a woman (Fernande)) 1909, a bronze portrait of his lover Fernande Olivier, uses a more complex, rhythmic repetition of angular forms – a suggestion of the ‘cubist’ style that would dominate his work in the coming years.


oil on canvas, 65 × 54 cm, Pablo Picasso Bequest, 1979, MP8 © Succession Picasso, 2011/licensed by Viscopy, 2011 © Paris, Réunion des Musées Nationaux/René-Gabriel Ojeda © Musée National Picasso, Paris


This self-portrait hints at Picasso’s burgeoning interest in the art of ancient cultures. During 1906 he spent time studying the Louvre’s collection of Iberian sculpture and travelled to the Catalan village of Gosol, where the distorted and exaggerated forms of the region’s carved figures greatly affected him. In this self-portrait, the almond-shaped eyes, deeply etched and ringed in black, are asymmetrical – a characteristic of all his portraits. Adding further to the figure’s stony appearance, the subtle pink and flesh tones are a paler version of his true Rose Period palette (such as Les deux frères (The two brothers) also in this room).