Buste de femme (Bust of a Woman), 1907
Femme assise dans un fauteuil (Woman Seated in an Armchair), Spring 1910
Bouteille de Vieux-Marc, verre et journal (Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass and Newspaper), 1913
Rideau pour le ballet “Parade” (Stage Curtain for the Ballet "Parade", 1917
Le Minotaure (The Minotaur), 1928
La Pisseuse, 1965
Le Verre d’absinthe (The Glass of Absinthe), Spring 1914, Paris
Figure, projet de monument à Apollinaire (Figure, project for a monument to Apollinaire), 1928
Tête de femme (Head of a Woman), 1957
Tête de femme (Head of a Woman), 1957-1991 - Monumental replica of Tête de femme, 1957
Le Vase aux trois têtes (The Vase with Three Heads), 1955
This dossier is part
of the series Monographs on the Great Figures
of Modern Art, which will be added to regularly
on this part of the site.
These dossiers are built around a selection of works by the artists who are best represented in the collections of the National Museum of Modern Art. Each dossier sets out to provide an accessible approach to understanding the work of a major artist in the history of 20th-century creative production.
Each of these dossiers includes:
- a general introduction which will present and situate the role of the artist and his or her work in a historical, geographical and aesthetic context,
- a biography of the artist,
- a selection of the most representative works from the Museum's collections, contained in individual files each with notes and a reproduction,
- a chronology of the artist's works.
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The course of Picasso's artistic life is one of the richest in the entire history of 20th-century art. By turns child prodigy, outcast painter, society artist, sculptor, engraver, ceramicist, he was involved in nearly all the great movements and tendencies which played a part in redefining artistic practices.
Together with Georges Braque, at the start of the century he invented new pictorial conventions to represent the space of perception: Cubism. In the 1920s, he took part in the movement for a "return to classical order" which revaluated the heritage of the Academy; then he returned to the avant-garde movements through his closeness to Surrealism, to which he brought rich innovations in the field of sculpture. He also produced small objects made of folded paper, toys to entertain children, ceramics, lithographs illustrating the books of his poet friends, as well as public monuments and vast canvases such as Guernica. In the latter part of his life, he showed the way for a playful, droll and provocative Expressionism, in a deliberately casual style which manifestly exhibits a zest for life, and was taken up again in France in the 1980s, principally by Robert Combas and the movement for Free Figuration.
This varied body of work displays the
vitality of a spontaneously artistic jack-of-all-trades
who draws everything he loves into his art: not only
his female partners and his children, but the circus,
bullfighting, Spain, politics... even the worthless
objects carefully preserved and assembled into his
Like his multifariously shifting personal life, his artistic career was made up of phases, all of them punctuated by doubts and crises which, once finally overcome, took him towards constant innovations. One day Picasso told his friend Gertrude Stein: "... when you make a thing, it is so complicated making it that it is bound to be ugly, but those that do it after you they don't have to worry about making it and they can make it pretty, and so everybody can like it when the others make it." (Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas).
Picasso contributed to all the aesthetic innovations of his century, probably because he had a talent for always being of his time, for challenging himself and for moving on from one successful area of exploration towards fresh experiences.
1881, Malaga - 1973, Mougins
Pablo Ruiz Picasso was a native of Andalusia and spent the early years of his life there. He came to adulthood in Barcelona, where his father had been appointed a professor at the School of Fine Arts. Picasso himself was accepted there as a student at the age of 14, and two years later was likewise admitted to the Royal Academy in Madrid.
After this period of classical studies, he discovered bohemian life, mainly through the artistic and literary milieu of the café Els Quatre Gats in the old part of Barcelona, where works of his were exhibited for the first time. In those days, he frequented a brothel in the "Carrer D'Avinyo" which inspired one of his most famous paintings, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. He also formed close friendships with, among others, Casagemas, whose suicide in 1901 made a deep impression on him. With his painting of his dead friend he discovered the emotional potential of blue monochrome.
In 1904 he settled permanently in France, at first moving into a studio in a Montmartre slum, the "Bateau-Lavoir" (the washhouse-boat), so named by Max Jacob because the way into the building was across a bridge. It was outside this studio that in 1905 Picasso first met Fernande Olivier. With her he became part of a circle of artists, writers such as Gertrude Stein, and poets, the foremost being Guillaume Apollinaire. This happy time marked the beginning of his Rose Period with its paintings of acrobats in what were now softer colours.
