Skip to main content

The Liberation of Painting

Modernism and Anarchism in Avant-Guerre Paris

The years before World War I were a time of social and political ferment in Europe, which profoundly affected the art world. A major center of this creative tumult was Paris, where many avant-garde artists sought to transform modern art through their engagement with radical politics. In this provocative study of art and anarchism in prewar France, Patricia Leighten argues that anarchist aesthetics and a related politics of form played crucial roles in the development of modern art, only to be suppressed by war fever and then forgotten.
Leighten examines the circle of artists—Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, František Kupka, Maurice de Vlaminck, Kees Van Dongen, and others—for whom anarchist politics drove the idea of avant-garde art, exploring how their aesthetic choices negotiated the myriad artistic languages operating in the decade before World War I. Whether they worked on large-scale salon paintings, political cartoons, or avant-garde abstractions, these artists, she shows, were preoccupied with social criticism. Each sought an appropriate subject, medium, style, and audience based on different conceptions of how art influences society—and their choices constantly shifted as they responded to the dilemmas posed by contradictory anarchist ideas. According to anarchist theorists, art should expose the follies and iniquities of the present to the masses, but it should also be the untrammeled expression of the emancipated individual and open a path to a new social order. Revealing how these ideas generated some of modernism’s most telling contradictions among the prewar Parisian avant-garde, The Liberation of Painting restores revolutionary activism to the broader history of modern art.

248 pages | 32 color plates, 99 halftones | 8 1/2 x 11 | © 2013

Art: Art Criticism, European Art

History: European History


The Liberation of Painting is the real thing: a mature work by a paradigm-shifting scholar who has been publishing leading-edge scholarship on several of the artists discussed here over the course of her distinguished professional career. This book will make its mark in studies of the relationship between avant-garde art and radical politics, as the groundwork has already been put down by two decades of work by Patricia Leighten in her consistently strong and persuasive voice.”

Elizabeth Childs, Washington University, St. Louis

 “By shrewdly setting avant-garde attitudes alongside caricature and descriptive naturalism, Patricia Leighten powerfully restates the dangerousness of modernism in pre-1914 Paris. Her exciting study reveals how progressive styles engaged with other idealisms, whether anarchist or scientific, philosophical or anti-colonial, sexual or spiritual, in a medley of persuasive arguments.”

Richard Thomson, University of Edinburgh

The Liberation of Painting is a groundbreaking study of the relationship between art and radical politics in prewar France. Rooted in exemplary scholarship, Patricia Leighten shows how artists acted as historical agents, negotiating complex relationships with the political sphere. Drawing on the work of artists such as Picasso, Vlaminck, Van Dongen, and Kupka she deftly explores the many ways in which anarchist politics animated ideas of ‘avant-garde’ art and informed the creation of innovative formal languages. Leighten both complicates and enriches the dominant narratives of modernism, inviting the reader to address the real complexity of major movements or so-called ‘isms.’ Key notions of ‘primitivism,’ ‘autonomy,’ caricature, and collage are the subjects of careful, historical scrutiny; modernism’s history is reconceived here as a heterogeneous field of cultural, aesthetic and political intersections. This book is essential reading for students and researchers seeking to understand the complex, shifting relationship between ‘avant-garde’ art, art criticism and radical politics in avant-guerre Paris.”

Gill Perry, The Open University

“[R]ich and multifaceted....The book is particularly valuable in illuminating and contextualizing the art and careers of underrated modernists like Kupka and Gris, and in the wealth of research it offers on the satirical graphics that they and other avant-garde painters of this period produced.”

Bridget Alsdorf, Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide

“Stereotypical views of modern art long have associated its complex visual languages with radical politics, variously calling modern paintings ‘anarchic’ and ‘revolutionary.’ In this path-forging book, Leighten illuminates the truths that underscore such truisms. . . Leighten’s serious treatment of the French satirical press is reason enough for this book to have a transformative impact on the study of modern art. . . . Essential.”


“Leighten re-examines a series of major figures and works, including Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), cubist collage, and František Kupka’s cosmic abstraction. Even these supposedly familiar and canonized touchstones call out for emancipation. Leighten radicalizes this and related work anew. . . . [C]ompelling research.”

Mark A. Cheetham | Art History

“[An] eye-opening study of the political nature of pre-war modernism. . . . The Liberation of Painting is indispensable for anyone interested in the inter-relatedness of art and politics during the late modern era. Leighten’s commitment to the subject is as impressive as the conviction of her argument and the depth of her sources. Her confident writing style, free of jargon and entirely accessible, also makes for thoroughly enjoyable reading.”

H-France Review

"The ambiguous positioning of cubism in relation to both popular and anti-colonial imagery of empire is skilfully delineated. . . . This study persuasively articulates its vision of the ‘politics of form’ at work in pre-First World War art. It is also a beautifully produced publication."

Douglas Smith | French Studies

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface and Acknowledgments
Introduction. Modernist Heteroglossia

Chapter 1
Languages of Art and Politics: Salon Painting, Caricature, Modernism

Chapter 2
The White Peril: Colonialism, L’art nègre, and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Chapter 3
A Rationale of Ugliness: Cubism and Its Critical Reception

Chapter 4
Politics and Counterpolitics of Collage: Picasso, Gris, and the Effects of War

Chapter 5
Abstracting Anarchism: František Kupka and the Project of Modernism

Conclusion. A Politics of Form



Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press