Sunday, March 27, 2011

Art and Design in Le Bateau Lavoir: How Picasso Turned Me onto the Artistic Interior

In 2010 I obtained a Masters degree in Art History from The Unviersity of Western Ontario. My thesis explored how Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) used strategic methods of décor in his studio in order to color perceptions of his artwork. Through this exploration, I grew increasingly interested in the relationship between art and interior design.

Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) in the artist's residence Le Bateau Lavoir in Monmartre, Paris, where he lived from 1904 until 1909. Les Demoiselles portrays five prostitutes who were abstractly rendered on a canvas measuring ninety-six by nintety-two inches. This work achived prominence in twentieth-century art and art-history as one of the most imporaynt representations of primitivism in modern painting. While this subject has been explored at length, my research suggested that Picasso's expresison of primitivism was influenced by a movement wherein artists and art-patrons made every effort to surround themselves with "primitive" art objects. Such objects could be found in Picasso's studio, in the homes of his peers, and in any rendezvous they frequented.

My thesis explored the complex nature of the primtivist ideologies that saturated Picasso's cultural experience, both in his early years as a developing artist in the Spanish province of Catalonia, and in Paris in the years leading up to his creation of Les Demoiselles. These environments had each been shaped by drastic cultural and socio-political upheavals in the nineteenth century. Industrialization, urbanization, and socio-political upheavals caused both Spanish and French citizens to become disenchanted with what they perceived as an over-mechanized and fragmented milieu. Artists and art patrons, in particular, were disenchated with neoclassical visual languages, typical of the nineteenth century, which seemed to them inexpensive and rigid in their polihed depictions of heros from the Western canon. By the time Picasso created Les Demoiselles, he had been exposed to artists and scholars who thirsted for artforms more primitive and authentic, free from the perceived constraints and social artifices of their current civilizaion. These thinkers believed that such artforms could be found by looking backward to the medieval era and the "non-West."

The medieval era represented a time in European history that predated the constraints of modern civilization, when life was simpler and closer to the essence of humankind's basic instincts. Many nineteenth-century citizens identified more with the Middle Ages than with their current modern age, seeking to adopt this era as a symbol of their heritage. The idea that the modern West was endowed with a ruch and pure heritage encouraged romantic fantasies about the sort of culture that might reappear could the constraints of civilization be lifted. These fantasies were not only projected onto the medieval era, but also onto the "non-West," a concept used to describe any foreign territory whose cultures and traditions stood outside Western European conventions. This concept gained popular appeal in the nineteenth century, when Western European imperialism and colonialism were at their peak. Like the medieval era, the "non-West" was perceived as being uncharted, uncivilized, and essentially free.

New and imaginative contexts were fabricated around the visual cultures of the medieval era and the "non-West" which were reduced to simulacra of the broader cultural and historical frameworks to which they had originally belonged. These simulacra were romanticized and popularized, obscuring the cultural realities upon which they were based. "Non-Western" and medieval artifacts thus became objects of aesthetic contemplation for modern Western consumption, appreciated for their abstract motifs and for the ideas they spawned about the potential for modern art to become a vehicle of unrestrained creative expression. These artifacts were amassed by a multitude of collectors and in a multitude if venues, including museums, international exhibitions, curio shops, cafes, cabarets, and personal living spaces. The aesehtics of "non-Western" and medieval artifacts also inspired many artists and architects, Picasso among them, to create their own "primitive" works based on their deepest emotions, experiences, and instincts. Picasso's iconic masterpiece Les Demoiselles was a prime example of this new artistic approach.

The massive size of the canvas on which Les Demoiselles was painted gave Picasso the freedom to express his creativity with little restraint. Canvases of this magnitude had typically been reserved for neoclassical paintings and formal exhibition spaces. In Picasso's quest for personal expression, however, he deviated from cultural norms by exhibiting this work before his own personal acquaintances in his own atelier in Le Bateau-Lavoir, recounting stories that related this painting to his own experiences.

Picasso added another layer of complexity to Les Demoiselles by surrounding it with "non-Western" collectibles and prompting viewers and scholars to wonder about how these abjects had influenced his new styles. To date, Les Demoiselles has often been perceived as a product of Picasso's self-designed "non-Western" space, despite the fact that his perception of the "non-West" was inevitably coloured by the pronounced revival of interest in medieval visual culture that had surrounded him in Catalonia and continued to surround him in Paris. Picasso's spectacle of "primitivism" at Le Bateau Lavoir has tended to obscure the broader cultural contexts that in fact shaped his conception of the "primitive," in much the same way that modern Western spactacles of "primitivism" obscured the broader cultural contexts to which their aesthetics had originally belonged. Ironically, Picasso's creation of a new, unique, and highly personalized model of "primitivism" was framed by a broader cultural effort to incorporate the "primitive" into a new Western identity.

In attempting to learn more about the artistic interior and how to design a home filled with originlity and personality, who better to explore than Picasso, arguably the most renowned artist in history for his artwork and studio alike. My research gave me a more refined understanding of the dialogue between interior design and fine arts, which I continue to apply as my experience with art and design expands.

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