From autumn 1906, Pablo Picasso – who would finish his painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Ladies of Avignon) the following year – depicted a series of athletic women whose features included highly developed muscles. According to numerous history-of-art studies, the deformation of Les Demoiselles originated from an immanent degeneration. However, we still do not know what the athletic women represent or what link they have with Les Demoiselles. Our presentation is on the following question: Did Picasso paint a series of virile women in order to portray a kind of abnormality of the prostituted body (thereby allowing the idea of the typical normality of the female body to be reinforced), or did he do so in order to establish an abnormal image as a new female ideal (thereby subverting the hierarchy between normality and abnormality)?
Indeed, some researchers consider that Picasso had some fondness for a horsewoman from a contemporary poem by Gertrude Stein. Very recently, an infrared examination of the painting Trois nues (autumn 1906) allowed us to understand that the work had been painted according to a study of a seated figure where Picasso’s own face appears. Furthermore, that study also evokes certain characteristics particular to Stein. This discovery enabled Christine Poggi to see Picasso becoming one with Stein, despite their sexual differences. This last piece of research shows that Picasso was not necessarily a misogynist who “attacked” the depiction of the female body, but instead a proponent of a new image of women, which shattered the old image of femininity and put it back together in a new way.
Based on this gender issue that Picasso had at the dawn of Cubism, our presentation will be about the questioning of the definition of the Picassian image of women from autumn 1906 to 1908 as something that is linked to degeneration. In fact, they reflect the topic of regeneration, which suggests that one of the artist’s sources might have been the image of an athletic woman portrayed in the magazine La Culture physique, founded in 1904 and specialising in physical training. We will see that Picasso effectively left for posterity a number of drawings inspired between 1905 and 1906 by that magazine. In Picasso’s works from 1907, we can see three overlaps with this magazine: first, his interest in athletic women, second, his interest in anatomy, and third, the close link between the athletic nude and the classical nude. Moreover, although La Culture physique tried to pursue a new ideal of the athletic woman while preserving the idea of assigning morality and reproductivity to the female body, Picasso sought to ignore all of the established ethical models and socio-political norms by constructing a new ideal of women. In this presentation, we shall try to show how, at the birth of Cubism, Picasso was faced with the dilemma of regeneration and degeneration, as well as that of destruction and construction of the image of the body, in order to shift from the athletic nude to the analytical nude.