Shock and Awe

An Interview with Miles Unger

Doucet was very reluctant. It's not a comfortable painting to hang in your house, to say the least. And this was exactly why it appealed to Breton. But he finally convinces Doucet that it would be a feather in his cap if he had this painting hanging on his wall.

Picasso reluctantly agreed to sell it for far less than what it was worth, based on the promise that Doucet's collection would eventually be donated to the Louvre. This didn't happen. When Doucet died, his widow sold it to the dealer Germain Seligman. This was in the years leading up to the Second World War. Seligman decided, given the political situation in Europe, that it was probably a better idea to sell it in the United States. This was just at the time when the Museum of Modern Art was getting started. Alfred Barr was trying to build up his collection.

Alfred Barr had already determined in his own mind — and this is not a particularly controversial assessment — that Picasso was the key artist in the history of 20th-Century art. He was trying to put on a Picasso show. Eventually he urges the museum board to purchase this work, and it blew their budget. It's one of the few times in their history they had to sell off a work in order to raise the funds to pay for another: they sold off a Degas racetrack picture in order to raise half the funds.

OR: Is it the most important Western painting? How do you see it situated in the broader world of Western art?

Unger: That's a difficult and subjective question. Some months ago I saw an article trying to assess how much a work would sell for at auction if it ever went on the market. Obviously, Les Demoiselles is not something the Museum of Modern Art will ever part with, so it's a completely abstract question. But Les Demoiselles was listed as what would be the most expensive painting ever sold if it ever went to auction.

The consensus of art scholars, and people who look at these things, is that it's the most important painting of the 20th Century. You can make a very strong case that the Les Demoiselles had a greater influence on a greater number of paintings and movements and artists than any other painting in the history of modernism.

If you want to say what is the greatest painting of the 20th Century, that's another question. I think that's far more difficult, and dependent on your particular tastes. Guernica is probably better known in the popular imagination than Les Demoiselles is. Picasso painted Guernica as a public painting. One of the interesting things about Picasso is, for the most part, he was a very private man, and he painted because he had to, because he had to exorcise the demons in his soul. He was in some ways, quite content to have Les Demoiselles rolled up in a secret place like some kind of fetish kept in the dark to light candles to. That was very much his view of art: a private, almost primitive ritual.

Guernica was meant as a kind of grand political statement at a time of political upheaval, so it's always been more in the public mind. Guernica addresses the public in the way that Les Demoiselles does not. I guess the ultimate answer is it depends on how you look at it. I don't think there is a definitive answer, but certainly if you look at the impact this almost secret painting had on the course of art, if you take the spring and summer of 1907 when it was first seen and look at the huge transformation of the art world it effected — it's like a rock dropped in a pond, you see these rippling effects, these waves of transformation based on what happened.

You have the Futurists in Italy, you've got the Constructivists in Russia, you've got the Dutch artists like Mondrian, all of this sort of building out very quickly in the space of a few years from this sort of central point. Partly it changed the course of Picasso's art, and Cubism became the avant garde movement that really shook up the world and transformed the look, not only of art itself, but of design and architecture.

It stands as kind of ground zero for a huge transformation in the way we perceive art and the way art looked.