It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby
Elizabeth Ashe

Installation View

According to many thinkers within the art Canon, countless publications and public knowledge, Pablo Picasso was the master of the twentieth Century. He stood apart, lived for most of the century, created art movements and ways of looking, an appreciation for the pure childhood style of drawing, with more than one museum dedicated to his legacy. His trademarked name is even on an automobile.. We don’t talk about his misogyny or his relationships with younger women although a double-thick, special issue of Life magazine (12/27/1968) included an article titled ‘His Women: The wonder is that he found so much time to paint,’ on display in this exhibition. Picasso exhibitions are popular. According to, there are 791 books written about him.  Ph.D theses on his work are  relatively numerous. He is untouchable, right?
Recently,  Hannah Gadsby brought him up in her Netflix special, Nannette. I have watched it more often than any other comedy special. She did it boldly, intelligently, with the backing of an art historian who wasn’t going to let his legacy stand on its golden auction prices. It was about blooming time. He was not The 20th Century. He was one artist. His work wasn’t even always that great; it became marketing cliché within the movements he invented. Gadsby co-curated It’s Pablo-matic full of works by feminist artists, works that changed so very much about accepting and respecting bodies. So – what and who do we listen to, in the 21st Century? If you’re part of the art world in any way, you hopefully have some museums and curators you follow.  We gravitate towards comedians as they can expand our awareness of cultural quirks. Netflix shot Gadsby into the stratosphere for us all to notice.
Above the entrance to the first room  is Cecily Brown’s Triumph of the Vanities II (2018), in which she said ‘painting is very good at saying more than one thing at once,’ which could very well be a way of saying her work is contemporary Cubism. As an entry point to the exhibition, it’s easily a many things are going to be said past this door, with many bodies involved. Picasso is not the first thing, but off-step from across the doorway. First is a Linda Nochlin quote: “In a world of total and unconscious equality, the female nude would not be problematic. In our world, it is.” Beneath it are the Guerilla Girls, with their own odalisque mock and real statistic, of  ‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?’ (1985).  Faith Ringgold’s Jo Baker’s Birthday (1995) follows, paying homage to Matisse’s work and patterns. There’s a small figurative piece by Judy Chicago, with bodies tangled like an island. More Guerilla Girls text pieces about the massive inequalities women artists faced. They overtake a red papered wall recalling  an early Nochlin performance and the massive ‘Portrait of Linda Nochlin and Richard Pommer’ as a seated couple (1986) by Phillip Pearlstein.  Hung on wallpaper made of Nochlin’s Buy My Bananas (1972), the portrait satirized Achetez des Pommes, a 19th century photograph of a woman holding a tray of apples beneath her breasts and a nude man holding a tray of bananas beneath his genitals. Who is the sexualized object, after all?
In Picasso’s The Sculptor (1931) presented here,  a voyeuristic male artist looks at a bust-upward woman, as a simplified figurative sculpture and a profile drawing on a back wall and an abstracted-down-to-shapes and fruit odalisque Reclining Nude (1932) is visible in the next room. The great thing about the opening room? We are reminded that the Feminist art movement exploded in the few years before Picasso died and continued with major milestones after 1973.
The next room has a piece I’ve dreamed of seeing in person – Joan Semmel’s Intimacy-Autonomy (1974). The closeness of the bodies, aware but not touching, beautiful and unexpected. It is a nude from a woman’s perspective, not the objectifying male gaze. It is a moment anyone can relate to; with the viewed foreshortening from the perspective of the pillow. Each body of the couple angles toward the other while each body maintains their singular identity.. The blued-out tone of their skin set on a pink toned cream sheet landscape, with  deep blue horizon is elegant. I cannot picture any of Picasso’s nudes having autonomy. Beside it is Dindga McCannon’s Morning After, (1973), a linocut with an unexpected composition and no engagement with the male gaze or desire. It’s awkward in a similar vein as Semmel’s; it shows how the idealized sexual representation is not how women are going to depict heterosexual intimacy. Unlike some women artists in the exhibit, McCannon has no compliments for Picasso, calling several other (non-Western) artists, the great ones. I liken her phrase ‘parallel artistic universe’ as the space where artists do their real work and engage with and admire others. The Picasso on the other side of Semmel’s is an invasive male shadow in the doorway of a woman’s bedroom, her breasts are larger than her head, her legs undefined. Meanwhile, etchings by Picasso glorify Greek mythologies, like the Minotaur or beast and male-as-attacker with a subservient nude woman on a bed.
And all this isn’t to say there aren’t spicier sexually charged works from a perspective that flips intimacy to a new direction. Carolee Schneemann’s Infinity Kisses a decades-spanning series turns ‘Cat Lady’ into an interspecies kissing intimacy with her cats, in a large format and blurred image. I muse a moment on this notion of love – I smooch my cats paws, her head, and she licks my hands, or my face. I can relate. Betty Tompkins’s Fuck Painting #6 (1973) is an airbrush painting — a little blurred, the series rarely exhibited in the USA. It’s tough to look at, and is both soft and removed from anything sensual. There is Kiki Smith’s Las Animas, (1997) the souls, which uses fragmented photographs of her body. Smith’s piece highlights various skin textures and hairlines. I wonder about the competing and complementary soul fragments moving around the composition. In Hannah Wilke’s Through The Large Glass, (1976), she self-consciously model-poses every few seconds, wearing a fedora and a man’s white satin suit for a strip tease. It takes me some time to notice a Duchamp sculpture in the video’s foreground The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)’ (1915-23). It is one of the few pieces in the exhibit that directly takes on another artist’s work. Duchamp did a great deal to turn Canon on its head. For Wilke to do a strip tease to a sculpture, being both bride and groom by action and outfit, is genius. The real subject (a woman), is doing the work to an object (a sculpture) that cannot react, pushing it a peg or two down on its pedestal.

