We’re Alive, Pablo Is Dead

Pablo Picasso, "Le Moulin de la Galette, Paris," c. 1900. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Thannhauser Collection. © 2023 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Midge Wattles, Solomon R.Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Pablo Picasso is so famous and so ubiquitous and so dead that he is easy not to think about at all. It’s as though his most renowned artworks are in the next gallery along with his clownish public image, and you’ve seen them a thousand times and don’t need to walk through again. You know he’s in there wearing the sailor shirt, horny and staring. You know he has rearranged the anatomy. If you are an adult, Picasso can’t be your favorite artist because it wouldn’t be differentiating enough. It would be like loving waffles and naked ladies. If you are Jeff Koons, your favorite artist should be Picasso. That stray thought—well I know where it comes from—led me to find that Picasso is one of Jeff Koons’s favorite artists. Koons has the 1969 painting The Kiss hanging in his bedroom, of all places, and one time his wife Justine baked him a birthday-cake reproduction. Koons says the painting is about Picasso’s “conquests in life, uh his artistic and sexual conquests.” I think that’s beautiful.

Aside from doing my due diligence in front of various paintings in museum collections here and there—what often feels like spotting a celebrity—I had left Picasso in my peripheral room until last year, when I read Life with Picasso, Françoise Gilot’s account of their ten-year relationship. Gilot set me on fire, for Picasso sort of, but more so for the details about their milieu. When they meet in 1943, Picasso is already world-famous and rich, working in his studio in occupied Paris and selling paintings. But as a degenerate artist, he cannot exhibit. He is visited by Nazis regularly but never arrested, for reasons that remain vague in the wartime murk. He is certainly uneasy. They spend time with Matisse, Braque, Paul Éluard, Alice Toklas and Gertrude Stein, Giacometti, and many others. My favorite detail, the reason that I pressured friends to read the book, is that Jacques Lacan is Picasso’s general practitioner, and in this capacity, he unwittingly acts as Gilot’s obstetrician until the last moments of her first pregnancy.

Gilot describes her ex-boyfriend with a convincing mix of admiration and pragmatism. Yes, he requires elaborate coaxing to get out of bed every morning, and he disappears on a schedule to spend time with his good-natured, sporty ex-girlfriend Marie-Thérèse Walter and their daughter Maya, but he is a world-historical painter and capable of immense charm. He is manipulative, controlling, superstitious, and anxious. It seems to help Gilot survive him that she is brave and unromantic.

Thus captured by art gossip, I began to pull the thread of Pablo. It wasn’t all that long ago, people haven’t changed that much, nor are our circumstances wildly different. There is something comforting in reading about how artists survive war, fascism, and alienation. Of course, sometimes they don’t. I started to imagine Picasso participating in the contemporary-art economy and to make dumb jokes about it on Twitter. (It’s embarrassing to refer to tweets in real life, but since I have to start typing the word Pablo-matic soon, my dignity precedes me.)

Pablo Picasso submits 10 hi-res JPEGs, a 2000-word proposal, 500-word biography, and 1500-word statement about his art practice to a residency in Vermont attended mostly by 22-year-olds. / At his five-week social practice residency, Pablo executes a site-specific interactive installation based on the theme “Land and Future Land.” It looks like a painting of his second-favorite ex-girlfriend as an icicle. / Picasso retitles Man with a Violin to Man Lost His Violin In The Flood so he can submit it to a climate change-themed show. He forgets to delete the 168-week-old Instagram post where it was titled Man with a Violin and the other Cubists send it around and Léger accidentally “likes” it. / Pablo hires a grant writer to see if another person can describe his art practice in words that yield a higher success rate. The grant writer creates a spreadsheet to manage these opportunities and Pablo highlights the ones that Matisse got. / Pablo fires the grant writer for sharing her research with Léger. / Léger gets a genius grant.

