I found myself debating whether to see a Pablo Picasso exhibition in London not long after Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette went viral. This 69-minute comedy show that reinvents the genre melted my heart, shattered it to pieces, and then gently put it back together again. Until watching the Netflix special, I didn’t know Gadsby was trained as an art historian. In Nanette, the Australian comedian devotes some time to calling out the dubious nature of our culture’s glorification of Picasso — commonly known to be one of history’s biggest misogynists. Discussing his seduction of under-aged women, and the odious comments he made about them, Gadsby questions why we should aim to separate the man from the art rather than holding both accountable.
It is no secret that Picasso was an abusive character in the lives of those who loved him. In her memoir Picasso, My Grandfather, the artist’s granddaughter Marina Picasso describes the psychological trauma he inflicted on her and her family. After inheriting a large part of Picasso’s estate after his death in 1972, Marina Picasso started selling his artworks in order to free herself from her grandfather’s tyrannous legacy, haunted by memories of his degrading behavior towards her family, ultimately resulting, she writes, in her brother’s suicide at the age of 25 after, being rejected from attending Picasso’s funeral. Picasso’s lover Marie-Thérèse Walter and his second wife Jacqueline Roque also committed suicide after Picasso’s death — and both cases have been romanticized as their inability to live without the artist. Famous for saying that “to make a dove, you must first wring its neck,” Picasso’s emotional abuse has been waved aside as a precondition for his creativity, rather than symptomatic of someone who has received a disproportionate amount of praise and power.
As a child, I myself was infatuated with Picasso. It all started with a movie I saw on television after my parents had already gone to bed (I remember this clearly because the commercials included some adult material). The movie, titled Surviving Picasso, was an adaptation of the French painter and bestselling author Françoise Gilot’s memoir about her life with the artist — the publication of which in 1965 upset Picasso so deeply that he disinherited their children, Paloma and Claude. Picasso is played by Anthony Hopkins, Gilot by Natascha McElhone, and Julianne Moore makes an appearance as the artist Dora Maar. What I learned from the narrative as portrayed in the film, was that Picasso was a genius artist who weakened the knees of countless beautiful young women, only to leave them broken-hearted and pursuing newly inspired romances. I wanted to be like Picasso. I didn’t yet understand that this desire was misguided and rooted in a severe lack of exposure to female artists — it would be a few more years until I discovered Frida Kahlo, and even more years until I read Linda Nochlin’s groundbreaking article “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”. All I knew was that I liked the movie, that I lived near a street named after Picasso, and our local bookstore had an entire section on “history’s greatest artist.”
Thankfully, my admiration faded as Picasso was slowly overshadowed by the many women artists I encountered in my studies and eventually my PhD. Even still, when looking over the bibliography for my required comprehensive exams two years ago, I did find that it included a disproportionate number of books on Picasso. But hey, he was such a trailblazer, it’s only natural isn’t it? Would we even have collage as an artistic medium if it wasn’t for Picasso and Georges Braque? Actually, we would. Collage was already being practiced during the Victorian era by English upper-class women such as Georgina Berkeley, though she is very unlikely to end up on anyone’s orals bibliography. After finishing my exams, Picasso faded even farther into the background of my scholarly pursuits, and I hadn’t thought about him much until seeing Nanette. Gadsby did a great job at refreshing my frustration around Picasso’s legacy, to say the least.
And so, when hashing out my itinerary for an upcoming research trip to London shortly after, it was with a certain incredulity that I discovered the Tate Modern was hosting a major Picasso exhibition titled Love, Fame, Tragedy. Dedicated to just one year of the artist’s life, 1932, the exhibition gives a month-by-month overview of “an intensely creative period in the life of the 20th century’s most influential artist.” Picasso’s art has been exhibited so many times at this point, that zooming in on particular years at least makes it seem that there are still new, unexplored perspectives — and since he lived to be almost 92, we should be good to go for another 70 years of Picasso shows.
In the year 1932, Picasso made a compulsive number of portraits of his lover Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom he met in 1927 when she was only seventeen. In his review for the New York Times, Jason Farago states that “Picasso 1932 is as much her show as his, and the young Frenchwoman, lithe, athletic, untroubled, appears again and again in uncanny states of bodily deliquescence.” I find this statement to be ludicrous. How could it be “as much her show as his” when she only functions as the object and has no agency of her own? Reducing her to four adjectives — young, lithe, athletic, and untroubled — Farago re-objectifies Marie-Thérèse, implying and thereby perpetuating the longstanding notion that being objectified is women’s only contribution to art.
Nevertheless, I did want to see the show for myself. As art historians, we should always look before we judge — right? And since I always enjoy my visits to the Tate Modern, my plan was to go see the exhibition from a critical perspective, maybe even write a review pointing out how certain aspects of the work function as signifiers of Picasso’s misogyny (and what a long review that would be). However, standing in line to buy a ticket, my eye fell on the price: £25 for the Picasso show. Below that, the price for a Joan Jonas exhibition: £15. Insert dramatic mouth opening here.
I tried to determine Tate Modern’s reasoning for the discrepancy between the two entry prices: Picasso is known by dilettantes and art aficionados alike, and is perhaps so beloved by both crowds that the higher ticket price — and therefore increased revenues for the museum — would be paid without qualms. Or, perhaps, the works in the Picasso show were more expensive to borrow, transport, and install, so the costs were higher, therefore driving ticket prices higher. Many museums do tend to have one “highlight” show, with the other exhibitions on view being more of a supporting act, and highlights are often more expensive. It is also conceivable that the museum intentionally chose to make the Joan Jonas exhibition more affordable, in order to make it more accessible.
Sure, all of this could be true. However, it is also true that giving something a higher price implies that it has higher value. By making people pay 40% more for a male artist than a female artist, the museum asserts that one is worth more than the other. (Even if there have been cases at the Tate Modern where the roles were reversed, charging more for a female artist exhibition does not have the same demeaning impact, as male artists have not been subject to the genealogy of repression that female artists have — let alone those who are elsewhere on the gender spectrum.) I realized that not much has changed since I was a kid admiring Picasso. Anyone who visits this prominent art institution in London will be confronted with the same narrative: the blockbuster show on the tortured man-genius who objectified women.
After feeling unsettled by the price lists, I decided to browse through the gift shop created especially for this exhibition. My eyes fell on book titles such as Picasso Mania and Picasso’s Brain: The Basis of Creative Genius. I also flipped through the exhibition catalogue in the hopes that there would be at least one essay shedding light on the dubious nature of this endeavor. There wasn’t. The only object in the gift store that sparked my sincere interest was a book about Picasso’s dachshund, Lump.
I have no doubt that the Picasso exhibition was rich with art historical material, and I am by no means saying that we should erase Picasso from the history of art. But let’s stop the glorification and consider the consequences of blindly upholding certain artists on the high pedestal of art history and hanging on to the outdated notion of “genius.” It is inappropriate to dedicate so much glorified fanfare to a man who, if he were still alive, would find himself on the same list as Harvey Weinstein and Woody Allen. Does the fact he’s dead make him no longer accountable? If we want to create a future that is inclusive of all voices and talents, and not dominated by those in power (who typically came to be so through dubious means), we need to rethink the art historical narratives we present.
Needless to say, I decided not to see the Picasso show. The Joan Jonas exhibit was beautiful.
Joan Jonas exhibited at the Tate Modern (Bankside, London SE1 9TG) March 14–August 5. The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy continues at the Tate Modern (Bankside, London SE1 9TG) through September 9.