Sunday, April 15, 2007

Picasso, the prostitutes and the medical student

Medical Humanities students at Imperial will know that I am very fond of showing the 'Head of the Medical Student', a preparatory sketch for one of Picasso's most famous works, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (shown above). I've just heard a snippet on Radio 4's 'Pick of the Week' that suggests a possible explanation for the rather curious conjunction of subjects that informed the work. A medical historian has suggested that the painting might be warning of the dangers of syphilis, particularly as three of the women have mask-like faces -- possibly showing ravages of the disease, especially the deformed nose of the figure on the bottom right. Medical students at the time (early 1900s) would have toured wards of syphilitic patients. If Picasso based his paintings on real subjects, it could explain the association with the student. The medical student didn't retain his identity in the final composition -- he became the 'curtain raiser' on the right-hand side of the painting.

In the National Gallery, you can see Bronzino's An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, which is also thought to have a lurking figure suffering from syphilis (on the left of the picture), as a warning of the dangers of illicit love.


Ghost Writer said...

Critic Leo Steinberg provides a masterly analysis of 'Demoiselles' in his 1988 essay 'The Philosophical Brothel'. He would say there is rather more to this figure of the medical student. In art historical terms though the work is significant for other reasons (like the beginnings of Cubism)and I'd personally be wary of focusing too much the importance of that particular figure.

Alan Fisk said...

If you're interested, Bronzino's Allegory is the subject of my latest historical novel, Cupid and the Silent Goddess, which imagines how the painting might have been created in Florence in 1544-5.

I don't mention syphilis in the novel, but I do bring in autism.

One of the reviewers thought that the figure of Venus had been done from a male model, quite a common practice at the time. That might explain her height and her rather manly left hand.


Giskin said...

Thanks Alan, for your message. It sounds a fascinating book and I have ordered it. Are you based in London? Perhaps you'd like to come and speak to our Purple Coat Club?

Alan Fisk said...

Yes, I do live in London, although I work down in Leatherhead.

I'd be happy to come to one of your meetings, but I would feel rather intimidated at facing such an expert audience!

My e-mail is

and my homepage is at:

Giskin said...

Ha, ha! I trust you have your tongue firmly in cheek there about the expert audience. I'll be in touch. said...

Medical student name was Istvan Szabo he was Picasso friend at that time.Young Istvan was sitting in for the portret, It was Study for "Les Demoiselles D' Avignon. They remain friends, few years later Picasso gifted Szabo with two paintings one was early cubist painting another was collage from 1912. Paintings still exist despite being masterpices they were never seen in public
Nick K.