In 1907, Picasso was working on the composition of the Demoiselles d'Avignon when the great Cézanne retrospective opened in Paris. It was through the work of the Aix-en-Provence painter that he became close to Georges Braque. Together they worked on developing Cubism. But the outbreak of war put an end to their collaboration, since Braque had to rejoin his regiment. At 34, Picasso was left alone in Paris, and still virtually unknown.
Then in 1917 the Ballets Russes asked
him to work on the costumes and sets for their forthcoming
production. When he went to Italy to join the company
he met Olga, one of the dancers, whom he married
the following year. Their son Paulo was born in 1921.
During this period of prosperity and settled emotional life, Picasso practised a "return to order", which is to say a return to a form of classical art in the wake of the experimental extremes of the avant-gardes. But in 1925, his art broke loose again in a connection with surrealist art. Once more he embarked on an exploration of brand-new forms, and put his energies increasingly into sculpture.
On 27 April 1937 a tragic event took place that made a great impact on Picasso's career: in Spain, German planes supporting Franco's fascist forces bombed the small Basque town of Guernica. Picasso's response was to paint a vast canvas which would be exhibited a month later in the Spanish Republican pavilion at the World's Fair in Paris. This work, conceived as "an instrument of war", brought him close to the Communist Party, which he joined.
In the late 1940s, he settled in Vallauris in Provence and took up a new career as a ceramicist. It was in this region that he produced his last works, including paintings, sculptures, terracotta pots and other assorted objects. He then moved in succession to the Villa Californie in the Bay of Cannes, to the Château de Vauvenargues at the foot of Mont Sainte-Victoire, and to Notre-Dame-de-Vie, the villa at Mougins, a spot subsequently made famous by his works.
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, one of modern art's founding works, heralding Cubism and Expressionism alike, took Picasso nine months of work and a great number of preparatory studies. Among them, this Buste de femme occupies a pivotal point between these two stylistic orientations.
An early version of the vast canvas set out to tackle the provocative subject matter of a brothel in the Avinyo district of Barcelona, hence the original title, Le Bordel d'Avignon, which Picasso always preferred to the title devised by his friend the poet André Salmon. This theme allowed him to approach the painting of nudes in the tradition of Ingres's Valpinçon Bather (Le Bain turc) or Cézanne's Bathers (Les Baigneuses), since the brothel was the only place where, in Picasso's words, "there are truly naked women nowadays". In the second version, painted over the first, the making of the canvas meshes with its subject and itself becomes violent. The rounded, Iberian-inspired faces of the first have now been given dramatically twisting forms and hatchings that slash into the flesh.
In the study Buste de femme, the face and the bust are still shaped with gentle curves which are regular and stylised, while the hair, the brow and the nose are done with angular hatchings, the beginnings of the now emblematic visual aggressivity of the Demoiselles. The wedge-shaped nose almost by itself subsumes the violence of this study; without any recourse to perspective or traditional modelling, it conveys an impression of relief which demonstrates the painter's wish to sacrifice realism for the sake of pictorial solutions.
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon Museum of Modern Art, New York
This canvas, which is representative of the experimentation conducted by Picasso at the time of his close collaboration with Georges Braque at the Bateau-Lavoir, tackles a problem which was to dominate Cubism over the next two years: how to transpose, without illusionism, a three-dimensional reality onto a surface which holds only two.
Produced after a series of painted and
sculpted portraits of his mistress Fernande in
which he was already striving to break up the volume
of the face, Femme assise dans un fauteuil shows
an image recomposed on the basis of a radical flattening
of space. The woman's body is fragmented into multiple
facets compressed together by a network of black lines
which form a structure.
But by offering this pictorial response, Picasso is now entering upon an unknown pathway in terms of iconography.
Although there is a general debt here to Cézanne's motif of the upper body of a woman leaning back in an armchair, its outline still recognisable against the neutral background, the fragmentation of volume destroys any individual characteristics in the representation of the model. Thus the painting tips over into forms which move away from realism towards the boundary of abstraction.
