Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Pablo-matic’ Is Not the Feminist Achievement It Wants to Be

Gadsby skewered Picasso in their 2018 special Nanette—but their new art exhibit doesn't convey anger, humor, or frankly anything that deep.

Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Pablo-matic’ Is Not the Feminist Achievement It Wants to Be
Photo:Jesse Grant /George Stroud (Getty Images)

The first works to greet you in Brooklyn Museum’s “It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby”—an exhibition co-curated by the Australian comedian that reckons with the painter’s tremendous and tricky legacy 50 years after his death—are by artists Philip Pearlstein and the Guerrilla Girls. Pearlstein’s melancholy portrait of feminist art historian Linda Nochlin and her husband sitting beside one another, avoiding eye contact, is framed beside a gallery wall of Guerrilla Girls pieces, including the iconically critical “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” Together, they give off an air of frustration and anger, presumably directed at, you guessed it, Pablo Picasso.

There’s a lot to be angry about regarding the titanic figure: his womanizing, his misogyny, the overblown genius and cultural appropriation. Gadsby’s 2018 Netflix special, the discourse battleground Nanette, reamed Picasso’s legacy, squaring it against his moral failings as an individual. In it, Gadsby focused in on his sexual relationship (when he was 42 years old and married) with an underage girl, Marie-Thérèse Walter, who he said was in her prime during their dalliance. In righteous anger, Gadsby revealed at the culmination of the special that they’d been brutally raped at a similar age, and explained how bleak it is to think of a girl at that age as “in their prime.”

When I first watched Nanette, I was struck by Gadsby’s anger. “I don’t like Picasso. I fucking hate him. I really… I just… He’s rotten in the face cavity. I hate Picasso! I hate him!” they say, before explaining that they’re often met with rebuttals about the brilliance of Cubism when they express said anger. The special accurately captured the absurdity of lauding a man’s supposed ingenuity at the expense of other people’s autonomy and perceptions. In 2018, at the height of the MeToo movement, pointing out that paradox felt powerful in and of itself.

People look at works of art by Pablo Picasso, on display at an exhibition titled ‘It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby’ at the Brooklyn Museum in the Brooklyn borough of New York City on May 31, 2023. Photo:Ed Jones (Getty Images)

But it is now 2023 and the understanding that patriarchy is dominantly misguiding and that systems of power uphold and even promote abusers is baseline knowledge for most people buying a ticket to a retrospective of Picasso 50 years after his death at the Brooklyn Museum. I know that when I hear those ideas presented, I find myself either wanting to or actually saying, “And?” I’d expected Gadsby’s co-curated show, silly pun of a name be damned, to answer that “and?” It doesn’t. The wide-spread panning of this show across the art world corroborates my hunch that others didn’t get an answer either.

The depth and complexity of the feelings I detected in the Pearlstein and Guerilla Girls pieces at the front of the show are reproduced numerous times throughout the exhibit. But the overall curation doesn’t provide a clear or captivating way to engage with those feelings. Doing so meaningfully would be a colossal task, and a quote from Gadsby emblazoned on the wall at the entrance of “It’s Pablo-matic” says as much:

“I think it’s 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. Not but really.”

What a frustrating thing to read. I agree that the promise of cancel culture is overblown, but I don’t think it’s “futile” to provide space to interrogate the complications of legacy, influence, harm, and genius, even—and maybe especially—if there isn’t a clear consensus. If anyone would be able to do it, a world-renowned museum with a wing dedicated to feminist art ought to be up to the task. Indeed, the museum’s own assessment of the exhibition positioned itself to be, but Gadsby’s welcoming quote bails on the premise before giving it an honest try.

The entire exhibition includes about a dozen and a half works by Picasso—small sketches, two sculptures, and some of his less-famous paintings. A handful of the works demonstrate his dubious lack of reverence for women’s agency in his personal life, including the 1953 painting “The Shadow,” which shows the artist’s shadow looming over a sleeping woman; the sketch “Minotaur Caressing a Sleeping Girl”; and the 1936 print “Faun Uncovering a Sleeping Woman.” These certainly made me feel a sense of dread.

Then, alongside them are many works by women artists like Mickalene Thomas, Marilyn Minter, Ghada Amer, and Joan Semmel that center their own sexuality, femininity, and autonomy. In a sense, these artworks are in response to Picasso, in so much as they were created by individuals within an art environment obsessed with Picasso. Is every movement a fish makes a comment on the water? Some of the women artists’ pieces had quotes by the artists about Picasso’s conflicting legacy but didn’t offer much clarity other than, “It’s complicated.”

Picasso was problematic, sure. His legacy is huge, yes. Women artists exist, of course. But it felt like the curators added those three truths together hoping some sort of revelation would be uncovered when it all got boiled down. And while there’s certainly a morsel of meaning to extract, overall the finished product is flavorless.

It even took me a while to track down within the exhibit’s supplementary wall text what it was that made Picasso so bad. “What is it that he did?” I felt prompted to ask, which reminded me of the frustrating ways so many of us learn about bad men through backchannels and whisper networks. But that, I imagine, was not the intention.

The reflex I most experienced throughout the exhibit was that of eye rolls at Gadsby’s accompanying quips to the artwork. Half jokes like, “Worst. Hemorrhoid. Ever.” And, “When the vagina dentata subtext becomes text.” Nonsensical and lazy, the decision to include these next to some of Picasso’s sketches made me question how seriously Gadsby was taking feminist artists’ ambition to step out of Picasso’s shadow. It’s like, should we care about this guy’s impact or not? The show couldn’t decide.

It’s like, should we care about this guy’s impact or not? The show couldn’t decide.

What was actually hilarious were the meta-performances surrounding me at the exhibit when I visited Thursday. An older man with a sweater tied around his waist started loudly complaining about the aimlessness of cancel culture the moment he walked through the doors. “Should we cancel Ancient Romans because they had slaves?” he asked the woman beside him. She did not engage. Another woman, again very loudly, was praising a recent New York Times opinion piece on education reform, while yet another explained the testing paths of New York City students for getting into high school. It was a lot of showboating about recycled opinions that had long ago lost their potency. “And?” I wanted to follow up with all of these people—to engage in some illuminating back and forth about their angers and frustrations.

The curators of “It’s Pablo-matic” have been receptive to the backlash, saying it is igniting an important debate over the artist. But I don’t think Picasso’s legacy is what’s up for debate among their critics. Rather, it’s whether or not enough care was taken in gathering women artists in his shadow to demonstrate how big it could be cast. That being said, I’ve been known to pay the price of admission to be a hater.

As I was exiting the show, I saw a man holding a baby in front of Nina Chanel Abney’s painting “Forbidden Fruit.” In a toddler’s voice he jokingly asked, “Can you sepa-wate the aht fwom the awtist?” Gadsby’s exhibit felt only slightly more nuanced than what I imagine would have come out of that conversation.

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