When it came to brothels, however, which in the modernist era were clearly perceived as a kind of public convenience, Joyce really deserved the palm, though he had one interesting and powerful rival: Pablo Picasso. Let us not forget, in this connection, that Joyce was "kept," as an artist, by Harriet Shaw Weaver, who sent him money regularly for the last twenty years of his life. Both Joyce and Picasso, however, actually knew prostitutes. They almost certainly were both sexually initiated by these professionals and both, at some point, probably contracted venereal disease from the same sources. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man , you will remember, Chapter Two ends with Stephen Dedalus in the arms of a gentle prostitute, herself enough of a child to keep a doll in a chair (with its legs spread suggestively, however), who bends Stephen's head down to hers and by forcing her tongue into his mouth gives him the gift of tongues. At the end of the next chapter, of course, Stephen is kneeling at the altar rail, with his tongue out for the consecrated wafer to be put upon it, containing the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
The young hooker of Joyce's Portrait is like the prostitutes and jugglers of Picasso's blue period, represented with more sentiment than violence. This would change in Ulysses . It changed for Picasso in the text we are about to examine. Picasso's most important early painting, and one of the most important he ever painted, is the Demoiselles d'Avignon, which he completed in June or July of 1907 . In this painting he made his most decisive break with the past, including the work of his own blue and pink periods, and began the move that was to culminate a few years later in analytic cubism. The Demoiselles is a brothel painting--its Avignon being not the Provençal home of the anti-Popes, but the Nighttown of Barcelona. Let us look at it for a moment.
Five female figures, unclothed. Some drapery. A table with some fruit. The women's bodies are arbitrarily geometrized. The tones of their flesh are rigid blocks of color. Their faces range from masklike to actual masks. A primitive animality surges through the painting, distorting, dehumanizing, threatening the viewer, who is ineluctably coded as male, and who is positioned as the object of many of these fierce female eyes. How are we to account for this? What is going on here?
Since we have literally hundreds of the preliminary sketches Picasso made for this work in sixteen different notebooks, we know a good deal about how the painting evolved. For the moment let us pick up this evolution at a crucial point. In May of 1907 Picasso made a pastel sketch of the painting he was planning .
He and his friends referred to the work in progress, half-jokingly, as "le Bordel philosophique": the philosophical brothel. In it we find seven figures: five women, as in the Demoiselles, along with two men. The seated man is dressed as a sailor. The other, standing at the left side of the painting, is carrying an object that is probably a book. This second man is usually identified as a medical student. The pastel is in fact reminiscent of other brothel drawings, such as the monotpyes of Degas discussed recently by Charles Bernheimer in a very important chapter of Figures of Ill Repute, which takes its own point of departure from Paul Valéry's essay, "Degas Danse Dessin." Bernheimer takes seriously Valéry's observation that "Degas was passionately determined to reconstruct the specialized female animal as the slave of the danse, the laundry, or the streets; and the more or less distorted bodies whose articulated structure he always arranges in very precarious attitudes . . . make the whole mechanical system of a living being seem to grimace like a face" (Bernheimer, 159).
Eunice Lipton, in her recent book, Looking Into Degas, has amplified this case, arguing persuasively that most of Degas' nudes, especially those shown bathing themselves, were in fact prostitutes at work, since they had to bathe more than most people thought was healthy at that time, and since they thought nothing of bathing before their clients. Degas apparently made over one hundred brothel monotpyes, of which less than half are still extant, his brother having destroyed more than fifty at the time of the painter's death. Bernheimer points out that Degas made most of these sketches around 1879 and 1880, at "a time when literary versions of the prostitute's life were arriving on the cultural scene in rapid succession (Huysman's Marthe was published in1876; Edmond de Goncourt's La Fille Elisa appeared in 1877; Zola's Nana created a sensation in 1880, also the year of Maupassant's 'Boule de suif,' followed in 1881 by his 'La Maison Tellier')" (161).
