To mark the centenary of Pablo Picasso’s seminal painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the Museum of Modern Art has organized a small but choice exhibition. Les Demoiselles has been scrupulously cleaned and restored, and is now on display along with nine preliminary studies. Here one can trace its genesis: how Picasso pared down the composition, eliminating the secondary figures and props, to arrive at its dense thicket of five prostitutes, leering or grinning from behind African masks. The show warrants a visit. The century since the painting’s completion has produced far more scandalous and shocking work, but it has produced nothing so revolutionary.
Former Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Hoving, however, considers Les Demoiselles not merely the most revolutionary work of its century, but of all time. (Hoving is, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the main popularizers of the idea of the “blockbuster” exhibition.) In an exultant paean to the painting, he proposes that no single work of art—neither in classical antiquity nor the Renaissance—has changed the course of art so decisively as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Having given birth to Cubism and “all the subsequent ‘isms’ of contemporary art,” it must be regarded as “the single most influential work of art ever created.”