Arts Curriculum

The Avant-Garde Looks Backward

The Avant-Garde Looks Backward

Pablo Picasso, Woman in White (Femme assise, les bras croisés), 1923. Oil, water-based paint, and crayon on canvas, 99.1 x 80 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1951; acquired from the Museum of Modern Art, Lillie P. Bliss Collection. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY

Within days of the armistice, Amédée Ozenfant (1886–1966) and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier) (1887–1965) published a manifesto for a new aesthetic titled Après le cubisme (After Cubism, 1918). “‘The war ends; everything is organized,’ they asserted. ‘Here, only order and purity illuminate and orient life; . . . To the same extent that [yesterday] was troubled, uncertain of its path, that which is beginning is lucid and clear.’” 1 Purism, the new postwar style that they founded, sought to invoke order and clarity and incorporated artistic references to antiquity.

Classicism had long been important for French cultural identity, and its broad definition of classical included not only ancient Greece and Rome and the Italian Renaissance, but also the work of Nicolas Poussin (1594– 1665), Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867). More generally, the words “balance, calm, harmony, purity, clarity and the ideal,” as well as “measured” and “order” were all part of the rhetoric of classicism.

Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), a Spaniard who was living in France, was key to popularizing this classical renaissance. Before the war, he had been an international symbol of radical art, the avant-garde of the avant-garde. While even the most virulent Cubists began to be inspired by tradition and national styles, Picasso encouraged a return to traditional draftsmanship and classicism before and with more gusto than any other artist (while continuing to work in Cubism).

“Picasso’s Woman in White (Femme assise, les bras croisés, 1923) is a masterpiece of his Neoclassical period, which lasted from 1918 to 1925. Here, the artist depicts a seated figure as a dreamlike vision of fragile perfection and refinement. He achieves this effect through the application of several layers of white wash and superimposed contours in soft shades of brown and gray. As in many of his other figures of the period, the idealized treatment of her facial features reflects Picasso’s study of classical art.” Self-possessed and with an expression that combines resolve and concern, she is the incarnation of this approach.

Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso, Woman in White (Femme assise, les bras croisés), 1923. Oil, water-based paint, and crayon on canvas, 99.1 x 80 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1951; acquired from the Museum of Modern Art, Lillie P. Bliss Collection. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY

  • Ask students to describe this painting in as much detail as possible and include their observations about the subject as well as the technique. What did they notice that was not apparent at first glance?
  • According to Kenneth E. Silver, the exhibition’s curator, “Picasso’s woman . . . establishes a relationship with something beyond the confines of the picture’s space but significantly does not engage with the viewer.” What do your students think she might be looking at? What in the painting suggests that to them?
  • What might this woman be thinking? If we could read her mind, what might we discover?
  • The words “balance,” “calm,” “harmony,” “purity,” “clarity,” “ideal,” “measured,” and “order” were all used to describe classicism. Which of these words apply to Woman in White? Are there some that don’t? Explain./li>
  • Some people see this painting as a portrait of a woman or a composite of several women that the artist knew. Others have seen this work as an allegory (a symbolic representation of an idea) and believe that Woman in White is an idealized expression of France’s national identity. If Picasso intended this painting as a symbol of France, what qualities does he seem to be portraying?
Pablo Picasso, Woman in White (Femme assise, les bras croisés), 1923. Oil, water-based paint, and crayon on canvas, 99.1 x 80 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1951; acquired from the Museum of Modern Art, Lillie P. Bliss Collection. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY



  • In 1919, in the wake of World War I, French critic Jean Laran declared, “The war has taught us a hard lesson which must not be lost . . . to prune the trees of dead branches and cease producing bizarre oddities . . . [no more] backward houses . . . [no more] chairs with five legs.” Laran was imploring artists to move away from the more experimental, prewar approaches to art. Research the styles that were popular just before WWI, including Cubism and Fauvism. Why might a devastating war cause artists to change their approach?
    Social Studies

  • In addition to neoclassicism, Picasso explored many styles, including his Blue Period (1901–04), Rose Period (1905), Analytic Cubism (ca. 1908–11), Synthetic Cubism (beginning in 1912–13), and Surrealism (beginning ca. 1924) during his lifetime. 7 Research Picasso’s life and work and consider what interests, events, and forces supported these stylistic changes.
    Visual Arts