This composition belongs to the period of Synthetic Cubism (1912-1914) during which Picasso and Braque returned to a simplification of forms along with explicit references to objects. Thanks to the pasted newspaper page, it can be dated to a stay at Céret in the spring of 1913.
Having experimented with pasted papers ever since 1912, notably in his Nature morte à la chaise cannée (Still Life with Chair Caning), which features a piece of oilcloth, Picasso here refines his investigation into different levels of representation of pictorial space. A whole gradation is offered, from the most realistic to the most allusive, with the genuine newspaper assuming its own role, then the real painted paper acting as a tablecloth, down to the bottle, which is extremely stylised and identifiable because of the inscription "vieux marc".
In a network of lines traced with charcoal, suggesting the outline of the table, the bottleneck and the body of the bottle, as well as the contour of the glass, the pieces of paper also intervene as clues for guiding the interpretation. For example, the piece of painted paper which completes the representation of the glass and is identical to the one covering the table, draws attention to the transparency of the glass and thus to the ambiguity of our visual experience.
The pasted papers, produced after a period in which Cubist painting had culminated in a system of codes bordering on abstraction, therefore brought about a return to realism which prolonged Picasso's interrogation of perception.
This stage curtain was made by Picasso
for the ballet Parade, at the request of Sergey
Diaghilev, the director of the Ballets Russes.
Written by Jean Cocteau, with music by Erik
Satie, this was one of the first examples of collaboration
between avant-garde artists from different fields.
As Apollinaire said in his preface to the programme,
we find here "for the first time this alliance
of painting and dance, plastic and mimic art, which
signals the advent of a more complete art".
Through this commission, Picasso had the opportunity to combine two approaches to plastic art: Cubism and naturalism.
The subject of Parade was the lives of circus acrobats and their desperate attempts to become famous. For this Picasso devised a curtain depicting poetic scenes featuring Harlequins, circus entertainers, a fairy... thus returning to figuration and a theme close to his heart. But he also had recourse to Cubism for the costumes of characters he himself added to the show: American sideshow managers who take on the appearance of automata, at one and the same time clumsy and inhuman. By studying the movements of the dancers in order to come up with suitable costumes, Picasso also returned to the study of the human body, something which he was never to abandon.
The ballet was first performed at the Théâtre du Châtelet on 18 May 1917, and caused a scandal. Despite abuse from the press, it was acknowledged as a masterpiece in artistic circles, and the experience of close collaboration between artists was later emulated, for instance in the early 1960s, when visual artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Nam June Paik worked with the musician John Cage and the choreographer Merce Cunningham.
The mythical figure of the Minotaur is a central motif in Picasso's work, perhaps because of its closeness to the themes of the bull and the bullfight, but also because it symbolises human ambiguity, somewhere between the divine and the bestial.
According to Cretan legend, this creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man was the fruit of an adulterous love between Pasiphaë, the wife of King Minos, and a bull given to her with this ulterior purpose by Poseidon. Humiliated by her infidelity and by this unnatural liaison which, moreover, had produced the birth of a monster, Minos ordered the architect Dedalus to build a structure from which no one could find a way out - the labyrinth - so that the Minotaur could be confined there.
The monster as represented here by Picasso for the first time, outlined in charcoal on a background of beige and blue pasted papers, seems to be running for all it is worth, as if it hoped to find a way out of the labyrinth. Its position, as well as the curves shaping its body, is in contrast with the angular rigidity of the pieces of paper, and this brings to mind the struggle against confinement.
Picasso represented this monster in other works. It gave him a point of contact with the surrealist group in the 1930s; in particular, in 1933 he produced the cover of the first issue of one of their magazines, itself with the title Minotaure.
* Le Minotaure seen by André Masson, Le Labyrinthe, 1938 Mnam collections
With L'Aubade, a canvas prepared with the assistance of numerous sketches over the best part of a year, Picasso returned to the classical theme of the serenade, taking his inspiration in particular from Titian's Venus with an Organist (Vénus écoutant de la musique), which he was able to see in the course of numerous visits to the Prado Museum in Madrid.