Picasso, of course, was born late in that year and Joyce early in the next. The interest in prostitutes and the rise of modernism, I am arguing, are aspects of the same cultural process, a process that begins with Baudelaire, who links the modern city with the bold women who walk the city's streets in poems like the one from Spleen and Ideal that begins "Tu mettrais l'universe entier dans ta ruelle/ Femme impure" (You would put the whole universe up your alley/ Impure woman [Sel. Poems, 66]) , until one scarcely knows whether he is talking of the city as whore or the whore as city. Joyce and Picasso have their own angles of approach to this uniquely modern conundrum, however. What they share, is a special interest not only in the prostitute but in the brothel itself as a place of degradation and magic.
The monotypes of Degas can help us to place what is--and is not--going on in Picasso's brothel painting (and in Joyce's brothel writing, to which we shall come eventually). In one of Degas's brothel monotypes, for instance, we see naked women sitting casually on display for the gaze of a cigar-smoking client, who is fully dressed, including his hat. They look at him, as seductively as they can. He looks at them. We look, unobserved, at all.
In another scene, titled "the Serious Client," a fully clothed man (complete with umbrella) chooses a woman from among several on display (or, perhaps, he is chosen by one of them).
Picasso owned eleven of the fifty or so extant brothel monotypes, and in his ninetieth year made a series of forty etchings that Bernheimer calls a "remarkable reading" of these visual texts. In one of these etchings Picasso represents Degas himself, positioning him in the place of the medical student in his own Demoiselles sketch of sixty-five years earlier, confronted by an agressively delineated group of naked women.
In another of these etchings, Picasso shows Degas in a brothel, holding easel and paintbrush and painting another Degas, still in the medical student's place, while the women around him offer themselves.
The point is not necessarily that Degas influenced the Demoiselles (I do not, in fact, know when Picasso first saw these monotypes), but that Degas could so easily be inserted into the situation of the Demoiselles by being given a place already prepared for him in the preliminary sketches of Picasso's painting. The man whose place Degas is given, of course, was ultimately erased from the Demoiselles --or rather blended with the woman originally positioned to his left. He was prominent, in a number of versions, throughout the early sketches, however, and was thought of by Picasso and his friends as a "medical student." In some versions, he appears with what is clearly a book, in some with a skull, and in one memorable sketch with both book and skull in hand and a dog playing around his leg .
Picasso did intend to put a dog in the painting at one time, and made a number of dog sketches, including several in which the dog is nursing a set of puppies. The dog is a bitch.
What was going on here? A medical student, sailor, and dog, of course, will all appear in or around Bella Cohen's brothel in Ulysses , but what were they doing here in Picasso's sketches for the painting he thought of as "Le Bordel philosophique"? It seems clear enough, as a number of commentators have pointed out, that Picasso was thinking in symbolic terms, as he worked on the early sketches for this painting, inviting us to read this text as an allegory of basic human processes, in which primordial lust is surrounded with signifiers of death (the skull), learning or science (the book), animality and birth (the bitch nursing her pups). The medical student seems to have functioned mainly as the carrier of these symbolic objects, but the sailor is there for other reasons. Most of the sketches show him as a gentle, shy youth, with downcast eyes. In this respect he is reminiscent of the young Stephen Dedalus comforted by the prostitute at the end of Chapter 2 of A Portrait . In a later sketch, Picasso's sailor has one eye open, and still later, he begins to metamorphose or merge with the female figures around him, on the way to being totally subsumed in them. But what is it that he looks away from or glances at with one eye in these sketches?
