Over the past half century, Pablo Picasso’s reputation has taken quite a beating. Once termed a “genius” by fellow Cubist Georges Braque and later a “prodigy” by his biographer John Richardson, Picasso was called a “walking scrotum” in Robert Hughes’s 1991 history of modern art. In 2019 he was even labeled an “egoist” by artist Françoise Gilot, who ended their tumultuous decade-long relationship and then chronicled it in a 1964 memoir that was recently reprinted.
The shift owes something to feminists like Linda Nochlin, who, in a well-known 1971 ARTnews essay, asked if Picasso would have been called a genius if he were born a girl. But most people don’t know Nochlin. They know Hannah Gadsby, a comedian who took up Picasso in their 2018 Netflix special Nanette, going so far as to say he “just put a kaleidoscope filter” on his penis when he helped think up Cubism, a movement that prized a multiplicity of perspectives.
Gadsby is even more unsparing than that in the audio guide for their new Brooklyn Museum show, “It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby,” which opens to the public on Friday.
Gadsby notes that Picasso was a “monumentally misogynistic and abusive domestic authoritarian dictator,” and that he “takes up too much space.” To further underscore the point, perhaps in homage to Hughes, Gadsby lends Picasso the nickname “PP.” You can do the work figuring out that very unsubtle pun.
“Picasso is not my muse of choice,” Gadsby later says of organizing the show. “I regret this.” They should.
Organized with Brooklyn Museum curators Catherine Morris and Lisa Small, “It’s Pablo-matic” aspires toward a new kind of Picasso scholarship that better accounts for his misogyny, his bad behavior, and his colonialist impulses. Gadsby and the curators intend to accomplish this by weaving in more recent works by pillars of feminist art, a noble gesture meant to “unearth and champion voices and perspectives that are missing from our collective understanding of ourselves,” per Gadsby.
The show’s problem—Pablo-m, if you will—is not its revisionary mindset, which justly sets it apart from all the other celebratory Picasso shows being staged this year to mark the 50th anniversary of his death. That is the appropriate lens for discussing much of Picasso’s oeuvre in 2023. It is, instead, the show’s disregard for art history, the discipline that Gadsby studied, practiced, and abandoned after becoming frustrated with its patriarchal roots.
The Pablo-ms begin before you even enter the first gallery. Above the show’s loud red signage on the museum’s ground floor, there’s a 26-foot-long painting by Cecily Brown, Triumph of the Vanities II (2018), featuring an orgy of brushy forms set against a fiery background. The painting looks back to the bacchanalia of Rococo painting and the intensity of Eugène Delacroix’s hues. It has little to say about Picasso, an artist whom Brown has spoken of admiringly.
Inside the show, there’s Jo Baker’s Birthday (1995), a Faith Ringgold print featuring a reclining Josephine Baker beside a bowl of ripe peaches. This is a direct allusion to paintings by Henri Matisse like Odalisque couchée aux magnolias (1923), not to Picasso. (A better Ringgold selection would’ve been her 1991 quilt Picasso’s Studio, which takes on the artist more directly.) Likewise, there’s Nina Chanel Abney’s Forbidden Fruit (2009), in which a group of picnickers are seated around and atop watermelons. It’s a composition that specifically recalls Édouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1862–63), not any particular Picasso painting.
There’s no question that Ringgold and Abney are highlighting the limits of modernism—they replace white figures with Black ones, whom they suture into European images. But this exhibition is not about the modernist canon as a whole, which is itself an extension of a male-dominated Western art history that spans centuries. It’s specifically about one man, per the show’s title: Picasso, whom “It’s Pablo-matic” flatly offers as the only modernist worth critiquing. He isn’t.
Ironically, one of the few Picasso-focused works comes courtesy of Gadsby themselves. It’s a ca. 1995 copy of Picasso’s Large Bather with a Book (1937), depicting a blocky, boulder-like figure crumpled over an open volume. Gadsby painted their reproduction on the wall of their parents’ basement. Looking back on it, they now call it “shitty.”
“Picasso once said it took him four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child,” Gadsby writes in the wall text. “Well, I don’t want to call myself a genius … But it did only take me four years to be as funny as Raphael.”
“Funny” is debatable, but comedy is used as a curatorial device throughout the show. Gadsby’s quotes, which are printed above more serious art historical musings, are larded with the language of Twitter. “Weird flex,” reads one appended to a Picasso print of a nude woman caressing a sculpture of a naked, chiseled man. “Don’t you hate it when you look like you belong in a Dickens novel but end up in a mosh pit at Burning Man? #MeToo,” reads another that goes with a print showing a minotaur barging into a crowded, darkened space.