But superimposed on this theme is that
of the historical conditions in which he was working:
the War and its horrors. The Occupation imposed a
curfew and threatened all freedoms. Subjected to censorship,
he took refuge in his studio. This is why in this
work meanings are elided.
The music room becomes a gloomy chamber, its angular geometry reminiscent of a prison atmosphere. The body of Venus, bloated, dislocated and as if in the grip of convulsions, now seems to lie like a tomb effigy, in contrast with the almost smiling face of the female mandolin player, who appears less like an entertaining musician than a jailer or a torturer.
The sense of violence emanating from
this canvas and its multiple angular forms is reinforced
by the dramatic lighting suggested by the strident
opposition between the bands of green and violet colour.
Then the presence of an empty picture frame, on the
lower right, intimates the difficult position of a
painter in this context. Only a bird, scarcely observable
on the body of the musician, allows a glimpse of hope's
After Guernica in 1937, this canvas expresses the artist's radical opposition to war; it was given by him to the museum.
This painting with its irreverent subject is, however, inspired by one of Rembrandt's works (Femme pissant), an etching held at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Picasso always admired Rembrandt a great deal, as much for his graphic work as for his paintings; he worked on portraits of the master in a series of 1934 etchings and often made reference to his canvases, as in Le Peintre et son modèle (The Painter and His Model) (1963) in which he refers to the 1635 Rembrandt and Saskia. Rembrandt's evident attachment to realism fascinated Picasso as something beyond the myth and nobility of the great master. As he said to Kahnweiler in 1955: "Look at Rembrandt! He would have liked to make a Bathsheba but his servant woman posing for her interested him a lot more and it was his servant he painted".
Thus La Pisseuse pays homage
to genre painting, as typical of Dutch painting, which
deals with commonplace and low-life subjects. But
the figure, represented Greek-style, in profile and
wearing a white tunic, also makes reference to the
lewd iconography of some antique vases and paintings.
For Picasso this canvas was an opportunity to try out a new manner of painting suited to the grotesque nature of the subject, somewhat hurried, deliberately casual and retaining an unfinished look, where what matters are exuberance and vitality: a kind of "art slang, which would be to the painting of the master what slang is to ordinary speech", as Adrian Stokes put it. Picasso ushered in a new generation of painters like Robert Combas and Hervé Di Rosa, grouped together in France under the designation of Free Figuration, a term invented by Ben Vautier.
Le Verre d’absinthe belongs to a series of six bronzes produced from a single wax model. Instead of merely fulfilling a decorative function, the paint or other materials covering them (their only distinguishing features) highlight the reliefs, accentuating one element rather than another, in order to create new formal relationships in each case. As in Synthetic Cubist painting, colour plays a part in constructing space. The piece coated in brown sand, the monochrome version of the series, rounds out and tightens contours, contradicting the sharp-edged qualities of the glass.
Frequently employed by Picasso, the theme of glass upsets the notion of sculpture, as observed by Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, one of Picasso's first dealers: "The character of "transparency" which is here found for the first time in the relief, appears in European sculpture in the round in 1914, in Picasso's painted bronze glass of absinthe. The inside of the glass is shown at the same time as its external form... thus emblematic sculpture here replaces, in European art, sculpture derived from a mould of nature".
Moreover, there is as real absinthe spoon added to each piece, like a fragment of reality that is incorporated into the work of art. By doing this, Picasso was not aiming for a realistic effect like Degas when he dressed one of his sculptures, Petite danseuse de quatorze ans (The Little Dancer) (1880) in a real tutu, nor was he denouncing the futility of art as Marcel Duchamp did in the same period. He created a work which confronts the three ontological levels traditionally brought into play in art: reality, with the spoon; representation, with the schematised glass, and literal imitation, with the piece of sugar set atop the whole.
In 1927, the Society of Friends of
Apollinaire asked Picasso to make a funeral monument
for the Père-Lachaise Cemetery as the tenth anniversary
of the poet's death approached.
His first ideas, inspired by Brancusi's Le Baiser (The Kiss), a couple entwined together in a block of stone set on a grave in Montparnasse Cemetery in 1910, were considered pornographic and rejected. Picasso then embarked upon a direction close to Constructivist experimentation, such as Tatlin's project for the IIIe Internationale (Third International). He had his Catalan compatriot Julio Gonzalez, a specialist in ironwork, make two wire maquettes based on Picasso's own designs. With these Picasso proposed a design carved out in space, by a process of transposition and enlargement, a technique which was perfectly suited to his new source of inspiration.
