A revolution in paint: 100 years of Picasso’s Demoiselles

Issue: 115

John Molyneux

This year marks the centenary of the painting of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso. There cannot be many paintings whose anniversary would occasion an analysis in a journal of socialist theory—an honour usually reserved for revolutions and other great events in the history of the class struggle—nevertheless Les Demoiselles certainly repays serious consideration. Aside from its individual stature as one of the outstanding paintings of the 20th century, there is its enormous importance as a turning point in the history of art and, indeed, wider cultural history, and also its powerful resonance today.

Les Demoiselles

Les Demoiselles d’avignon is an oil painting on canvas begun by Picasso in late 1906 and completed in the summer of 1907. It is eight feet tall, seven feet eight inches wide, and has hung since 1937 in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The painting depicts five nude women, clearly prostitutes in a brothel. Of the three women on the left, the leftmost is shown side on, apparently drawing back a curtain to reveal the others, and the second and third are shown frontally, staring straight out of the canvass. The depiction of all three women, especially the head of the furthest left, is influenced by Ancient Iberian (pre-historic “Spanish”) sculpture that Picasso had seen the previous year in the Louvre. The two women on the right, one standing slightly in the background between curtains, the other squatting in the foreground, have been given heads that resemble the African sculptures or masks that the artist is known to have seen in the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. The bodies of all the women are rendered by means of flat, angular planes of colour with little shading or modelling. Jutting out at the centre of the bottom of the painting is a bowl of fruit—a melon, grapes, pear and apple. The painting received its title not from Picasso but from his friend André Salmon in 1916, and it is either, depending on interpretation, euphemistic or ironic for it refers to a brothel or brothels on the Carrer d’Avinyo in Barcelona, of which Picasso evidently had personal experience.

So much for the basic facts. By far the most frequent comment on Les Demoiselles, in both journalism and art history, is that it marks “the birth of modern art”.1 Let us first consider the justification for, and truth of, this bold claim.

Les Demoiselles and modern art

The simplest, most widespread, distinction between “traditional art” (by which is meant European art from about 1300 onwards) and “modern art” is that the former was engaged, at a minimum (it did other, more important, things as well) in the attempt to imitate the appearance of people, objects and scenes in the real world, whereas the latter is not. Traditional art is commonly portrayed as representational, naturalistic or “realistic”,2 whereas modern art either wilfully distorts physical appearances or, in abstract art, abandons them altogether. There are numerous problems with this crude distinction, not least the difficulty involved in regarding paintings of Madonnas, angels and Venuses as “realistic”, but there is also clearly some truth in it. At least the faces of the Madonnas, the tunics of the angels and the breasts of the Venuses looked like observable faces, tunics and breasts. And while some “traditional” artists (Hans Holbein, John Constable, Gustave Courbet) are more mimetic (imitative) than others (Sandro Botticelli, Hieronymus Bosch, El Greco) and some “moderns” (Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky) more expressionist or abstract than others (Amedeo Modigliani, Pierre Bonnard), one has only to compare a representative list of traditionals with a similar list of moderns to get the point—on the one hand Van Eyck, Piero della Francesca, Titian, Rembrandt, Diego Velázquez, Thomas Gainsborough, Francisco Goya, Edouard Manet and Vincent van Gogh who, despite the immense differences between them, were all engaged in producing recognisable images of persons and things; on the other hand Georges Braque, Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko who, despite their differences, were not.

The tipping point between the two—the clearest, most decisive assault on the past, the key breakthrough to the new—is indeed Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Before Les Demoiselles even Picasso’s own work, his blue and rose periods, was clearly a continuation of the mimetic tradition, closer in many ways to Rembrandt, Goya, Manet and Van Gogh than to his work of one, two or three years later. Les Demoiselles opens the floodgates, first to cubism and then in rapid succession to futurism, synthetic cubism, expressionism, vorticism, abstraction, suprematism, dadaism and more besides. Within just ten years artists were producing works, such as Malevich’s Black Square on White and Duchamp’s ready_mades, which would not previously have been regarded as art at all (and were not so regarded by the majority at the time), but which have subsequently achieved, at least within the art world, classic and iconic status. Les Demoiselles is a veritable revolution in paint—the art equivalent of the French Revolution, indeed of the Storming of the Bastille.