Picasso Gadsby

Works based on classic Greek sculpture,  portraits or cropped anatomy encourage us to  remember the beginnings of classical Western art. A body with missing limbs isn’t sexualized entrapment or dehumanization., but rather the result of  limbs not always attached because they were made in different pieces of stone. From those cropped sculptures, Louise Bourgeois’s ‘Tapestry’ proofs (1995) shows momentum as well as attack on a body, and Rachael Kneebone’s ‘The Paradise of Despair’ (2011) uses porcelain and Dante’s-vis-à-vis Rodin’s later approach, to crowd bodies in an internalized suffering, but in an elegant way that, through the choice of porcelain, is both fragile and strong. The bodies are headless; the legs and feet look  almost like handles or root tendrils, reaching out from a plant with a cracked pot. Both artists ask how we work though ourselves to create bodies with extreme energy. In despair, it’s your body that feels it, and your identity cannot help. By this point in the exhibition, Picasso’s portraits of women are just off. Before the final room, there is a large screen playing clips from Nanette,  in case the viewer didn’t know, or needed to be reminded, why it matters and it’s necessary to label Picasso a misogynist; to tell personally painful history and expose what trauma is responsible for. By doing so, Gadsby evolved from the typical self-deprecating comic, to a relatable contemporary woman on a journey to understand herself better. I think the placement was a good intentional – a ‘by the way, this. And now, really see power’ in the final room.
In the final room, the art shifts again. Here, the works are dialogues of support and strength, direct commentary  to the public, even in the face of sexist stereotypes. The room continues to challenge. It is a full frontal of the Superman Pose, with Renee Cox’s silver gelatin print Yo Mama (1993). But this Superwoman already has a job – holding her young son, and wearing black heels while doing it — and the confidence to back it up. ‘Yo Mama is a mythic portrait in 1990’s Feminist Art; it is spoken of with solemn respect and whispers. It is mythic and successful, life-sized, strong and proud. Another massive statement in the room is Hamony Hammond’s ladders, Hunkertime. Her patterns and dots are ‘spirit dots for protection.’ Each of these ladders is a person, the size of a woman, all the tradition of women’s work at fibers, women’s work as supportive to one another, showing how the next generation can climb just a little bit higher thanks to them. They lean on one another. They are a collective. This exhibit is a collective of women. Showing women artists and their views on intimacy, life, form.
As I leave the exhibition there is one final, subtle pairing that catches my attention. A Picasso charcoal drawing ‘Nude Standing in Profile’ (1906), precursor to his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon the next year. Her proportions are off, especially her legs and it’s clear she could be a wood mask of a person, with no personality. A Käthe Kollwitz colored lithograph ‘Bust of a Working Woman in a Blue Shawl (1903) is next to the Picasso. Seriously, Kollwitz is the master, here, showing  her subject’s strength and personality, and her skill as an artist. For me, an artist doesn’t need thousands of works sold across the globe, to be included in the Canon. That’s just some grand commercialization of fame, not talent and grit. An artist just needs one incredible piece that speaks to me, stops me in awe. Semmel does that, Cox, Bourgeois, Ringgold, Wilkie, Mendieta. The artists in this exhibit make work I can approach and sit with and care about.  Not a single Picasso piece in the exhibit stops me in my tracks. His early drawings, I like well enough. The exhibit explains something quite well – Picasso was problematic in his relationships and depictions of women. In the fifty years since his death, it is clear that the percentages the Guerrilla Girls publicized and made their work about, has shifted more and more towards equality. And there is plenty to say.

Brooklyn Museum. Co-curated by Catherine Morris and Hannah Gadsby
June 2-September 24, 2023