Centring his work on Apollinaire's writings, he turned to a passage in Le Poète assassiné (The Poet Assassinated) (1916) a novella following the life of Croniamantal, a fictional and archetypal poet done to death by the mob. In chapter 18, a monument is to be built to his memory and the question is raised of how this should be: "A statue in what?"... "In marble? In bronze? No, that's too old-fashioned"... "I must sculpt him a profound statue out of nothing, like poetry and fame"... "A statue out of nothing, out of emptiness, that's magnificent; when will you sculpt it?".
When he made his Figure in 1928, Picasso interpreted this passage as Apollinaire's explicit wish. He gave life to this anti-materialist monument imagined by the poet and initiated a sculptural practice to which he would often return in the course of his life, varying it with modelling and sculptures in ironwork which would be developed in turn by other artists such as Julio Gonzalez and Alexander Calder.
One of the versions
Le Baiser, 1940
On Tatlin's Monument pour la IIIe Internationale Mnam collections
A work by Julio Gonzalez, La Girafe (The Giraffe), c.1935 Mnam collections
Around 1954, Picasso invented a new style of sculpture, what Werner Spies called flat sculpture, which had been inspired by Sylvette David, a young woman he met in Vallauris. She entranced him with her modern looks, especially her hair in a ponytail which harmoniously extended the profile of her face. On the basis of portraits of Sylvette painted on fine sheet-metal which he cut up and folded over, he composed objects some of which could then be replicated on a monumental scale.
Picasso continued this working method with portraits of Jacqueline, his last companion. Working under the dramatic illumination of several spotlights which accentuated contours, he painted profiles which he cut out and joined up perpendicular to one another, with the planes slotted together around a pole. In this way he invented a final form of sculpture, pole-sculpture, which was halfway between modelling in space and pictorial representation, suggesting a kind of culmination to Cubist decompositions of spatial perception.
The 1957 small-scale Tête de femme in painted wood, also inspired by Jacqueline's profile, was produced after Picasso's death in a monumental version 12 m high. Set up at Flaine (Haute-Savoie) in 1991 at the request of Eric and Sylvie Boissonnas, the promoters of this ski resort where culture mingles with sport, this piece by Picasso joined other magisterial works such as Jean Dubuffet's Le Boqueteau (1969-88) at the foot of the ski slopes.
Between 1947 and 1960, in parallel with his other activities, Picasso produced a large number of ceramics, more than 800 pieces including statuettes, vases, plates and jugs, some of them, like Le Vase aux trois têtes, being later cast in bronze.
After the war Picasso settled in Vallauris, a village famed since the 16th century for the quality of its clay and its potteries, and his work was essentially based on the locally produced Madoura terracotta. His procedure was to work on the pottery clay before it was dry, hollowing out shapes and cutting into them, and even trying out sophisticated new ceramic techniques such as oxide and engobe.
He created some extraordinary pieces, metamorphosing them into surprising, often humorous creatures. Taking advantage of the curved surfaces which the various receptacles offered for experimenting with new modes of representation, he also produced numerous faces, even portraits. In relation to these, in 1948 he told the sculptor Henri Laurens: "You ought to do ceramic-work. It's splendid!... I've done a head; the thing is that you can look at it from every angle, and it's flat.... What is it we look for in a picture? Depth, the greatest possible amount of space. In a sculpture, the aim is to make it flat for the viewer, seen from every angle".
Picasso's ceramics consequently should not be disassociated from his pictorial or graphic experimentation - for example, the series of drawings Le Peintre et son modèle (The Painter and His Model), which are contemporary with this practice - nor from his sculptures, such as Petite fille sautant à la corde (Little Girl with a Skipping Rope), which incorporates a terracotta receptacle.
Picasso goes to Paris for the first time.
His painting is dominated by shades of blue and usually depicts solitary victims. This is the start of his "Blue Period", which he will continue developing until 1904.