Another characteristic of traditional art, very closely bound up with its naturalism, was the high level of craft skills it involved and demanded. These skills, developed particularly in the 16th and 17th century, lay especially in the precise rendering of surfaces: lace, satin, velvet, sable, glass, silver, feathers, flesh tones, the folds in drapery or robes and so on.3 This is reflected in the way people commonly talk about art—”Look at the detail!” or, “It makes you feel as if you can touch it”—and for many it was these skills that served as the surest guarantee of artistic quality, of the status of traditional paintings as “real” or “great” art. In retrospect it can be seen that the premium on these skills was waning from Claude Monet and impressionism onwards, but it was Les Demoiselles that was the decisive break. In 1907 it would have looked like not just a move away from the traditional skills, but a full_scale assault on them. This was the beginning of art which would provoke the outraged cry, “My four year old can do better than that!”

For centuries, roughly from the Renaissance to the 19th century, “beauty” was a, perhaps the, dominant concept in aesthetic theory, the value, together with the closely related “harmonious form”, to which it was held that art should aspire. Of course there was always art which could not reasonably be described as beautiful, for example the dark fantasies of Bosch or William Hogarth’s satirical series (Marriage à la Mode, The Rake$7$s Progress, etc), but such work was generally deemed of a lower order than that of artists such as Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci and, especially, Raphael, where beauty and harmonious form were more clearly in evidence. The philosophers Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant supplemented “beauty” with the concept of “the sublime” to accommodate works, such as Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, which, if not beautiful, were manifestly awe inspiring. Above all, the concept of beauty ruled the genre of the female nude, where it had the added advantage of masking or providing an alibi for the issue of sexual desirability and lust. In the tradition of nude painting that stretches through Botticelli, Giorgione, Titian, Rubens, Velázquez, Goya, Ingres and Renoir the aim of the artists was always to present their female subjects as beautiful. (Rembrandt is, I think, the only significant exception prior to the 19th century.) Clear inroads into this tradition were made by Manet’s Olympia, Paul Cézanne’s Bathers series, and Toulouse Lautrec’s brothel scenes, but again it is with Les Demoiselles that the sharpest confrontation takes place. Picasso not only does not attempt to make the women “beautiful” but, by the use of the African masks, positively insists on their ugliness (by the conventional standards of the day).

The enormously disturbing newness of Les Demoiselles is confirmed by the reaction, not of the public or the critics, but of Picasso’s—avant_garde artist friends when they first saw it in his studio. Both Henri Matisse and Georges Braque were at first repelled by it. Braque suggested that Picasso had been “drinking turpentine and spitting fire”,4 while André Derain is alleged to have claimed that “some day Picasso would hang himself behind his canvas”.5

Les Demoiselles and theories of modernism

There have been, of course, a number of more rounded and theoretically sophisticated accounts of the emergence of modern art than the simple distinctions discussed so far. Probably the most influential, at least within the art world, is that of the American art critic Clement Greenberg. Greenberg established himself by being the principal champion of abstract expressionism, and for 20 years or so (roughly the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s) was the leading art critic in America and, therefore, the world. His status in art criticism approximated to that of John Maynard Keynes in economics or F R Leavis in literature. Greenberg began in the late 1930s as at least a semi_Marxist in the Trotskyist influenced milieu around Partisan Review, but during and after the Second World War moved, like so many, towards a mainstream or right wing liberalism and in the process became a rigorous formalist in matters of art criticism and history, rejecting, more or less absolutely, any discussion of the content or social context of artworks.

