This summer, The Brooklyn Museum opened an exhibition “sort of” about Picasso. Backlash, and “backlash to the backlash” commenced in its opening week. This rash of immediate criticism is what inspired me to visit “It’s Pablo-Matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby.” The curatorial team included Hannah, the stand-up comedian whose Peabody-winning 2018 special Nanette broke the comedy mold with a lengthy discussion of western art history (slides included).
The exhibition features works by the titular artist, and these works are put into conversation—some explicit, some implicit—with the works of women artists. The exhibition intends to shine light on the more unsavory aspects of Picasso’s legacy: his misogyny, his bullying and abusive tendencies, his brazen cultural appropriation. Rejecting the idea of him as a singular genius, it posits him as a fetishist, whose fame says something troubling about the colonialist, patriarchal nature of art history.
I was skeptical of the criticism heaped on “Pablo-matic”: it has been pointed out that the overwhelming majority of contrarians are male critics, and the criticisms swing in every direction, contradicting each other. However, I was also skeptical of the show’s premise itself. A devout student of art history myself, I am familiar with Picasso’s infamy and his well-documented meanness, as well as the concept that we celebrate the wrong historical figures (should we celebrate any?).
I was skeptical of the criticism heaped on “Pablo-matic”: it has been pointed out that the overwhelming majority of contrarians are male critics, and the criticisms swing in every direction, contradicting each other.
Even before watching Nanette, I had done my art history homework, read my Edward Said and my Griselda Pollock (two scholars of the 1970s who catalyzed major shifts in the field: Said by introducing the concept of Orientalism and Pollock as a leader in feminist art history). I thought it was too late and too trite to design a show around bashing a household name that has already been mud for decades.
I shared my incredulity with a friend, who quickly pointed out what I was overlooking. Outside the cloister of academia, and beyond the young field of revisionist history, Picasso’s name is not mud. While the insular art world is tying itself in knots over what “Pablo-matic” may or may not succeed or fail to do, the show is still open to the public, for the first time offering a mainstream hot take on the artist everyone thinks they know.
I found the significance of “Pablo-matic” in the wall text that flanks its outer doorway. Hannah Gadsby writes:
“I think it is futile to engage directly in a conversation about whether we should ‘cancel Picasso.’ Not least because it is impossible. He’s already happened to us. Plus, Picasso doesn’t care. He’s dead. He won’t learn anything. This isn’t about him. Just kidding! It is. But not really.”
Parsing through Hannah’s sardonic voice, which schoolyard-taunts Picasso in wall text throughout the exhibition, one phrase kept my attention: “he won’t learn anything.” It applies to Picasso; it applies to the critics who insisted on an opening-day take down of the show. “Pablo-matic” cautions the viewer that plenty “won’t learn anything.” So, the question becomes: “what might we learn?”
Even with an open mind, I question several curatorial choices at “Pablomatic”. The exhibition comprises four galleries, each painted a different color: First, a shout of crimson red, followed by powder blue and navy blue in adjoining galleries, and ending with a soft and bright lavender room. These painted walls might allude to Picasso’s “rose period” and “blue period;” if so, the vibrancy of the colors creates an unnecessary distraction from the works themselves. They also attempt to steer our emotional response to the show: first we are red-angry, then we calm down with blue, and finally we reflect on all our feelings with a combination of the two colors: a shade of violet.
I found the first gallery and its “righteous anger red” the most heavy-handed and disappointing. Titled “Opening Gambit: Picasso and Feminism after 1973,” this antechamber offers an overview of feminist discourse in art history as it emerged in the late 20th century. The works on view are largely politically charged. Notably, Guerrilla Girls broadsheets and an art history text book in which artist Betty Tompkins’ has written over the image of Artemisia Gentileschi’s 16th century painting “Susana and The Elders,” scribbling out the male forms. As this “opening gambit” notes, the feminism of the 70s and after was considered “second wave feminism” and focused on the resistance to sexual violence against women.
Situating this movement in an inflammatory red inferno is perhaps emotionally fitting of the second wave, but fifty years later, it fails to consider the depth and multivalence of the conversation between feminism and art. It creates an immediate dichotomy: Picasso is bad, and we are mad. The red is so overwhelming, so definitive, that it takes away the nuance that the show prides itself on.
Within this “Picasso vs rape culture” introduction, the Faith Ringgold print in the red room seems misplaced. The work is easily swallowed and, moreover, does not connect with the tone or concept of second wave feminism. Ringgold’s piece is called “Jo Baker’s Birthday” and depicts one of the artist’s characteristic floating figures in repose. The work celebrates Josephine Baker, the 1920s Black American star of the Paris stage (among her other accomplishments like WWII spy). Winking in the background are allusions to French impressionist art, like bowls of oranges and a domestic woman in black. True, the work reveals Ringgold’s criticism of the white-male centered art world, but the questions she poses by sitting Jo in front of impressionist art are: “who really defined the culture of this time? Who is truly the Parisian master here?”
A note explains that all works are by Picasso unless otherwise stated. While I would guess that this decision sought to limit an overwhelming amount of wall text, it inadvertently underlines the idea that the famous male artist is the default, the thing that requires no further explanation, whereas the rest of the artists must be named and introduced.
While the female artists on view are marked as “other” by being marked as “not Picasso,” there is no escaping the fact that many of their names are not widely known, and ought to be.
Despite some shortsighted curatorial choices, the show still offers much for consideration. While the female artists on view are marked as “other” by being marked as “not Picasso,” there is no escaping the fact that many of their names are not widely known, and ought to be.
