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An icon of modern art hits the century mark

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Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), one of the first great works of modern art, will be the recipient of a special exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York this summer to celebrate the work's centennial. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art)

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"Head of the Medical Student" was one study that Picasso drew for a figure he eventually cut out of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." This study will be included in an exhibition at "The Museum of Modern Art in New York this summer," celebrating the painting's 100th anniversary. (Estate of Pablo Picasso/Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art)

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Pablo Picasso made more studies for "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" than any other of his paintings including this one (1907). Through the studies, art historians can see Picasso's artistic evolution and his movement towards Cubism. (Estate of Pablo Plicasso/Courtesy The Museum of Modern Art)

Henri Matisse laughed when Pablo Picasso showed him the angular women staring out from the canvas of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Matisse thought the painting was a joke. The art dealer Ambrose Vollard couldn’t understand it either. The painter Andre Derain went so far as to tell another Parisian dealer, “One day we would find Picasso hanged behind that painting.”

This year “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” turns 100, and it still inspires debate. Now the arguments center on its importance in modern art rather than whether it is worthy of being called art at all. This year, odes to the painting have been popping up in art journals and newspapers around the globe. The Museum of Modern Art, home to the painting since 1939, will hold an exhibition, “Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon at 100,” from May 9 to Aug. 27.

“There’s not a single object” in MoMA’s collection, said Anna Swinbourne, an assistant curator at MoMA, “that I could see getting this sort of celebration.”

Jonathan Jones, an art critic for The Guardian extolled the painting in January, saying: “This is one centenary worth thinking about. It's not just 100 years in the life of a painting, but 100 years of modernism. 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' is the rift, the break that divides past and future.”

A 2004 survey in the London newspaper The Independent named “Demoiselles” the second most important work of modern art after Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” which is a porcelain urinal signed M. Butts by the artist. Art historians often argue whether “Demoiselles” or Manet’s “Olympia” was the first great work of modern art.

Swinbourne, who is the curator of the MoMA’s upcoming exhibition, said “Demoiselles” marked a pivotal moment in the progression of “developments that led to Cubism. And Cubism really in many ways blew everything wide open in terms of modern art.”

The canvas, which measures 8 feet by 7 feet 8 inches, depicts five fleshy prostitutes composed of angular shapes with inky eyes and assaulting stares. They are held inside a geometrically patterned bordello along Avignon Street in Barcelona. Triangles of white fabric are draped in the background and around the women’s loins.

Though the subject may sound provocative, it was the style in which it was painted that raised the ire of the Parisian art world. “Until then it was always agreed that painting had a certain degree of finish, painting had a certain degree of cohesiveness,” Swinbourne said. Instead, the female figures blend into a background, which is fractured as well.

“Picasso's picture even now is shocking,” John Elderfield, MoMA’s head curator, told National Public Radio earlier this year.

Though it wasn’t understood at first “Demoiselles” almost immediately influenced art, music and literature. The artist Georges Braque began experimenting with his own ideas of Cubism, breaking up images into three-dimensional geometric shapes. Gertrude Stein, the American expatriate in Paris, and Guillaume Apollinaire would start experimenting with language the way Picasso experimented with image.

“All these conceptions of art, all these things are being dismantled,” said Mary Jo Bang, an American poet and associate professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis. A few years ago, Bang wrote a poem called “Demoiselles d’Avignon.” The poem imagines the prostitutes waiting in the brothel surrounded by songbirds. Some purists, Bang said, have criticized her for inserting details in her poem that Picasso did not incorporate in the painting.

To that Bang responds: "Picasso gives me permission to violate his painting because he violated all notions of painting with his work." Bang will read her poem along with ones by Picasso’s contemporaries on May 23 at MoMA as part of the exhibition.

When Ted Nash, a saxophonist and composer, wrote the music piece "Portrait in Seven Shades," "Demoiselles" was one of his seven muses. The evolution toward Cubism in the painting inspired Nash’s musical construction. "The piece develops," Nash wrote, "as his art did, into cubes: the thematic material, the harmony, the voicings all deal with fourths."

MoMA’s exhibition will reunite the painting with dozens of Picasso’s studies for the finished work from the Picasso Museum in Paris, and one from a private collection. Picasso worked on the painting from winter 1906 to the late summer 1907, and created more studies for it than for any of his other works, Swinbourne said.

However, Picasso only showed the work to a small circle of fellow artists, art dealers and poets, and then hid it in his studio for the greater part of 17 years. He showed it once in 1916 and sold it in 1924. When MoMA purchased the painting in 1939, it was the museum's most significant acquisition, and it still remains one of MoMA's treasures. "Demoiselles" is not loaned out for temporary shows.

"'Demoiselles d’Avignon' is really a cornerstone of the collection, a pinnacle of 20th-century art, I think," Swinbourne said. "At all points of planning this exhibition--the frustrations and the setbacks--usually the rallying cry was, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, but it's "Demoiselles."'"

E-mail: aa2524@columbia.edu