When I heard that Hannah Gadsby, comedian of the anti-joke, was set to curate an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum that would examine Picasso through a modern feminist lens, I felt as though I had manifested it. How would the openly chauvinist Pablo Picasso, dead for the last fifty years, withstand the scrutiny? I hemmed and hawed about going. I live in San Francisco and don’t fly often, for humorless environmental reasons, and I felt melancholy because my beloved great-aunt, the center of my family’s life in New York, passed away last year, and I’m bad at deciding. But I had started to think I could become some sort of Picasso expert—well, not an expert, that’s deluded—but I had started to think I might be an accidental Picasso completionist who needed to see It’s Pablo-matic. I kept wondering: What would it look like for a person who opposes an artist on moral grounds to curate his work?

I am not sure I know how to write about controversy, or even about paintings, although among the parade of people who have written books about Picasso’s paintings, some of them are similarly suspect, like right-wing to left-wing crossover media personality Arianna Huffington and maritime novelist Patrick O’Brian. We are all creatures of circumstance. I thought if I visited Pablo-matic, plus all the other Picassos on view in New York, this time I could try harder at looking while standing in front of them—a challenge that would structure my trip, ward off sadness, and yield insights. I told my friends and my editor that I was going to see the Pablos and would try to return with insights.

I chart my route according to convenience rather than strategy. The Guggenheim, the Met, and MoMA have paintings on permanent exhibition, and the Guggenheim also had a show timed to the fiftieth anniversary of Picasso’s death. I went there first. Young Picasso in Paris revealed Picasso as a nineteen-year-old prospect orienting himself to the city of his aspirations by visiting the bohemian places his heroes—Steinlen, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh—visited and trying on their vernaculars. I found these paintings of women, nightlife, and street scenery a bit boring to look at, disjointed by Picasso’s quick artistic development, and detached, I think, because he approaches his subjects with a student’s ambition rather than familiarity or genuine interest. In 1900 Picasso still sometimes called himself Ruiz Picasso; dropping his father’s name in favor of his mother’s was an early act of image construction.

Pablo Picasso, The Shadow, 1953. Musée national Picasso/Paris/France. © 2023 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Mathieu Rabeau, © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, New York.

Pablo Picasso, Self Portrait (Autoportrait), Paris, 1901. Musée national Picasso-Paris, Dation Pablo Picasso, 1979 © 2023 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Mathieu Rabeau. Courtesy RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY.

I am delighted to learn that what I had wrongly understood to be Picasso’s uncomfortable deer-in-the-headlights camera gaze is actually the culturally significant mirada fuerte, an active way of looking that binds the seeing to the seen. Picasso biographer John Richardson likens Picasso’s mirada fuerte to an eyefucking (the term he actually uses, quoting anthropologist David Gilmore, is even worse: “ocular rape”). Now that I know it’s intentional, I see it everywhere: in the two self-portraits in Young Picasso, in almost every posed photograph of the painter, mentioned throughout my further readings, and occasionally in Picasso’s depictions of other people.

Two of Picasso’s notable girlfriends are in the Thannhauser Collection, outside of Young Picasso. There is Fernande Olivier, his first major Parisian girlfriend, looking beautiful and downcast in a black mantilla (1905), rendered in thin and drippy shades of gray. When Picasso was feeling jealous and controlling—Olivier had modeled for another artist, maybe—he would lock her in their rooms. They adopted a girl named Raymonde but had to return her, possibly because Picasso was interested in her sexually (he drew her in an explicit pose). There is Marie-Thérèse Walter, resting her complementary lemon-and-lilac head and folded arms on a complementary green-and-red striped tablecloth (1931). Picasso had a studied rather than innate sense of color. He was forty-five when he started painting and sleeping with seventeen-year-old Walter, another notch or ding on his sexual record, and the paintings of her are said to be his most erotically charged. They usually strike me as sentimental. Walter killed herself five years after Picasso died; this is one of several suicides, both during his life and after his death, that are sometimes laid at his feet.

I go into one of the half-moon-shaped bathrooms off the atrium and practice my mirada fuerte. I try to figure out if the bathroom floor is also tilted along the Guggenheim’s atrial coil, but I don’t have anything that rolls. It has rained and the air outside of the museum is humid and fragrant. I have been glad to travel to humidity. A man is selling African masks from a van parked out front next to a hot-dog truck. One of his masks has a round moon shape or owl that reminds me of Picasso’s emblematic form for Gilot’s face, although it is just as likely that any resemblance goes the other way around.