Opposite him, with her back to the viewer, squats the most sexually provocative of the demoiselles. Like the women in a monotype by Degas, which Picasso owned before its donation to the Louvre, she is presenting herself to the sailor as a potential client. In one study, for instance, we see her spreading her legs as far apart as she can, and glancing to her left provocatively at the newly arrived medical student, who is holding up the curtain in order to enter the theatrical space of the brothel's inner sanctum. It is she who will partly absorb the sailor's features. This presentation to the client is of course a crucial moment for a prostitute or an artist. Here the possibilities of rejection are most acute. The client, equipped with the power of the gaze, has the purveyor--and especially the purveyor of her own flesh or the product of her own imagination--at his mercy. What was most shocking about Manet's Olympia , when it was displayed to the clients of the Salon of 1863, was that it put the client of art and the client of sex in exactly the same place--and that the artist dared to look back through the eyes of this painted female body at those clients.
The boldness of this painting becomes more obvious when we compare it to one of Cézanne's two versions of this scene, called A Modern Olympia, done around 1873.
Here the client of flesh has been put back inside the pictured space, leaving the client of painting safely outside the frame, and the eyes of the woman for sale are turned demurely away from both of these male gazes.
When I say that the artist looks out at the client through the eyes of the naked woman in Manet's Olympia, I am not just making a metaphorical statement. The woman who looks at us from that canvas is clearly Victorine Meurent, whose activities ranged from posing for the nude photographs collected as aides to his work by EugŹne Delacroix in the 1850s, to painting well enough herself to have her work hung in the Salon of1876, a year in which Manet's own works were rejected, and again 1879, when her painting, Une Bourgeoise de Nurembourg hung in the same room as Manet's entries (Adler, 152-53). In Olympia Victorine Meurent is on display, but her left hand firmly indicates the limits of that display, and her eyes are those of one who sells her art where and when she chooses. I am suggesting that Manet, in this and other paintings of women who were more or less on sale or on display, broke the traditional molds of such displays because he, at some level, saw in their situation the situation of artists such as himself, just as Baudelaire registered the same parallel. These figures, to some degree, were images of himself as well as paintings done by him.
Picasso also put himself into his brothel painting, imagining, for instance, how, if he were the sailor, the squatting woman would appear to him. That the sailor was sometimes conceived as a surrogate for the author is apparent in the resemblance between certain sketches for this figure and certain portraits of the artist as a young man of the same period. What the sailor in the brothel saw (or averted his eyes from--depending on which sketch of him we use for our imaginary location) was a woman displaying herself to him, with spread legs, then tilting her head toward the medical student. (As Brigitte Leal put it, in her intoduction to an edition of one of Picasso's sketch-books, "La fille accroupie dans son coin . . . ouvre grand ses cuisses, comme pour vanter sa marchandise.") Displaying herself to the sailor, then tilting her head toward the medical student, this squatting figure became something of a compositional problem for Picasso as, in the course of the painting's evolution, the male figures metamorphosed into their neighboring females (partially masculinizing them in the process). His solution, as later developments force us to acknowledge, was essentially a cubist one. The squatting prostitute remains as she was, but also turns impossibly toward us, forcing us to see her from front, rear, and side at once. She turns toward us because, as the male figures were removed, their function devolved upon the viewer. She also remains facing away from us because Picasso wanted to capture the turn itself, to transcend the limits of his medium and perhaps of space and time themselves. Thus, she absorbs, to some extent, the gaze of the absent sailor and turns it back upon us, the spectators, in the role of a client of sex or art.
The point I am trying to make here is so crucial that I must take the liberty of repeating it excessively in one form or another. These modernist artists were fascinated by prostitutes because they saw in them an image of themselves. Just as Baudelaire, in his prose poem about an old acrobat or saltimbanque (Petits PoŹmes en prose ?, no. 14), saw in this wretched creature the image of a writer who had outlived his generation, Picasso and Joyce saw themselves as combining the almost magical power over men of a Circe or Medusa with the degrading status of a human comodity exemplified by the whores of Avignon and Nighttown. As early as 1904, Joyce had represented himself in this way in "The Holy Office:
But all those men of whom I speak
Make me the sewer of their clique.
That they may dream their dreamy dreams
I carry off their filthy streams
For I can do those things for them
Through which I lost my diadem,
Those things for which Grandmother Church
Left me severely in the lurch.
