Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) is considered to be one of the most important pieces for the early days of modern art. This revolutionary work also serves as the inspiration for Demoiselles et Garçon, currently on view at Galerie Hertz. Two years ago, Silvia Willkens and John Nation decided to embark on the creation of this collaborative exhibition.
In preparation for her newest body of work, Silvia Willkens conducted much research into Picasso’s life. Willkens stated, “One cannot separate Picasso’s personal life from his work because the two are very much intertwined.” Many of Picasso’s female subjects were also among the numerous women with whom he had love affairs. Consequently, these women are often portrayed as weeping. A particular individual, Dora Maar, he often painted as a weeping woman. In Dora Not Weeping, Silvia Willkens has portrayed Dora as having dignity, confidence, and newfound strength. In this painting, she has achieved the merging of her own style with Picasso. Though the shape of the figure is stylized like that of Picasso, Willkens has beautifully blended subtle color variations within Dora’s fair skin to create a realistic depth.
A large painting titled, Collage, reveals Silvia Willkens’ interpretation and appropriation of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Originally, Picasso had painted five nude women comprised of sharp planes and confrontational stares. With direct reference to the original work, Willkens has taken these five figures and made them more human. Rather than depicting the women with distorted features and threatening masks, Willkens has clothed them and softened their faces with an idealized beauty reminiscent of early Netherlandish paintings. Although the overall composition is very much Cubist, Willkens’ muted color palette makes Collage a pleasingly quite interpretation.
The subject matter of portraits and nudes connects John Nation’s photographs with both the works of Picasso and Silvia Willkens. Originally, Nation felt contempt for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon for the brutal and misogynistic way in which Picasso portrayed the female form. While Silvia Willkens gave the figures a more demure interpretation, John Nation decided to satirize the masterpiece in two digitally composited collages. Less Damaged Souls Damn-it-all and Les Demoiselles d’Photoshop are appropriated, tongue-in-cheek spoofs of the original Picasso painting. The latter of the two depicts a group of (demoiselles) iconic female figures in the history of art such as Whistler’s Mother and Venus de Milo. Less Damaged Soul Damn-it-all reveals a group of men (garçons) such as Mantegna’s St. Sebastian and a small portrait of John Nation, himself.
John Nation initially earned his degree in drawing and painting, and this inevitably influences his practice as a photographer. His work focuses largely on formal, visual elements. Compositionally, his photographs are set up much like one would a painting. Great attention is given to aesthetics and structure. Elements of Paul Cézanne’s paintings can be seen in the way John Nation approaches a photograph. Parallels between the two are evident in Nation’s photographs in that both are interested in form and color. Cézanne inspired generations of modern artists in his ability to see and break down the world into essential shapes and planes. For example, Nude Woman in Red Armchair evokes a sense of graphic modernism. Much movement is created in the underlying linear elements and the natural geometric structure of the nude subject in the interior setting. Even the carefully placed objects on the background shelves echo the same diagonal in which the woman is positioned. The surfaces of his photographs are generally egalitarian in that the surrounding space of a figure is treated with equal importance as the figure itself.
There is much calmness in Silvia Willkens’ matte surfaces and subdued colors. Her precision and attention to detail invites the viewer to peer more closely. Modern painters of the 20th century also seem to have influenced her work. Les Demoiselle—Darielle depicts a contemplative looking woman gazing somewhere beyond the viewer. Geometric elements of Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich appear to have had influence in the muted rectangles appearing in the background of this Willkens piece and others. Darielle’s delicate features mimic the softly rendered, neutral background. The exploration of the softened female form within a contrastingly graphic space is also evident in John Nation’s Orange is the New Black. In this particular piece Nation has framed the woman with the rectangular, broken wall within the composition of the photograph. Other doorframes in the background also continue to build the space with geometric shapes. Unlike Willken’s Les Demoiselle—Darielle, Nation’s Orange is the New Black emphasizes the stark contrast of the woman’s smooth skin with the dilapidated rubble of the interior.
Silvia Willkens and John Nation have successfully come together to generate an exhibition of both direct and indirect connections with each other and relating back to the Picasso masterpiece. Whether paying homage or creating satire, each interpretation and offshoot is evidence for how important Picasso was to modern art and continues to be in our contemporary time.
Galerie Hertz 1253 S. Preston St.
Louisville, KY 502-581-8277