For Greenberg, modernism was more than art and literature: it included “almost the whole of what is truly alive in our culture”,6 and its essence lay “in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticise the discipline itself—not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence”.7 Each art form had to demonstrate in practice that the kind of experience it provided was not to be obtained from any other activity. This meant each art form systematically shedding all conventions not essential to its survival as art, and focusing with increasing intensity on its unique and defining characteristics. In the case of painting this was the making of marks on a two-dimensional surface:

The limitations that constitute the medium of painting—the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of pigment—were treated by the Old Masters as negative factors that could be acknowledged only implicitly or indirectly. Modernist painting has come to regard these same limitations as positive factors that are to be acknowledged openly. Manet’s paintings became the first modernist ones by virtue of the frankness with which they declared the surfaces on which they were painted… It was the stressing, however, of the ineluctable flatness of the support that remained most fundamental in the processes by which pictorial art criticised and defined itself under modernism. Flatness alone was unique and exclusive to that art…and so modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else.8

Greenberg’s account cannot be accepted as adequate or satisfactory. First, it treats the development of art as almost completely (and quite implausibly) autonomous from society, history and politics (except in the very last analysis of the existence of “modern” society). Second, it operates by the sleight of hand of simply excluding from the canon of modernism all painting not participating in the project of flatness (for example surrealism, Diego Rivera and the Mexican muralists or Francis Bacon). Nevertheless, the history of European art from about 1850 to 1950 shows that Greenberg has identified a real and important tendency. From Manet, through impressionism, Gauguin, Cézanne, cubism, Kandinsky and Mondrian, to Pollock and abstract expressionism, one can clearly see the compression of the three-dimensional picture space, which had been opened up in the 14th and 15th centuries.9 It is like watching a stage in which the backdrop moves ever closer to the apron until it has squeezed out, in Greenberg’s words, “the kind of space that recognisable three-dimensional objects can inhabit”.10

There is no single painting that so clearly illustrates and exemplifies Greenberg’s argument as Les Demoiselles: the stripping away of inessential conventions, the replacement of sculptural modelling by flat planes, the extreme compression of space between background and foreground—all these undergo a qualitative intensification in this work.

If, however, we turn to more Marxist theorisations of modern art Les Demoiselles retains its pivotal role. John Berger does not fully discuss modernism as such, but he clearly regards cubism as the crucial modern movement and the revolutionary art of the 20th century.11 For Berger, cubism synthesises the materialism of Gustave Courbet and the dialectics of Cézanne, and is a response to the scientific and technical breakthroughs of the period (Max Planck, Albert Einstein, electricity, the Eiffel Tower, the aeroplane, etc) and the positive economic promise of monopoly capitalism (the possibility of a world of material plenty and equality) before it was dashed by war and fascism. But for Berger it was by painting Les Demoiselles that “Picasso provoked cubism. It was the spontaneous and…primitive insurrection out of which, for good historical reasons, the revolution of cubism developed”.12

Perry Anderson’s account of modernism in his article “Modernity and Revolution” has a similar point of departure to Berger, but is more systematic and is applied to the culture as a whole, not just painting:

In my view, “modernism” can best be understood as a cultural field triangulated by three decisive coordinates. The first…was the codification of a highly formalised academicism in the visual and other arts, which itself was institutionalised within official regimes of states and society still massively pervaded, often dominated, by aristocratic or landowning classes… The second coordinate is…the still incipient, hence essentially novel, emergence within these societies of the key technologies or inventions of the second industrial revolution: telephone, radio, automobile, aircraft and so on… The third coordinate…was the imaginative proximity of social revolution.13