Down the street at the Met I find the Gertrude Stein portrait first. It is the one I most wanted to see because I have been reading their letters to each other and her long 1938 essay about him, and I know that she loved it. I think she loved being taken seriously. I feel emotional looking at it, the evidence of being taken seriously while also perhaps being laughed at. There is something about Stein that reminds me of myself. I know she always wore unfashionable leather sandals, her writing could be confusing, and she was well-liked in spite of some unlikeable qualities (pretentiousness, nosiness, bad French). A man takes a photo of the portrait and says, “Very cool,” and I wonder if he thinks it is cool or thinks he should say it is cool. My lips are tingling. It’s 1906 and Picasso has gotten so much better at painting. It feels more like being with Stein than being with him. He was able to change her self-perception because she believed in his way of seeing. Another man goes up to look at her nose to nose, his face to her mask. A little girl doesn’t give a shit and stares at me instead. Gertrude Stein’s portrait by Pablo Picasso is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art because that’s where she wanted it.

I go looking for the rest of the Picassos. Gertrude’s posthumous gift was the Met’s first, but the key periods are represented—analytical cubist Still Life with a Bottle of Rum (1911) paired with its gestational twin, Still Life with Banderillas (1911) by Georges Braque; the relatively relaxed synthetic cubist Woman in a Chemise in an Armchair (1913–14, the hairs on my arms stand on end); and uptight again, the surrealist Nude Standing by the Sea (1929). Picasso has to be in so many different rooms because his output is so phasic, and I realize belatedly that some of them are on another floor. I want to stop for Klee—his organic, cerebral, disciplined images, somehow huge at modest proportions, are more what I like to look at—but there is a closing announcement, and I panic and start jogging. I find the earlier paintings, from the blue and rose periods. Among them is Pablo, looking jaded already in 1905, in a clown suit at the bar. I think he might have liked San Francisco.

In order to attend Pablo-matic with as smooth a brain as possible, I avoided the reviews, although I absorbed a sense of them from the ether (friends texting me the New York Times one and LOLing), and I tried to set aside what I thought it was going to be like (Degenerate Art Exhibition for Liberals). I am not normally a reader of wall texts—it is an aspect of my joie de vivre—so I went through the exhibition first without overt curatorial guidance, and again with. My initial notes are rapturous. I had not expected to see so many prints: a Cubist engraving; many sheets from the multiyear intaglio project known as the Vollard Suite after the picture dealer who commissioned it; a pressing of Minotauromachy, signed to Man Ray, with imagery that anticipates Guernica; and delicate line etchings from a French translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses published by Albert Skira.

As I would come to understand it, Pablo-matic’s argument is that Picasso couldn’t be trusted to make artworks of women and that women artists can. Reading the texts or not, I could see that the curators distributed art by (mostly) women throughout the main body of the exhibition and in a full room at the end labeled “(Powerful) Women Doing (Powerful) Stuff.” It was hard for me to take in these selections from the museum’s permanent collection without feeling offended on their behalf. Surely the Brooklyn Museum would not hang a show of Women Artists Doing Stuff without the Picasso pretext—that would be nonsensical—so, in this arrangement, they are subservient to him in form and purpose, recapitulating Picasso’s lifelong relation to women.

This relation might have been less noticeable if the curators formulated a coherent, even multivalent critical response to Picasso, with women artists as equal partners in conversation, rather than as parts of a proof, sometimes contradicting itself, in service of an ideological goal. I am thinking, for example, of Käthe Kollwitz’s lithograph Bust of a Working Woman in a Blue Shawl (1903); Philip Pearlstein’s Portrait of Linda Nochlin and Richard Pommer (1968); and a pair of intaglio proofs from Tapestry, Louise Bourgeois’s series of headless women’s bodies for a tapestry design (1994 and 1995). According to Pablo-matic, Kollwitz “empathetically explored the human condition through printmaking,” art historian Nochlin commissioned a marital portrait in part to subvert the typically male role of the art patron, and Bourgeois’s figures are “self-portraits reflecting ‘a state of being under attack, of being anxious and afraid,’” “female bodies strid[ing] forth despite being assailed.”

