Here's what I've learned so far:
- The viewer of the painting is brought into the picture as if he or she is actually the subject. Four of the five women are looking straight at the viewer as if caught in an unguarded moment, while naked in a brothel. Yikes! They don't look happy about it.
- The painting is supposed to represent the encounter of a young med student with the Demoiselles. Sorta Scrubs-like except more disturbing than funny. Probably everyone but me already knew this.
- The painting is part of a period in which both Matisse and Picasso were treating the nude in a new way, one that wasn't about seduction or admiration of the female form. The women in these paintings are more scary than seductive.
- The outline of the women on the canvas is like that of a human hand.
The catalog also goes into detail about Matisse's response to the work, in his painting, Bathers with a Turtle. In this work, instead of the subjects confronting the viewer, the viewer joins the the group to look down and respond to the turtle on the ground. Matisse uses references to classical and mythical works, a continuation in art history as opposed to Picasso's break.
Also found a pretty good Slate article about the show with a slideshow of the paintings, if you want to learn more. The catalog I've been reading definitely makes Picasso feel like the King with Matisse a kind of a Merlin... but this article has Matisse as the King. It's a good perspective switch.