Les Demoiselles fits neatly into this schema. French art remained dominated by the aristocratic Academy with its annual salons more or less until the end of the 19th century, and Manet, the impressionists, and the post_impressionists (Seurat, Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh) were all met with derision. The automobile is developed, essentially, in the 1890s in Germany and France, and the first mass production is undertaken in the US in 1902. The Wright Brothers made the first powered flights in December 1903 and in September 1906 Santos Dumont made a public flight in Paris. Guglielmo Marconi established the world’s first radio station in 1897 on the Isle of Wight, and opened the first wireless factory in Chelmsford in 1898. Above all the attention of Europe was captured by the 1905 Revolution in Russia. Moreover, if we examine the chronology of the landmarks of the modernist revolution in the other art forms we find that Les Demoiselles, almost invariably, precedes them: in music, Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird was composed in 1910, and The Rite of Spring between 1912 and 1913, while the Ballets Russes was formed 1909 and first performed L’Aprèsmidi d’un Faune in 1912; in literature Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu was begun in 1909, James Joyce’s Dubliners appeared in 1914, Franz Kafka’s In the Penal Colony in 1914 and his Metamorphosis in 1915.

Even from the standpoint of Georg Lukács, the principal Marxist opponent of modernism, I think it would be fair to say that Les Demoiselles exemplifies many of the tendencies—fragmentation, absence of perspective, abandonment of totality—which he held against modernism.

Of course one can push this too far. From a wider perspective, such as that of Marshall Berman in his powerful work, All That is Solid Melts into Air, “modernism” is a cultural response to the whole experience of “modernity”, ie modern capitalism, not the product of any individual work or artist—and this is surely right. Modern art and modernism would have happened in some form regardless of whether Les Demoiselles had been painted. Indeed in this wider view modernism long pre_dates Picasso, stretching back, perhaps, to Kant and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe or in painting to David and Goya, or Théodore Géricault and Courbet. Perhaps what we really need is the idea of two modernisms: one encompassing the progressive culture of the whole epoch inaugurated by the French and industrial revolutions and still continuing today; the other deriving from the specific conjuncture analysed by Anderson and Berger and lasting until the Second World War, which perhaps could be called High Modernism (on the model of the High Renaissance or High Stalinism). This would have the advantage of combining Berger’s broad dynamic vision with Anderson’s rigour, without the latter’s numbing pessimism and the door it opens to postmodernism.14

Nevertheless this broad view does not negate the role played by Les Demoiselles at a crucial historical moment, or its exceptional influence on the tempo and form of modernism’s development. Just as the knowledge that Lenin did not cause or create the Russian Revolution does not exclude the fact that his part in it was greater that of any other single individual, so understanding the wider historical determination of modernism is perfectly compatible with recognising the exceptional role of this particular work.

The Power of Les Demoiselles

I have so far discussed the impact of Les Demoiselles on the development of modern art in purely formal terms, and that was indeed the nature of its influence—it produced a flood of cubist paintings of men with guitars and cafe tables, not a flood of paintings of prostitutes. Nevertheless it would not and could not have had this massive formal influence if it had not been such an exceptionally powerful painting in its own right, that is if its formal innovations had not been seen by other artists (especially Braque) to work in practice. And the moment we consider or analyse the power of Les Demoiselles as an individual painting we have to deal with its subject matter, and see its formal qualities as a way of treating that subject matter. In other words we must view the painting as a totality, a particular fusion or unity of form and content.

This brings us to the simple and inescapable fact that Les Demoiselles is a picture of five prostitutes and is about prostitution. However, it is striking how many art historical and journalistic accounts do try to escape this fact or, at least, to avoid any serious discussion of it. Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones argues, “Most of all, this is a painting about looking…it’s misguided to see [it] as a painting ‘about’ brothels, prostitutes or colonialism”.15 This is evasion. Yes, it is about looking, but precisely about looking at, and being looked at by, prostitutes. Everything in the picture’s composition reinforces this. Many paintings position us when we look at them—Titian’s Venus d$7$Urbino makes us the courtesan/Venus’s lover or patron, Manet’s A Bar at the Folies Bergères makes us a customer ordering a drink—but Les Demoiselles fixes us more definitively than any work I can think of: as the client of the brothel for whom the women are displaying themselves. The phallic bowl of fruit jutting upwards in the centre foreground becomes our phallus leading us into the brothel and towards the women. Thus the painting stages an “in our face” confrontation with the institution of prostitution.

