Irene Cheng, 1996

“White Skin, Black Masks”: Fetishism and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

by Irene Cheng, 1996

The fetish of colonial discourse—what Fanon called the epidermal schema—is not, like the sexual fetish, a secret. Skin, as the key signifier of cultural and racial difference in the stereotype, is the most visible of fetishes, recognized as canon knowledge in a range of cultural, political, historical discourses, and plays a public part in the racial drama that is enacted every day in colonial societies.

“Negro art? Never heard of it!” Picasso is said to have responded when asked about the influence of African art on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Years later however, the artist confessed that his discovery of “tribal” sculpture at the Trocadero Museum in Paris produced in him a profoundly significant shock. It was then, he recounts, that “I understood why I was a painter. All alone in that awful museum, with masks, dolls made by the redskins, dusty mannequins. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that very day…”.

Picasso would later explain to André Malraux almost apologetically, “We all of us loved fetishes. Van Gogh once said, ‘Japanese art — we all had that

in common.’ For us it’s the Negroes.” Picasso’s statement leaves us wondering whether he meant the tribal objects that were referred to by anthropologists as “fetishes,” the “Negroes” themselves, or his own affinity for African culture. Slippages such as these recur throughout Picasso’s statements on the role of the “primitive” in his work. The artist’s positions alternate between the poles of desire and disavowal.

As Anna Chave and others have observed, the critical response to Les Demoiselles has replicated Picasso’s fetishization of African culture by fixating on the most visible signs of difference in the painting — the African masks donned by the two right-hand demoiselles. Art historians range in their positions from denying any African influence whatsoever (as in Zervos’s statement, “The artist has categorically assured me that at the time when he painted the Demoiselles he did not know African art”) to centering on the “animalistic” sexuality expressed through Picasso’s use of “primitive” art. Scholars have written about the masks obsessively, electing to describe them as bestial ( … )

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