For gender roles to be static, in Picasso’s life as in ours, everyone would have to conform at all times. That they didn’t and we don’t is what makes gender an idea, not a fact. The Nochlin portrait is by no means a relevant reversal when Picasso’s most crucial early patron was Gertrude Stein—both of them exploited this relationship for their own purposes, and its quality changed over the years but lasted until Stein’s death. The curators acknowledge that “in 1901, while visiting Paris, Kollwitz bought a small pastel by Picasso from Ambroise Vollard, who was presenting the nineteen-year-old Picasso’s first exhibition in that city.” This is an understatement: Kollwitz didn’t just buy a pastel; she was the first non-Spanish artist of any gender to collect Picasso. John Richardson says her purchase depicted a rape, the most difficult subject matter in the 1901 show. What if Kollwitz felt an emotion aside from the ur-feminine empathy, like ambition, competitiveness, or anger? And, as it happens, Bourgeois got her start selling prints by Picasso and others out of her father’s tapestry shop in Paris. Elided entirely is the role that Berthe Weill played as a dealer in Picasso’s early years in Paris, before he had Vollard and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler to strategize his career. It was Weill who sold the first Picasso—Moulin de la Galette (1900), which I saw at the Guggenheim and called boring—to a French collector.

I was confused by the presentation of Bourgeois’s prints for another reason. Because Pablo-matic has this forensic way of ascribing meaning to art, I started to look at the art in the same way and to form expectations of what the wall texts would say. Picasso’s appropriation of African art is discussed nearby, and the tapestry prints are plausibly reminiscent of African sculptural forms and textile patterns. I don’t know to what extent, if any, Bourgeois was influenced by African art, but in this context it seemed like an oversight not to mention this resemblance. Is it fair to a woman as powerful as Bourgeois to evaluate her work according to a different scale?

A problem with being critical is that sometimes the person that you’re criticizing is better at their job than you are. Your own work becomes more vulnerable. Pablo-matic positions Gadsby in the dual role of artist (“I am an artist and the Joke is my medium”) and curator, in partnership with Catherine Morris, senior curator for the museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, and Lisa Small, senior curator of European Art. Gadsby provides observational jokes, which the institutional curators attempt to ground through historical contextualization.

A relatively elaborate joke introduces the show. This is an oil-pastel copy of Picasso’s Large Bather with a Book (1937) that teenage Gadsby drew on the basement wall, and more recently had excised for inclusion in Pablo-matic. Gadsby explains that it is funny to have their “shitty painting” in the museum, necessitating “white-glove art handlers … to professionally crate and transport [their] painting halfway around the world,” that in this way they have “punked a museum.” I am reminded of claims in artist statements that don’t reveal themselves through the work, that are generally coded messages to granting bodies (“this artwork fights climate change”) or attempts to claim topical space—rather than to help the viewer. Picasso, to his credit and sometimes to his detriment, avoided explaining his work. In any case, I don’t think it’s possible to punk an institution by invitation, and saying you have doesn’t make it so. It is possible, though, to punk an audience, and to punk art workers.

Gadsby assumes a posture of comedic bravado in the running commentary, their tone a mix of certainty, anger, and disgust. This is an understandable reaction to Picasso’s machismo, but it is a shallow response, and falls especially flat when their read is off the mark. Of The Supplicant Woman (December 1937), Gadsby says, “As far as weeping women go, this is a pretty good one. And as the title suggests, this painting showcases that at some point somebody got a thesaurus for Christmas. Note the anus on her chin.” Anal semiotics aside, can the joke really hit if it misleads? Picasso usually didn’t title his works; his dealers did, or the art world came to a consensus over time, like how we got the common names for many birds. André Salmon titled Les Demoiselles d’Avignon when it was first shown in public in 1916. Picasso thought the euphemism was ridiculous. The various “weeping women,” based on his model-girlfriend, the artist Dora Maar, and thematically related to Guernica, are known by the general appearance of their feathers.