But if Les Demoiselles is “about” prostitution, what exactly is it saying about prostitution?

There is, in the literature, a biographical story which purports to answer this question and thus to “explain” the meaning of the painting. Picasso had a friend who died of syphilis, having been infected by a prostitute, and, according to these accounts, Les Demoiselles is an expression of the fear and anger felt by Picasso as a result. But, regardless of the truth or otherwise of this story, it does not account, or accounts only very partially, for the nature and power of the finished work, which is making a more general statement.16

According to John Berger that general statement is “a raging, frontal attack, not against sexual ‘immorality’, but against life as Picasso found it—the waste, the disease, the ugliness, and the ruthlessness of it…instead of criticising modern life by comparing it, as much in sorrow as in anger, with a more primitive way of life, he now uses his sense of the primitive to violate and shock the civilised… He is not in the least concerned with formal problems. He is concerned with challenging civilisation. The dislocations in this picture are the result of aggression, not aesthetics”.17

But, if the syphilis story is too narrow, Berger’s “rage against civilisation” is too broad. He is right about the element of rage in the painting, but insufficiently precise in identifying its target, again evading the issue of prostitution. Partly, I think, Berger is led astray by following the conventional view of the African heads on the women on the right as aggressive. My own view is that they are not intrinsically either frightening or savage and that they are present in the painting for two reasons: first because in African art, art from a pre_capitalist society, Picasso had found an important source for a new, non-naturalistic way of representing the world; second, in terms of the content of the painting, they occur precisely as masks, as blocking mechanisms behind which the real features of the women are concealed.18

A number of feminist art historians have seen the rage as directed primarily against women as such, and have viewed Les Demoiselles as a highly misogynistic painting. One of the most forceful of these, Carol Duncan, argues that the emergence of modern art coincided with women starting to claim equality (she cites the suffragist movement) and that a great deal of modern art expressed a defensive male sexist reaction to this:

Indeed, as women’s claims to full humanity grew, the more relentlessly would art rationalise their inferior status… In fact, the defence of male supremacy must be recognised as a central theme in modern art. Gauguin, Munch, Rodin, Matisse, Picasso and scores of other artists, consciously or unconsciously, identified some aspect of the sexist cause with all or part of their own artistic missions. Art celebrating sexist experience was accorded the greatest prestige, given the most pretentious aesthetic rationales, and identified with the highest and deepest of human aspirations. Nudes and whores—women with no identity beyond their existence as sex objects—were made to embody transcendent, “universally” significant statements…the image of the whore even came to stand for woman in her purest, most concentrated form.19

For Duncan Les Demoiselles is the epitome of this sexist trend:

What is so remarkable about this work is the way it manifests the structural foundation underlying both the femme fatale and the new primitive woman. Picasso…dredged up from his psyche the terrifying and fascinating beast that gave birth to both of them. The Desmoiselles prismatically mirrors her many opposing faces: whore and deity, decadent and savage, tempting and repelling, awesome and obscene, looming and crouching, masked and naked, threatening and powerless. In that jungle-brothel is womankind in all her present and past metamorphoses, concealing and revealing herself before the male… Picasso presents her in the form of a desecrated icon already slashed and torn to bits…no other work reveals more of the rock foundation of sexist anti_humanism or goes further and deeper to justify and celebrate the domination of woman by man.20

Duncan’s comments on modern art in general have some truth in them, certainly more than is usually recognised in conventional art history. It is also true that Picasso’s life, and some of his art, provides evidence of sexist attitudes. It is even the case that there is anger, misogynistic anger, in Picasso’s depiction of the Avignon prostitutes. Nevertheless, I believe Duncan’s judgment of Les Demoiselles is fundamentally mistaken and this brings us to heart of what the painting is about and the nature and cause of its power.