Picasso's philosophic brothel, as the painting developed, also became a locus for the artist's growing interest in primitive artifacts. The way primitive painting penetrated the superficial surface of life in order to symbolize elemental forces appealed to Picasso and to many other modern artists and writers. Joyce's primitivism tended toward the early Celtic and Viking heritage of Ireland, as we might expect, finding expression early in the "Cyclops" chapter of Ulysses and later throughout Finnegans Wake. But Picasso turned readily to early Iberian art and the art of Africa and Oceania. In this respect (as has recently been pointed out by Maurizia Boscagli and Marianna Torgovnick) he is joined by that other male modern master of verbal art, D. H. Lawrence. This is visible in such episodes as the section of Women in Love (written in 1916) in which Rupert Birkin and Gerald Crich, along with the allegorically named Russian, Libidnikov, visit Julius Halliday's Picadilly Circus apartment. With them goes the pregnant Minette Darrington, who might easily find her place among the Demoiselles, as Lawrence describes her: "like some fair ice-flower in dreadful flowering nakedness (Lawrence, 62)--except that Minette is a born victim, more like a character from a Jean Rhys novel than like Olympia or Picasso's Catalunian hookers. Many prostitutes are no doubt victims, but Picasso's demoiselles have been metamorphosed into dreadful ice-flowers by the primitivism that energizes the final versions of their faces and bodies. This primitivism is also present in Halliday's London apartment, which contains two new pictures "in the Futurist manner" as well as "several statues from the West Pacific, strange and disturbing" (67). The pregnant Minette's seduction of Gerald (or hers by him) is presented so as to merge her personality, at least temporarily, with that of one of the primitive statues: "a woman sitting naked in a strange posture, and looking tortured, her abdomen stuck out" (67). This statue is a representation of a woman in labor, whose face appears to Birkin as "dark and tense, abstracted in utter physical stress. It was a terrible face, void, peaked, abstracted almost into meaningless by the weight of sensation beneath. He saw Minette in it" (71).
For those of us coming from literature toward modern visual art, it may help to see Picasso as combining Joyce's drive toward formal (almost geometrical) experimentation with Lawrence's complex response to the primitive, a response that combines fascination, hope, and fear. What is interesting for us on the present occasion, however, is the peculiarly modernist way in which the bohemian and the primitive mix to generate a new congfiguration for the female in the imaginations of these male modernists. No longer is the Christian division into the Virgin or the Magdalen dominant, but a new configuration in which the prostitute represents a pre-Christian, primordial level of existence, at once more bestial and more authentic than either Virgin or Magdalen could be, and represents, as well, a degraded, possibly diseased female commodity that captures the essential quality of modern urban existence. In Lawrence's Women in Love the poor pregnant bohemian girl and the powerful image of the primitive woman in labor can merge only in the imagination of Birkin.
Try as he might, Lawrence tended always to give his male characters (human or equine) the primordial power represented here in the female Oceanic statue, while forcing his females to remain bourgeois or bohemian, dependents on a masculinity that obsessed and sometimes destroyed them. (In its purest form we find this in "The Woman Who Rode Away," in which a modern woman becomes the human sacrifice of primitive men.) But Picasso was able, in the Demoiselles in particular, to bring the modern, the female, and the primitive together in a genuinely new way, of which the subsumption of the two male figures within the five females is the plainest indicator. This move was hinted at even earlier in his work--for instance in his 1901 parody of Manet's Olympia.
In this painting Victorine Meurent has been replaced by the black serving woman, who is now clearly a primitive Venus, shaped like an ancient figurine, and thus, undoubtedly a parody of Baudelaire's black Venus as well. The cat has been supplemented by a dog, and two clients have been put inside the frame, one of whom is a thoroughly emasculated portrait of the artist himself. The connection between this and the later Demoiselles can be read in the reappearance of the bowl of fruit from this crayon sketch in the later painting.