Pablo Picasso, The Supplicant Woman, 1937. Musée national Picasso/Paris/France; MP18. © 2023 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Mathieu Rabeau, © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, New York.

Elsewhere, Gadsby shows us the “cock and balls” within Marie-Thérèse’s face and torso in The Sculptor (1931), “one of seven hidden within the composition,” they write in the wall text. “Is it fair to ask me to separate the man from his art when he couldn’t even separate himself from his art in his art? Asking for a friend.” Does this friend have a squeamish relation to the body? Is it not possible to see in intertwined male and female figural aspects a romantic or holistic type of joining? If the cocks and balls are indicative of something darker, will Where’s Waldo–type searching prove revelatory? Is Gadsby’s humor up to the task of taking on Picasso? Here in my notes, I put “bringing an insufficient weapon to a bullfight—”

Visual artworks don’t reliably speak in the same language; they can hardly be translated in one immutable way. A viewer will bring their subjectivity to the act of looking. There is a grouping of sleeping women in Pablo-matic—sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of a man or a minotaur or whoever. The claim is that because Picasso was a raving misogynist, these images are sinister, the figures likely to be victimized. This is simply not the only or even a predominant read of these artworks, which are pictures painted on physical substrates as much as they refer to a human woman, Marie-Thérèse, who didn’t express fear or discomfort. At an art show as in life, insisting that violence is inevitable when it is not feels like bullying. This feeling is weirdly reinforced where Gadsby mimics Picasso’s mirada fuerte in the show’s marketing imagery, and most distressingly, where the curators assign the women artists in the show the task of speaking with nuance and admiration toward Picasso.

Pablo Picasso, The Crying Woman, 1937. Musée national Picasso/Paris/France; MP165. © 2023 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Adrien Didierjean, © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, New York.

Left: Pablo Picasso, 1920. © 2023 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Right: Hannah Gadsby, 2018. Photo: Alan Moyle.

Käthe Kollwitz and Louise Bourgeois are groundbreaking printmakers. So is Kiki Smith, whose photogravure Las Animas (1997) features in another section of Pablo-matic called “Women (Sorta) Doing Stuff,” in which Picasso’s depictions of feminine “passivity” (crying, posing, mourning) are contrasted with works by “feminist” artists who “actively refram[e] the viewer’s engagement with female subjects.” Here, Smith states, “I love a great deal of Picasso’s work, and I’m always learning from it. As a printmaker I know very few who can get anywhere near the depth of his understanding and his playfulness … I was once asked by an auction house to give a talk about Picasso’s prints. They wanted me to speak critically of him as a person, but upon seeing the prints, all I was was deeply humbled. His work has often been a guide for me.” And nearby, at her sculpture Décontractée (1990), Bourgeois is quoted saying, “You must have heard there was an exhibition of 400 paintings by Picasso [at MoMA in 1939]. It was so beautiful, and it revealed such genius and such a collection of treasures that I did not pick up a paintbrush for a month.” This is the kind of thing that’s going on while Gadsby counts dicks and buttholes. It actually makes me feel sick that Pablo-matic uses artists of their caliber in this way.

I think I understand why the curators included so many of Picasso’s prints. On the surface, their mythical themes and god-on-woman relations can absorb a straightforward read as the fantasies of a misogynistic mind. Picasso does psychoanalyze himself in these images, which is convenient for Pablo-matic. He is there inside the Minotaur, desirous, volatile, fearing he is unlovable. He’s also there inside the bearded sculptor, looking at a woman in one form and rendering her in the form he chooses to see. He wasn’t in conversation only with his id, though; he was also speaking with artists of previous eras, just as Bourgeois, Smith, and Koons will come to speak with him. And whereas the paintings are often so familiar—and muscular—the etchings are tender and nuanced, a wonder to see in person at close range. I especially loved the pages from the Metamorphoses, in which the main picture plane is outlined so that the contained figures can be observed by a second, smaller drawing in the liminal space within the plate mark. These compositions speak to the eternal dialogue between artist, subject, and spectator. If those prints show Picasso to be a monster, he was a self-aware monster, positioning himself in the narrative of cultural history. It would have been simpler for Pablo-matic to turn me against Picasso using more of the canonical show ponies rather than his most subtle works.