He sets up a studio in Montmartre, at the Bateau-Lavoir, where he meets Fernande Olivier, who will be his companion until 1911. He is steeped in the atmosphere of Montmartre, where his circle includes poets such as Max Jacob, André Salmon and Apollinaire, as well as the artists Matisse and Van Dongen.
Painting acrobats in soft pastel colours, he enters his two-year "Rose Period".
Work proceeds slowly on Le Bordel d'Avignon or Bordel philosophique, which will later be rechristened Les Demoiselles d' Avignon by André Salmon. It shows the influence on Picasso of Cézanne, and also of traditional Iberian art and the African art introduced to him by Matisse.
Together with Georges Braque, he becomes engaged upon establishing the "Cubist" style, in accordance with the term invented that same year by the art critic Louis Vauxcelles during an exhibition of Braque's paintings at the Kahnweiler Gallery. This experimentation is to involve the two artists until the start of the First World War and it will develop in three successive phases: the first still under the influence of Cézanne, the second increasingly abstract and esoteric, the final one returning to the everyday, with real objects incorporated into the works.
Picasso meets his new companion, Eva Gouel, to whom he refers in several of his new canvases, for example inscribing the words "ma jolie" (my sweetheart) or "j'aime Eva" (I love Eva). Eva dies following an illness in 1915.
Alone and at a loose end during the war, he meets Sergei Diaghilev, the director of the Ballets Russes, who suggests that he create the sets and costumes for his next show, Parade. This is the beginning of a more successful career in society, and a new life, since Picasso falls in love with one of the dancers in the troupe, Olga Khoklova.
With the Ballets Russes, he stays in Rome and discovers Italy.
He marries Olga and moves into a comfortable apartment at 23 rue La Boetie. Unable to work in this over-neat interior, he rents the apartment upstairs to set up his studio there.
The birth of his first child, Paulo.
Picasso goes back to the aggressive style which characterised Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, painting La Danse (The Dance), a canvas which breaks with the neoclassicism of the preceding years and brings him close to the nascent Surrealist group.
He meets Marie-Thérèse Walter by chance in the street. She will be his mistress for nearly ten years and, in 1935, will give birth to a little girl, Maïa.
He buys the Chateau de Boisgeloup. There he sets up a vast sculpture studio and produces a series of works for which Marie-Thérèse is the model.
Paul Eluard, a very close friend of Picasso, introduces him to the photographer and artist Dora Maar. This is the start of a new relationship which is to last for seven years. Their shared commitment in opposition to the fascism which is spreading across Europe will be the source of a large number of works, in particular Guernica (1937), which Dora Maar photographs at successive stages of the work.
Picasso gives up the apartment in rue la Boetie, which Olga and her son Paulo have already left. He moves into a studio in the rue des Grands-Augustins, where he lives and works between 1937 in 1955 whenever he is staying in Paris.
He gets to know the young painter Françoise Gilot, who will be his companion for the next ten years. Their son Claude is born in 1947, then Paloma in 1949.
The family moves into the villa La Galloise at Vallauris, a town famed for its potteries. Picasso works on ceramics.
After his separation from Françoise, in Vallauris he meets Jacqueline Roque. The following year they move to the villa La Californie, in the hills above the Bay of Cannes. In the studio of this new home, he produces a large number of monumental paintings which revisit famous compositions such as Velasquez's Las Meninas and Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe.
With Jacqueline, he buys the Chateau de Vauvenargues at the foot of Mont Sainte-Victoire. Picasso sets up a studio there between 1959 and 1962, but his main workplace continues to be La Californie, then, from 1961, the villa Notre-Dame-de-Vie at Mougins, where he has his last studio.
Picasso and Jacqueline get married in Vallauris.
A Picasso Museum is opened at Barcelona; the artist donates almost all of the works done in his youth.
In the French version of the
dossier, you can consult:
- extracts from a reference source: Vivre avec Picasso, Françoise Gilot, Carlton Lake, Paris, Calmann-Lévy, 1973
- a selective bibliography: essays on Picasso, exhibition catalogues.
- various links to websites on Picasso
To consult the other dossiers on the collections of the National Museum of Modern Art
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© Centre Pompidou, Direction de l'action éducative et des publics, April 2005
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