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Posts For: May 12, 2007

Les Demoiselles at 100

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.”

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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.”

For Hoving, the influence and force of the painting derive from its defiant, transgressive nature, which represents nothing less than a “‘screw you’ to the entire history of art”:

Every aspect of the painting is at war with every preceding work of art. A more complete denunciation of accepted humanity, accepted beauty, and every artistic style that preceded the work cannot be imagined. The thing is disturbing, loathsome in some respects, abhorrent, repellent, and at the same time magnetic, unforgettable, and lyrical.

One can agree emphatically with Hoving without endorsing his rather unbuttoned language. Picasso’s heroic act of transgression was creative, and its aftershocks reach into our own day. But its happy blurring of the boundaries between creation and transgression has led subsequent generations to conflate and confuse the two. Perhaps Hoving might also have commented on some of the unintended consequences of Picasso’s heroic “screw you.”

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