Pablo Picasso, Minotauromachy, 1935. Brooklyn Museum; Frank L. Babbott Fund, Frederick Loeser Fund, and Museum Collection Fund, 59.30. © 2023 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Brooklyn Museum.

It is easy to like what we already understand. My art education is cobbled together from spare parts, but my most formal training came in a stint of evening printmaking classes at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I studied with Catherine Kernan, an innovative printmaker who founded Mixit Print Studio nearby in Somerville. After I had taken her class several times, she suggested that I do my work at Mixit instead. I feel very romantic about art in a place such as this one. Out of necessity, intaglio printmaking is a collaborative mode. The presses and other equipment for making plates, inking them, and drying and flattening paper are too heavy and specialized for most artists to have in their own workspaces, and they are better operated with help. Moreover, the processes of printmaking are varied and highly technical. A workshop like this is an important site of knowledge transfer.

Picasso had working relationships with master printers throughout his life. Roger Lacourière, who printed the Vollard Suite, trained Aldo Crommelynck, who, along with his brother Piero, moved to Mougins to continue working with Picasso for the last ten years of his life. There they made the 347 Suite, Picasso’s last major series, so named because they produced 347 prints in six months. When Aldo Crommelynck closed his studio in Paris, my teacher Catherine arranged to bring two of his presses to New England. I printed my etchings on one of them.

Printmaking is so heavily mediated by its technical complications and history that, when done well, it tends to produce literate, intricate, multivalent images. The work that Picasso produced in this medium is as inventive as anything else he came up with. Looking at the prints in Pablo-matic, I recognize gestures and plate techniques that I have used, that very many artists use. This material legacy can’t be excised in any meaningful way. In the art ecosystem, Picasso may be foundational—at the roots of assemblage, graphic arts, collage, and painting—but he was never alone in these accomplishments. He was entangled with his friends, with craftspeople and poets. Canonization and demonization equally obscure these entanglements.

Looking at art and reading art history are activities with opposite shapes. When you see a person from many perspectives, a sharper, narrower image comes into focus. Whereas when you look at art, you are seeing the narrow result of whatever ideas, skills, and labor brought it into existence. Now thinking about it belongs to you: expansive, radiant, infinite. A curatorial perspective that cuts this expansivity off at the knees is up against the trajectory of cultural experience.

I resent the frame of mind It’s Pablo-matic put me in, looking for clues about how Picasso felt about women and how they felt about him. This is not an unsolved mystery. It’s not that the Brooklyn Museum should have put on a printmaking show, although that was my preferred way of experiencing it, so much as that trapped within Pablo-matic’s facile logic—here is a man, here are women instead—are many other more critical reads of the artists and their artworks, of the group, and especially of Picasso. The strenuous didactic effort of the curators, which is both unresolved and unresolvable, distracts viewers from generating their own ideas and questions about the work.

I have been trying to find in myself a critique of Picasso the artist, something that would hurt his feelings. I think John Berger did it best when he wrote, in The Success and Failure of Picasso, that outside of certain supercharged periods—the Cubist years, during his love affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter, and while living under fascist rule—Picasso didn’t know what to paint. If he didn’t know what to paint, maybe it’s because for most of his life he felt safer being thematically noncommittal and politically ambivalent. As much as possible he avoided explaining himself. This makes sense to the extent that artworks have to speak for themselves, so I wonder what they might have said if he had been more willing to engage with the world outside of his studio. His primary interests lay closer, in his bodily comfort and vast ambitions.

I am on to MoMA, sitting on the bench in front of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, trying to feel something. Lots of people have come to take selfies. I think one woman has dressed herself in peach and silver expressly for this purpose. Because the arc of the avant-garde always presses ahead, it is no longer possible to work up a sense of outrage by looking at Picasso’s most controversial painting. In 1907 no one understood it—none of Picasso’s friends and certainly none of his collectors. It was a rare moment of isolation for him. Leo Stein, who initially was more interested than his sister Gertrude in modern art, was so disturbed by Les Demoiselles that he eventually stopped buying art, and although this break allowed Gertrude to solidify her status as the more advanced collector sibling, she didn’t much like it either. This sounds thrilling. If I want to be infuriated by something in a museum, it will have to be structural or institutional.

