Which Is the Most Influential Work of Art of the Last 100 Years? A. Black Square by Kazimir Malevich; B. 'One (Number 31) ' by Jackson Pollack; C. 'Fountain' by Marcel Duchamp; D. 'Campbell's Soup Can' by Andy Warhol; E. 'Les Demoiselles D'Avignon' by Pablo Picasso
Plagens, Peter, Newsweek
Byline: Peter Plagens
When Matisse saw Picasso's just-completed, eight-foot-square painting "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" in the Spaniard's studio in a ramshackle Paris building nicknamed "The Laundry Boat," he was shocked at how raw, cacophonic and nasty it looked. Another modernist, Andre Derain, figured that Picasso had gone so far off the deep end that he'd soon commit suicide. Even Picasso's loyal patron Gertrude Stein deemed the picture a "veritable cataclysm." And you know what? It's still pretty ugly. Well, maybe not ugly-ugly, but certainly hard to take. Even with generations of artists trying mightily to out-rad it, a permanent place on the walls of the august Museum of Modern Art in New York and an entire century for art lovers to digest it--"Demoiselles" was finished exactly 100 years ago, in the summer of 1907--the painting refuses to go down smoothly. That's only one reason, though, why "Demoiselles" is the most important work of art of the last 100 years.
"Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" depicts five nude women in a brothel. But the subject matter--which never seems to bother the busloads of schoolkids taking field trips to see it--is hardly where the shock comes from. In fact, "nude" here means only that the painting has lots of chalky, peachy pink in it; genitals are either abstracted or hidden by the poses. Even the paint application is art-school normal: two or three opaque coats, the kind of treatment a senior might give to a two-week project for a final classroom critique. What sticks in our esthetic craw, though, is Picasso's merciless mishmash of styles: a bit of Matisse (the older guy he was trying to dethrone as king of the avant-garde), some appropriation from African masks, a dash of casual realism in one of the hands and a fruit arrangement down in front, and a whole lot of cubism 1.0.
That last one is the deal breaker as far as any conventional esthetics goes. Everything in the painting is broken and then squished, like a face pressed against a window, into a sharp, shallow space that looks as if it's about an inch deep. Only two of the five heads are painted in the same style as their bodies. During the next several years, Picasso took cubism further, breaking up his figures and still lifes into little pieces, twisting them back to front and top to bottom, and reassembling them every which way. Without cubism, there would have been no 1920 dada photomontages or 1930 surrealist fantasies. Without those, there'd be no dizzying James Bond title sequences, "Matrix" movies, those animated promos in the corner of "The Closer," or even some of the ads and layouts in this magazine. Sure, any high-school kid with a laptop can shape-shift more wildly than Picasso ever could. …