The show’s greatest triumph is that it houses a great number of remarkable works. It seems obvious that a successful exhibition contains interesting works, and it’s not a reach to suggest that women artists produce interesting works. To this day, however, art by men eclipses art by everyone else in the mainstream, and that mainstream includes major institutions. According to Picasso and his seemingly endless string of peers, women are merely objects and subjects, and the art world corroborates this claim by emphasizing works of and about women, rather than those by women.
Throughout “Pablo-matic,” the works by Picasso and the women (an unfortunate shorthand I keep using to refer to the roster of artists on view) explore and shift the relationship between the female form and the art object. In Picasso’s works, we see female nudes in various states of abstraction as we gaze at various levels of voyeurism. Nearly all his works on view include elements of the female anatomy—distorted and emphasized— revealing his deep fascination for a certain type of body (one that can be reduced to spherical breasts and a pubic triangle).
When considering this question of what we can learn from this exhibition, “Pablo-matic” is a well-rounded starter course on women artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. Following the red room is a blue room, and my eye was caught by Marisol’s (Marisol Escobar, more commonly known by her first name only) “Saca la Lengua,” hung right beside Emma Amos’s “Flower Sniffer.” Here, the female subject is represented in entirely different hands.
Marisol celebrates the carnal and visceral with a solicitous oversized tongue, poking out at the viewer, yet her mark-making is intimate and soft, suggesting a sense of the personal and the private with this salivating image. On the other hand, Emma Amos takes a profound and possibly humorous stance on the gaze and the tradition of self-portraiture. Emma renders herself as relatable, with an animated, leaning posture and eyes that may have just flitted upward to glance at the viewers’.
Marisol and Emma Amos address the thematic concerns of Picasso’s works while pointing out the nuance that is possible when art subjects possess the agency to depict themselves. However, this pairing goes further, because it leaves Picasso behind entirely. The two works are a delightful comparison to one another; alike in vibrancy but greatly contrasted in the artists’ approach to color and composition. They become their own conversation. These names aren’t as well-known as Picasso’s, but briefly, they are the ones eclipsing the nearby wall of female nude sketches.
Marisol and Emma Amos address the thematic concerns of Picasso’s works while pointing out the nuance that is possible when art subjects possess the agency to depict themselves.
This successful abandonment of Picasso appears again in the final (lavender) room of the exhibition, the only one without a Picasso on view. These works are larger than life in every sense. In Mickalene Thomas’s “Marie: Nude Black woman lying on couch,” a reclining figure is flecked with light as contours are traced in rhinestones. In Harmony Hammon’s “Hunkertime,” fabric wraps around the rungs of ladder forms until they become swollen giants. Hannah Gadbsy’s wall text proclaims that at last we arrive at “(Powerful) Women doing (Powerful) Stuff.”
Renee Cox’s 1993 photographic work “Yo Mama” both continues the triumph, and grounds the criticism to be found in “Pablo-matic.” In the piece, the artist stands nude save for a pair of black pumps, centered, stable, and staring pointedly behind the viewer. She holds a small child to her belly, but, unlike the traditional Virgin and Child motif in which a solemn baby curves into his mother’s cradling arms, Renee Cox’s child subject is suspended in play, stretched out horizontally in the artist’s arms with a wide-open smile. The work, like its contemporaries in this Picasso-free room, celebrates women depicting women. The presence of “Yo Mama” in “Pablo-matic” also points to something far more fraught than the show’s “opening gambit.” Beside “Yo Mama,” Renee is quoted:
“I respect Picasso because he always did what he wanted to do…but I find his borrowing of African Perspectives obscene. His Basis of Cubism was largely…based upon African Sculpture, which provided him with an entirely new perspective on seeing [for] which he never credited the original artists. Like a true colonizer.”
Almost as a footnote to the exhibition, we at last touch upon Picasso’s legacy as a colonizer. While the show points widely at the fraught relationships of “Picasso and the women,” Cox’s quote reveals that this exploration is largely not intersectional. We focus on the misogyny with a very European eye. There is little exploration of how Picasso’s themes— such as the female nude and various approaches to abstraction— relate to the work of non-western women artists.
Ultimately, the show is instructive as a survey of women artists working within a set of themes we see in recent art history. It’s a great way to find some new favorites, and an invitation to learn more about the inspiring, eccentric, and ecstatic art movements of the last several decades in the hands of diverse makers. It is also a grave invitation to look closer at Picasso. Whether or not the latter is truly worth our time, as Hannah Gadsby suggests, there is no escaping his ubiquity nor that of others like him, at least in this lifetime. Perhaps our best option is to simply learn what we can, where others can’t, or refuse to.
© Allison Green (8/17/2023) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE / DO MORE
Visit “It’s Pablo-matic” online.
Check out an overview of the “backlash-backlash” that “Pablomatic” has received here.
Learn more about Renee Cox’s current solo show.
Read Franchise Gilot (a muse of Picasso) in her own words here.
Not enough feminist theory at Pablo-matic? Check out Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party.”
Read about other “monsters” in the art world on FF2 Media.
Revisit some of the Guerrilla Girls‘ iconic work.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Emma Amos’ “Flower Sniffer.” Photographed by Allison Green at the Brooklyn Museum.
Middle Photo: Harmony Hammon’s “Hunkertime.” Photographed by Allison Green at the Brooklyn Museum.
Bottom Photo: The entrance of the “It’s Pablo-matic” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.