Justine Koons’s birthday cake is the sort of thing that happens a lot to Picasso. An image search online of almost any title of his works will turn up a vast number of commercial reproductions—an inkjet print of Guernica with your choice of frame, the sweet Bouquet of Peace on T-shirts, Dora Maar weeping on a coffee mug—so it can be difficult to locate documentation. Picasso frequently described the completion of a painting as a type of death. He told Christian Zervos, who published his catalogue raisonné, “The picture-hook is the ruination of a painting—a painting which has always a certain significance, at least as much as the man who did it. As soon as it is bought and hung on a wall, it takes on quite a different kind of significance, and the painting is done for.”

Because his career was worth documenting almost as soon as it started, and because in every period of his working life he was drawn to and attracted artists and writers who served as one another’s subject matter, and because he became very powerful, so that his friends also drew power from their association with him, Picasso made himself art history while he was alive. But by not laying claim to explicit ideas, many ideas can be applied to him. Picasso is the twentieth century’s great Mr. Potato Head, constantly being taken apart and reassembled with his nose in his eyehole and his mouth upside down, because he made himself a plastic body of work and celebrity and left it unattended when he died. His body stores infinite value for art institutions and collectors, and will be trotted out in perpetuity to be reexamined and reframed. He is there inside his feminine subjects, having made himself into an art object through the shape of his ambitions.

How do the revelations of art act upon us? For me, through time travel, even when I get a little bored. Through awe. Through surprising juxtapositions of idea, image, and context. (I freely admit that the total shock and awe I felt the first time I saw Koons’s balloon dog has not yet been surpassed.) Does an artwork open pathways for seeing? Does an exhibit reveal a better picture of the present vis-à-vis the past? I enjoy liking and disliking art equally because for me the real pleasure is thinking about why. Thinking about art is one way I adjust my understanding of the world and my relation to it. That is one mechanism by which art can influence a viewer’s behavior. That is our powerful gaze.

Toward my goal of Picasso completionism, I have not yet tracked down a copy of Arianna Huffington’s book Picasso: Creator and Destroyer, so instead I watched Surviving Picasso, the 1996 Merchant Ivory drama based on it. This is not essential viewing—Françoise Gilot tells her story better, and it’s hard to know what Huffington adds, aside from a more negative view of Picasso’s relationship with the Communist Party, which he joined in 1944. I don’t think Anthony Hopkins, though Pablo-shaped, conveys the gravitational pull that drew people into Picasso’s orbit. The more I read about Picasso and look at his work the less I like him and the more I like his art. Maybe he would love being an edgelord. I wonder what it was like to be around him—maybe it was great until it wasn’t. It doesn’t really matter—we’re alive and Pablo is dead.


  • Dennis says:

    It’s fascinating to read your perspective on the Pablo-matic exhibition and the complex relationship between Pablo Picasso and contemporary feminist art. You’ve raised some thought-provoking points about how the curators framed the exhibition and how Hannah Gadsby approached Picasso’s work.

  • Roberto Bigi says:

    Reading your beautiful writing, saturated with almost total expressive freedom, I wonder if this ability of yours to delve deeply into every conventionality, deconstructing its transitory meaning with suggestive provocations, is also the result of the breach opened by Picasso and not only in culture of the 20th century.
    It remains to be understood whether this freedom today is as enjoyable as that which could be achieved and enjoyed in the early years of the last century.
    Provocation today is the norm. This does not detract from your truly elegant narrative, but normalizes its consequences in a context that receives, consumes and archives with saturated rapidity.
    This is a real shame, it is an incalculable waste of value, yours and others.
    Are you, I and a large multitude perhaps orphans of a real effect of provocation that resists in a less transitory way? that allows the sedimentation of a new coherent aesthetic material, hard to deconstruct, until it is overcome and has left some trace in the meantime?
    I conclude by suggesting that your critical piece would have been greatly appreciated by Picasso. I also fear that he would have asked you to pose for him..
    Good continuation, Elisabeth.

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