Les Demoiselles d’Avignon 1988
Le Dernier Picasso: 1953-1973 16, 1988
Picasso: Creator and Destroyer
When the Museum of Modern Art mounted its huge Picasso exhibition in New York in 1980, it obtained the full support of the Picasso museums in Paris and Barcelona on condition that the Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), in a sense the cornerstone of New York’s collection, might be allowed to cross the Atlantic for a final time for display in these two cities. The New York exhibition was a triumph—the greatest Picasso exhibition there has ever been or ever will be, even though the late work was inadequately represented. Many of the great works seen together will never be reunited: Guernica, for example, was afterward restored to Spain, according to the artist’s ultimate wish, and is now permanently installed in a dependency of the Prado, its rage and its passion muffled inside a grotesque bullet-proof cage. The relatively small Demoiselles exhibition shown in Paris and Barcelona was a triumph of a different kind. It is accompanied by a two-volume catalog, which makes the Demoiselles, after Guernica, the most extensively documented twentieth-century painting.
In the catalog, William Rubin writes at length about the picture with his customary thoroughness and incisiveness. Pierre Daix analyzes the relevant sketch-books. The exhibition’s organizer, Hélène Seckel, has brought together in a lively and intelligent fashion virtually every scrap of information relating to the work up to 1939, when it first went on display in its present home. Leo Steinberg’s celebrated essay of 1972, “The Philosophical Brothel,” is reprinted, with a postscript of 1987. It is now a moot point whether Guernica or the Demoiselles is the most famous image of the art of our age. Guernica has engaged the attention of specialists and commentators of every persuasion and has driven several of them insane. The Demoiselles remains more central to concepts of modernism and is ultimately the more important work—one of those rare individual works of art that have changed the course of visual history.
The Demoiselles was conceived and executed in a small and filthy studio in a ramshackle wooden building known as Le Bateau-Lavoir, perched on the slopes of Montparnasse. The picture can’t have been seen by all that many people in the years after it was painted and, with one exception, almost nothing was written about it at the time, or even subsequently, by the people who must have seen it in its original studio setting while it was being painted or immediately afterward. Fernande Olivier, who was living with Picasso at the time, does not mention it in either of her two memoirs. Neither does Apollinaire, although he had written so poignantly on Picasso’s earlier work and had already, and more than anyone else, helped to bring Picasso to early fame. I think, however, he may have commemorated it in a dark and savagely erotic poem, “Lul de Faltenin,” which was published in La Phalange a few months after the painting had been finished.
Max Jacob, who in the early years of …