The central feature of Les Demoiselles is the confrontation between the artist/brothel client/viewer—at this moment they are one and the same—and the gaze of the central women (second and third from the left). Yes, he and we enter the brothel and look at the prostitutes with anger, but this look, and this anger, is returned in spades (if I may use the card playing metaphor) in the implacable gaze of the prostitutes, which functions as both an expression of their situation and feelings, and as a mirror reflecting back his/ours. Thus Les Demoiselles, far from being crudely sexist or simply misogynistic, is a uniquely intense and dramatic depiction of the mutual antagonism, estrangement and alienation involved in the institution of prostitution.

Bourgeois society oscillates between two attitudes to prostitution: on the one hand moral condemnation and legal persecution of the prostitute (largely the department of the church, the police and the courts); on the other hand, sometimes sentimental, sometimes risque, glamorisation, largely the province of the arts. In the latter, Hollywood has played its part but so has “high art” (Titian’s Venus d’Urbino, Boucher’s and Ingres’s Odalisques). In both cases what is evaded is the economic deprivation and emotional trauma which lead women into prostitution, and the sexual deprivation and emotional alienation which lead men to prostitutes.

Once this is grasped it also becomes evident that the formal innovations, which had such an impact on the course of art, all contribute to the intensity of the dramatic confrontation that is Les Demoiselles. Picasso needed the radical break with traditional forms of naturalistic representation, needed the assault on conventional standards of beauty, needed the African masks, to smash and eliminate any traces of sentimentality and glamorisation. Above all Picasso needed the flattening, the extreme foreshortening of space in the painting, to thrust the women into our faces, to stage this eyeball to eyeball confrontation between us and them, client and prostitute, and to cut through the ingrained habit of evasion of the reality of prostitution. And it is precisely the success of Les Demoiselles in achieving this that makes it so genuinely shocking, not just to Braque and Matisse a hundred years ago, but to us today, when its formal qualities have long become familiar. To look at Les Demoiselles is still to receive the visual equivalent of a sharp slap across the face.

The issue of prostitution is still very much with us, and in all its forms from the concentrated hatred of the Ipswich murders, and the extreme exploitation and alienation of the virtual slave trade in women from Eastern Europe and elsewhere, to the milder, but insidious, relegitimisation of sexism through lap dancing, lads’ mags and raunch culture.

Moreover, there is more involved and more at stake here than just the critique of one particular social institution. Bourgeois society’s mystification of prostitution and evasion of its realities (replicated in the art critics’ evasion of the real content of Les Demoiselles) is habitual not just because of the hypocrisy of so many bourgeois politicians, priests and moralists, preaching “family values” in public while privately behaving quite otherwise, but because what the commodification of sex does to the human relations between the people involved is symptomatic of what alienation and commodification (ie capitalism) do to human relations as a whole. Marx explained this with great clarity:

Prostitution is only a specific expression of the general prostitution of the labourer, and since it is a relationship in which not the prostitute alone, but also the one who prostitutes, fall—and the latter’s abomination is still greater—the capitalist, etc, also comes under this head.21

Of course, it is not my argument that Picasso was intellectually conscious of all of this. We do not, and cannot, know exactly what passed through his mind as he worked on Les Demoiselles, and paintings are rarely visual illustrations of intellectual theses. My guess would be that Picasso worked part consciously, part intuitively, and was concerned more with the representation of feelings than of thought out ideas. But this is not really the point. What we have to work with and respond to is the painting itself, and this confronts us with the fact—surely a significant one—that the picture which revolutionised art was a hugely powerful statement of rage at the commodification of sex and life.


1: See for example, Wullschlager, 2007, or Jones, 2007.

