Midweek Distractions 6/7/23: A Picasso Controversy in Brooklyn

Pablo Picasso and Hannah Gadsby

Last week, I played hooky to attend the press preview of the “It’s Pablo-matic” Picasso exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, which opened last Friday. This highly-anticipated retrospective was curated by Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby (they/them), one of my all-time favorite stand-up comics. It’s one of many organized this year to reflect on the Spanish-born painter on the 50th anniversary of his death. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) spent nearly his entire adult life in France, commanding the European art world from Paris’s bohemian enclaves even during the Nazi occupation, and later from his villa and studio in the South of France.

“It’s Pablo-matic” was presented as an attempt to reconcile Pablo Picasso’s problematic personal life (largely in terms of his misogynistic beliefs and attitudes towards women) with his monumental and enduring success. It’s not a small endeavor. You could argue that it’s an almost impossible one.

Hours after I saw the exhibit, art media went absolutely bananas, with ARTnews calling it “disastrous,” and The New York Times likening it to a children’s story hour. It was almost entertaining to watch these (exclusively male) art critics lose their absolute minds over an art show curated by someone who is 1) not an art world professional, and 2) never pretended to be one. You’d think, from the way they reacted, as though Gadsby had promised to cure cancer and then skinned a baby alive in front of them.

But Gadsby tackled it with searing irreverence and deliberately low-brow humor, intentionally poking a finger in the eye of the art world and daring them to react. In the exhibit’s audio guide (which can be accessed via the Bloomberg Connects app), Gadsby states: “I’m a comedian and I’m not a curator or critic. I do like to criticize, however, but only through the medium of dick jokes. It’s okay if you don’t enjoy this.”

(For those uncertain of how a comedian ended up curating such a high-profile exhibit, you should check out Gadsby’s second Netflix special, Douglas, which ends with an extended set of art history jokes taken from the comic’s days as an undergraduate art history major.)

And if ever there were an artist who deserved to be thrown under the dick joke bus, it would be Picasso. Have you ever looked at a Picasso? Really looked at one? They are positively plastered with genitalia. Once you see it you can’t unsee it.

A quick scan through the exhibit and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Among Picasso’s works, there are minotaurs assaulting sleeping maidens, avatars of his lovers painted with a dick and balls on their face, and even an illustration of an inexplicably topless female matador.

But beside these artworks are contrasting pieces by women, most of them provocative responses to the male gaze and pornographic interpretations of female sexuality. They’re not easy to look at: a woman French kissing her cat, a porn still of a penis entering a vagina blown up to billboard size. These are works which flip the script, forcing the viewer to ask why it might be acceptable to spend ten minutes staring at Marie Thérèse Walter’s underage tits, but not Joan Semmel’s POV of a post-coital snooze.

What’s great about Gadsby’s commentary, both in their audio narration and quips on the plaques beside the artworks, is that it allows people to meet the art where they’re at. If you don’t have a PhD in art history, a lot of modern art is objectively silly. Who hasn’t gone to a gallery with family and stifled the urge to make an inappropriate joke about a photograph or painting?

If you aren’t interested in listening to Gadsby roast Picasso, the exhibit is still worth a visit for the phenomenal works included by artists like Cecily Brown, Renee Cox, Käthe Kollwitz, Dindga McCannon, Ana Mendieta, Marilyn Minter, Joan Semmel, Kiki Smith, May Stevens, and Mickalene Thomas.

A common critique of the show has been the tenuous relationship between Picasso’s art and the works of the women shown alongside him. It’s worth pointing to Linda Nochlin, whose famous essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” catalogs the obstacles women face when trying to succeed as artists. “Why were none of these women artists contemporaries of Picasso?” Well, it could just be the fact that many consider it easier to cash in on an established art world giant than to support women in the arts.

French film lovers…

Our film critic, Andrea Meyer, thinks that you should get a ticket this Friday, June 9, for the U.S. release of Scarlet, directed by Pietro Marcello. This sensitive and enchanting French film about a father and daughter has a waft of magic about it, portraying its young heroine as a small town fairytale princess with a beautiful mind and her own sense of agency. Check out Variety’s review of it here.

Meanwhile, New Yorkers can catch classic French comedies between June 6 and July 25 at FIAF.

Things I found on the Internet…

French comedian Fary goes on a hilarious rant (in French) against police brutality in France. A photo of perhaps the most French woman in history. And how I think my French colleagues hear me when I speak in French.

Stay in touch! I’d love to hear from you: [email protected]

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