Art & Politics

The Picasso Problem: Why We Shouldn't Separate the Art From the Artist's Misogyny

The Picasso Problem: Why We Shouldn't Separate the Art From the Artist's Misogyny
"Minotaur Caressing a Sleeping Woman" (1933). Image via Pinterest.

If women truly ran the world, Picasso’s Minotaurs might be, from the fore, considered a very detailed psychological account of toxic masculinity. Instead, the series is mostly lauded as an expression of man’s virility, power, and vulnerability, culminating in a guilty appeal to our sympathy—Picasso as the self-mythologized (and self-aware) monster, a victim of both himself and of the women he regarded as “either goddesses or doormats,” and “machines for suffering.” Honestly, these days, it’s pretty hard to feel bad for a guy who draws a mythologized version of himself as a “beast” literally raping women on countless occasions.

And yet, institutions and critics have continuously normalized and perpetuated an interpretation of Picasso’s work in purely academic terms, comparing his work's influence on every other possible male contemporary for the umpteenth time. The artistic canon has consistently disregarded his personal tumult with women in favor of keeping the “art separate from the artist,” despite the fact that Picasso himself remarked that all his work could be categorized into seven distinct styles, each one a document of his relationship with the seven women in his life—Fernande Olivier, Eva Gouel, Olga Khokhlova, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot, and Jacqueline Roque.

With the possible exception of Françoise Gilot (of the seven, Gilot was the only one who was able to successfully extrapolate herself from the artist and continue to live an independent life), Picasso created an exceptionally miserable life for just about every woman he claimed to love. Both Marie-Thérèse Walter and Jacqueline Roque committed suicide on account of Picasso and when the artist’s grandson Pablito was turned away at his grandfather’s funeral by Jacqueline Roque, he too, ended his own life. In a memoir written by Picasso’s granddaughter, Marina Picasso details the way in which Picasso bled the women in his life dry: “He submitted them to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them, and crushed them onto his canvas. After he had spent many nights extracting their essence, once they were bled dry, he would dispose of them.”

weeping womanA portrait of Dora Maar titled Weeping Woman (1933). Image via Wide Walls. 

In a 2009 New York Times roundtable discussion of Roman Polanski’s highly publicized trial (the director was accused of drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl and fled to France to avoid prosecution), poet and novelist Jay Parini uses the example of Picasso in defense of separating the art from the artist:

“Can one really separate the art from the man or woman who creates that art? The answer is yes, definitely. There are many examples in history—too many—of great artists who were terribly flawed human beings, behaving very badly and hurting those around them. If anything, audiences easily make this distinction. Nobody looks at a Picasso painting in a museum and says, ‘I should not take this work seriously because Picasso cheated on his many wives and was abusive to his son.’”

First off, it’s only natural that a general public audience would resort to the status quo when it comes to art; just because they do doesn't make it right. Second, the issue isn’t about whether or not we take the work seriously. If anything, an artist’s flaws ought to provide us with potential opportunities to revisit and re-contextualize their work. Can you imagine a show that examines toxic masculinity revealing itself throughout art history? A girl can only dream. Despite such a transparent biography of what is at the very least a problematic relationship with women (let’s be real, it’s downright misogynistic), the societal “we” refuses to see Picasso as anything other than a genius. We instead resort to a psychological defense mechanism of cognitive splitting that keeps us from engaging with a deeper, truer understanding of the artwork. Somehow, the information is perceived as a threat to the artwork’s very existence—as if the importance and criticality of the work is predicated entirely on its misogyny. But if that’s the case, then maybe the work isn’t so terrific after all.

woman in armchairWoman in an Armchair (1929).  Image via 

The extent to which we regard art as separate from an artist ought to, and can be gauged by a simple gut check. It should be pretty simple—if knowing what you know about an artist changes how you see and understand an artwork, then the argument that calls for separating the artist from the art isn’t valid. Carl Andre might be the art world's O.J. Simpson, however, whether or not he pushed his wife and fellow artist Ana Mendieta out of a 33-story window doesn’t directly affect his minimalist sculptures (that’s not to say that the way Mendieta’s legacy has been handled institutionally isn't tragic, problematic, and worth protesting). But to use that line of thinking as an undisputed rule in art is a mistake that preys upon and chooses to ignore victims of institutionalized power in favor of a more convenient deification of the status quo.

It’s been nearly ten years since that New York Times panel, and we’ve found ourselves in the midst of the #MeToo movement where men of power and distinction are finally being held accountable for their transgressions. Every day, another prominent male figure is outed for his history of predation, and for the first time, the ubiquity and extent to which sexual assault has presided and oppressed women in every industry is not only being laid bare, but is being taken to task. Just as it is now impossible for us to separate episodes of Louie that reference Louie C.K. masturbating in front women from his actual history of sexual misconduct and well, masturbating in front of women, one shouldn’t be able to look at one of Picasso’s minotaurs or women without thinking about how awful it must have been to be one of his muses.

Just because we can separate the art from the artist doesn’t mean we always should. It’s too convenient for established men who have made their careers off of images of women to have their misogynist abuses brushed aside with that simple, near canonized argument. If the art world truly wants to be inclusive, it's going to need to start embracing more complex art historical narratives. While Roland Barthes was correct in stating that an artist has no power over their artwork once it's out in the world and part of a public, curators and critics absolutely do have a say. It’s up to institutions to be at the fore of introducing evolving narratives and to be adaptive and considerate of a history that has time and time again proven itself fluid.  

la revA portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter titled Le Rêve (1932). Image via Contemporary Arts Trust. 

In March, the Tate Modern is set to host the museum's first ever solo Picasso exhibition. The show focuses on the works Picasso produced in 1932, what is often referred to as the artist's "year of wonder" and not coincidentally, the year Picasso had his escapist affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter. Titled "Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy,"the show's press release promises to "strip away common myths to reveal the man and the artist in his full complexity and richness." It's an okay start—the rest of the press release celebrates the beauty and sensuality of the work, hardly mentioning the muse that inspired them.

It could've taken a page from a show put on last summer by Art Centre Basel at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The first of it's kind, "Picasso: The Artist and His Muses" was the first exhibition to examine Picasso's work through the women he portrayed in order to further investigate the relationship between the artist and the muse. To quote the show's press release, "Cultural critic Germaine Greer has said that the modern muse is engaged in a reverse penetration of the male artist, bringing forth creativity from the ‘womb of his mind.’ But could these relationships be seen as essentially egotistical, a means by which an artist seeks to understand and give expression to his own feelings and impulses in relation to the muse, rather than the depicting muse herself? For Pablo Picasso this principle seems to be true, the very number of women recognised in this exhibition as his muses attesting to it." Now that's a contemporary show.  


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