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M odernism in the arts is years old, because Pablo Picasso's painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is now years old. In , the Titanic had yet to sink, cinema was a flickering newsreel of the Boer war, Scott of the Antarctic was still alive and the Wright brothers travelled to Europe to publicise their invention of powered flight. San Francisco was still shattered by the previous year's earthquake.
But in a crowded, dilapidated warren of artists' and writers' studios on the Parisian hill of Montmartre, home to anarchy and cabaret, a year-old Spanish immigrant was creating the first, and greatest, masterpiece of modern art.
Picasso drew his first designs for what became Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in the winter of With that painting, the nature of reality was altered as profoundly as it would be by the physics of Picasso's contemporary, Albert Einstein. This is one centenary worth thinking about. It's not just years in the life of a painting, but years of modernism.
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is the rift, the break that divides past and future. Culturally, the 20th century began in Consider the dates of other works of high modernism. James Joyce didn't get started on Ulysses until , by which time Picasso was into the final stages of cubism. You can make a case for many beginnings of modern art.
Some would say it began with Manet's confrontational nude, Olympia. After Olympia, the late 19th century and early s teem with provocative works of art that engage specifically with the same sexual territory as Picasso: Munch's Madonna, Klimt's Pallas Athene, Zola's novels. In this context, you could argue that Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is in fact a backwards-looking, unoriginal work of art, a recycling of the 19th century's biggest cliches - "loose women" cavorting in exotic interiors.