Most of the works in this show are by Picasso, strangely enough. This in itself constitutes an issue—you can’t re-center art history if you’re still centering Picasso.
But if the curators must, they have at least brought some impressive works to the US for the exhibition. There are several paintings on loan from the Musée National Picasso in Paris, some of which are enlisted in savvy ways.
One of them, Corrida: la mort de la femme torero (Bullfighting: Death of the Female Bullfighter), from 1933, shows a woman tumbling across two colliding bulls. Upon impact, her breasts spill out, lending the scene an unseemly erotic quality that courses through so many of the Picasso works in this show. It’s all the more disturbing to learn that this female toreador was based on Marie-Thérèse Walter, who was romantically involved with Picasso at the time. I agree with the curators’ assessment that this painting emblematizes Picasso’s brutal tendencies. I only wish it wasn’t paired with this quote from Gadsby: “If PETA can’t cancel Picasso … no one can.”
It’s key that the show repeatedly references Gilot and Walter, as well as other women from Picasso’s love life, like the artist Dora Maar and the dancer Olga Khokhlova. These women were previously written off as Picasso’s “muses,” and “It’s Pablo-matic” suggests that historians still have trouble talking about them. While the show is frank about the negative aspects of these women’s relationships with the artist, they are always discussed within the context of Picasso, who continues to exert a strong gravitational pull.
I detected a disingenuous sentiment amid it all. Gilot and Maar both produced art of note. Where was that in this show? It would’ve been instructive to see their work placed on equal footing with Picasso’s. Or, for that matter, pretty much any female modernists. The only ones who make the cut are Kathe Köllwitz and Maria Martins, both of whom are represented by unremarkable examples of their remarkable oeuvres.
These women didn’t make it into history books for a long time, and that’s the subtext of Kaleta Doolin’s Improved Janson: A Woman on Every Page #2 (2017), a piece included in this show. The work takes the form of a famed art history textbook that has, in every one of its pages, a vaginal oval cut out of it. An image of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) was sliced by Doolin during the work’s making, its lower left-hand corner now lopped off.
Doolin’s work is about removal: she leaves parts of Janson’s book absent to make clear that women artists, for so many centuries, were kept out of the picture. This was a painful, violent elision, and Doolin makes steps toward rectifying the carnage by acknowledging all that contributed to it. If only Gadsby had done the same.
Why does this show contort art history so? There are numerous Picasso works here that portray threesomes, rapes, and bestiality. The wall text doesn’t hide the sources of these images: Ovid’s poetry, Greek mythology. When Picasso represented a minotaur kneeling over a nude, sleeping woman who can’t consent, he was glorifying sexual assault, using classical art as a limp justification. He was hardly the first male artist to do that, however: Bernini, Titian, Correggio, Poussin, and many more did it too. Yet this exhibition directs its aim only at Picasso.
Many of the women in this exhibition are responding to centuries of misogyny, not just Picasso’s. Betty Tompkins has a grand, grisaille painting showing an erect penis entering a vagina in close-up—an image that recalls a certain Gustave Courbet work—while Joan Semmel takes a lighter approach, with a painting of a post-coital couple shown from the woman’s point of view. Ghada Amer is showing a terrific embroidered work in which pools of red thread reveal pairs of splayed-open women’s legs, and Rachel Kneebone has a porcelain piece that looks like a fountain of limbs. There’s no specific reference point in these works, because the male gaze is omnipotent. It wasn’t found only in Picasso’s studio.
The final gallery, the sole one without any Picasso works in it, brings “It’s Pablo-matic” into even squishier territory. There are some great works here—Dara Birnbaum’s classic video skewering Wonder Woman, an Ana Mendieta photograph of an abstracted female form sculpted into the ground, Dindga McCannon’s painting of a multihued revolutionary with real bullets fixed to the canvas—but they have almost nothing in common, beside the fact that they are all owned by the Brooklyn Museum.
The supplement to this exhibition, available on the Bloomberg Connects app, includes an interview with one artist in this gallery, Harmony Hammond. Asked about her feelings on Picasso, she says, “Truth be told, I don’t think about Picasso and his work.”
It would’ve been nice to have more artists who were thinking about Picasso, or whose work, at least, has something to do with him. But this seems like too much to ask from the curators, especially Gadsby, who greets that line of thinking with a big, fat raspberry. “Humans are not doing great,” they say on the audio guide. “We are unsettled. I blame Picasso. That’s a little joke. Or is it? I don’t know.”