Caught in the Brothel

In 1907 Pablo Picasso composed a painting which would revolutionize the artistic world. From the Renaissance until the late 19th, early 20th century, rarely deviated from a classical pattern; they were narratival, religious, and realistic. Undoubtedly, there are exceptions to the rule, but generally, Picasso entered into an artistic community dominated by this formula. While the Impressionists movement preceding Picasso started the conversation to disengage from the tradition, the battle for popular and scholastic acceptance barely moved the needle toward progressive form and content. Nonetheless, the work of the Impressionists allowed for Picasso to take his knowledge and expertise in traditional forms and manipulate them for new, transformative purposes.

Enter Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a proto-cubist work by Pablo Picasso. Picasso’s painting, depicting five nude women in a French brothel, freed the modern artist to create outside the bounds of traditional artistic representations through his use of Cubism. Cubism “emphasized the flat, two-dimensional surface of the picture plane, rejecting the traditional techniques of perspective, foreshortening, modeling, and chiaroscuro and refuting time-honoured theories of art as the imitation of nature…they presented a new reality in paintings that depicted radically fragmented objects, whose several sides were seen simultaneously.”

While Picasso dips his toes into this new cubist form, I believe the real power is found in the content of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Before the release of the final product in 1907, the painting had at least 19 different drawings and iterations. One of the original versions included a doctor and sailor waiting their turn in the brothel surrounded by the gaze and attention of the ladies of the night. Picasso’s shocking shift as the painting evolved is not solely in the disjointed figures of the ladies or their tribal mask-like faces, but in the fact that he removes the men from the scene and adjusts the women’s gaze. The women no longer look at each other, or at the places the men were, but they transfix their eyes on us, the viewer.

Leo Steinberg, in his essay “The Philosophical Brothel”, notes that Picasso’s “shift is away from narrative and objective action to an experience centered in the beholder…one either experiences the Demoiselles as an onslaught, or shuts it off.” No longer is the viewer heeding to the narrative depicted in the scene, but he is, whether he likes it or not, a part of the scene. The viewer is within the narrative, and the narrative is now. The viewer is in the brothel. The viewer, us, is soliciting what the women are willing to give up. The Demoiselles assaults us with this reality – that we, you and I, partake in the baseness of man.

According to Steinberg, the viewer’s encounter with the painting forces him to participate in the deeds of brothel or to flee from it. Whichever path is chosen, one thing remains the same – the viewer was in the deep recesses of the brothel. He was there, and he was seen.

I think, in one way or the other, our life is a series of confrontations with the women in the brothel. We come face-to-face with them and are given the option to stay or to go; we can follow the siren’s song or we can walk away from their tantalizing voices, down the dark and muggy stairway and into the light. Those are our two options – our only two options. We are not permitted to pretend we were never there. We are not permitted to pretend the women never saw us, or that we never saw the women. We are required to embrace the reality of our place in the brothel.

Our identity is bound up in this. To forsake the truth of our lives – the broken, sinful, and redeemed – is to deny a part of who we are. To enter the brothel with hands over our eyes does not change the fact that we are there, and that I am there. Oftentimes I try to create an encrypted file containing my brothel moments as an attempt to block the access of myself to others. As a Christian, I tend to believe my past faults and failures have no bearing on my present. I tend to believe they have no impact on my work or my relationships. I pursue the slow, calculated suppression of those moments.

This tactic presumes my identity as a human being is bound up in my rationality. I think to myself, “I can block this memory from my mind. I have a powerful will and intellect. Mind over matter!” But, as James K.A. Smith observed, “The world is the environment in which we swim, not a picture that we look at as distanced observers” (Desiring the Kingdom 49). Picasso’s painting affirms this truth as the women’s piercing stares place me beside them. My unwillingness to swim in the truth of my place in the painting, in turn, unwittingly constricts almost all aspects of my present and future life. In reality, it makes me less human and less real and practically unable to be in true, intimate relationships with others. Hiding who I am, trying to rationally attend to and barricade my brokenness, leads to my inevitable isolation which furthermore leads to a misconstrued identity.

Donald Miller believes “If our identity gets broken, it affects our ability to connect” and he “wonder[s] how many people are withholding the love they could provide because they secretly believe they have fatal flaws.” These concealed brothel flaws generate fear and blocks intimacy with God and others. Withholding our true selves hinders our ability to be in real relationships, and man, at his very core, is meant to relate to others. This foundational reality of our identity can be extended to its foundational level.

Man is fully man when he love, and conversely, man is fully man when he is loved.

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