2: I am using “realistic” here in the way it is used in everyday language, the media and mainstream art history, which basically accepts the method of representing the world -developed in the Renaissance as true realism, and not in the specific Marxist sense -developed by Frederick Engels, Georg Lukács and others. Lukács distinguished between “naturalism”, the more or less accurate depiction of surface appearances, and “realism”, which penetrated surface appearances to reveal the real driving forces in society. Lukács developed this -distinction in relation to literature, so that for him Honoré de Balzac was a great realist, whereas Émile Zola was merely a naturalist, and “the central aesthetic problem of realism is the adequate presentation of the complete human personality” (Lukács, 1948). It can perhaps be applied to some “traditional” (ie European 1300-1900) visual art, so that Rembrandt’s “realism” could be contrasted to the “naturalism” of Van Dyke or numerous hack portraitists. But it is very difficult to see how it can cope with post-1900 art, with its divergent phenomena such as geometric and expressionist abstraction, dadaism, Marcel Duchamp and the “ready_made” tradition, pop art, conceptual art, installation art, performance art, etc. And it cannot be used to understand the difference between “traditional” art and “modern” art which is what I am concerned with here.

3: John Berger supplied the historical materialist explanation for this, linking it to the rise of capitalism and its fixation on property and commodities. See Berger, 1972a.

4: Hughes, 1991, p24.

5: Warncke, 1997, p165. There is a significant difference between this and the outrage that greeted Manet and the impressionists in that the latter came from the public and the press, whereas this came from the artists in Picasso’s immediate circle and resulted in the public not seeing the painting for nearly ten years.

6: Greenberg, 1993, p754.

7: Greenberg, 1993, p755.

8: Greenberg, 1993, pp755-756. Neil Davidson has suggested that the position of the younger Greenberg in his essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” is in some ways superior to the position cited here. I think that this is true, but space does not permit an account of the development of his views. Justice for Greenberg will have to wait.

9: What John Berger called “not so much a window on the world as a safe in the wall”.

10: Greenberg, 1993, p756.

11: See Berger, 1972b, and Berger, 1965.

12: Berger, 1965, p75.

13: Anderson, 1984.

14: Obviously such a periodisation requires a sustained argument of a depth and length that cannot be presented here.

15: Jones, 2007.

16: The story relates better to some of the numerous preliminary studies for Les Demoiselles, which feature two male figures-a sailor, and a student carrying a skull, a possible “wages of sin” memento mori.

17: Berger, 1965, p72.

18: On the first point, see Molyneux, 2006.

19: Duncan, 1993, pp112-113.

20: Duncan, 1993, pp96-97.

21: Marx, 1967, p93, Marx’s emphasis.


Anderson, Perry, 1984, “Modernity and Revolution”, in New Left Review 144 (March_April 1984).

Berger, John, 1965, The Success and Failure of Picasso (Harmondsworth).

Berger, John, 1972a, Ways of Seeing (Penguin).

Berger, John, 1972b, “The Moment of Cubism”, in Selected Essays and Articles: the Look of Things (Harmondsworth).

Duncan, Carol, 1993, The Aesthetics of Power (Cambridge University).

Greenberg, Clement, 1993, “Modernist Painting”, in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds), Art in Theory 19001990 (Blackwell).

Jones, Jonathan, 2007, “Pablo’s Punks”, the Guardian, 9 January 2007.

Lukács, Georg, 1948, Preface to Studies in European Realism.

Marx, Karl, 1967, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Progress).

Hughes, Robert, 1991, The Shock of the New (Thames and Hudson).

Molyneux, John, 2006, “Picasso, Modernism And The Non-European”, Socialist Worker, 22 April 2006.

Warncke, Carsten-Peter, 1997, Picasso (Taschen).

Wullschlager, Jackie, 2007, “The Day Modern Art Was Invented: Picasso’s Demoiselles”, the Financial Times, 4 January 2007.