Magazine article The Spectator

Shocking Women

Magazine article The Spectator

Shocking Women

Article excerpt

It was not so extraordinary in September 1946 when the Third Programme began broadcasting that its schedule should include a weekly discussion of the 'visual arts', kicking off with the then director of the National Gallery in conversation with the painter William Coldstream. Radio was still the Queen Bee of the BBC and television a young upstart whose potential was not yet fully understood. The 'alert and receptive' listeners of the Third Programme were expected to pay attention and work at their listening so that they could conjure for themselves flickering images of what was being talked about on air. But now, when television has become so sophisticated, so dazzling, so brazenly colourful, it's an audacious radio producer who decides to make a programme about one of the most famous paintings in the history of art with just a mike and a cast of experts. How can you compete with the digital, crystal-clear trickery of flat-screen TV? How do you make art come alive for the listener? How do you make it 'relevant'?

In Picasso's Fallen Women on Radio Four (Thursday), Richard Cork took us to the fifth floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and attempted to describe for us what he was looking at. 'It's a very violent picture -- five women who are just standing or sitting in this extraordinary, jagged, dislocated, baffling space.

Sharp elbows, fingers, even the knees look as if they could cut you and you would bleed.' Cork then moves into the gallery to look more closely at these five starkly drawn women. He's struck by the jostling forms, the multiple angles, the lack of all perspective, but especially by the 'cold, black intensity' of the women's eyes. 'I feel, ' says Cork, 'as if I've been slapped in the face.' By now there's not much doubt as to which painting he's talking about.

Picasso's 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' was bought by MoMA's enterprising director, Alfred Barr, in 1937 for a mere $28,000 when no one else could bear to look at it.

By then Picasso's revolutionary painting was already 30 years old, but it had lost none of its disturbing, discomfiting impact.

Even now it's not easy to look at close-up, and yet it's totally compelling. You can't turn your back on it. No artist since has been quite so subversive, or achieved such a brutal rejection of all that had gone before. 'Les Demoiselles' is a shocking painting (and even more so when you realise it's 100 years old), but not repellent -- or casual. Picasso spent at least six months working on it, frenetically sketching day and night, rethinking his ideas (an early version shows two male figures in amongst the women, a sailor and a medical man holding a skull). …

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