Picasso in the #MeToo era

Patrick Steel, 24.07.2018
Looking at men looking at women
I recently went to see Tate Modern’s latest blockbuster, Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy, a fascinating journey through over 100 works by the artist over the course of one prolific year that left me both awestruck and, in places, uneasy.

It is hard not to be impressed by the scale of the artist’s output, both in terms of the quantity but also the reach of the works, taking in a range of media and styles, from sculpture to painting to charcoal drawing, surrealism to cubism to experiments with colour. And it’s fascinating to see Picasso’s inspirations, from classical themes to Japanese erotica, and the way in which the themes in his work become darker and more political as the year ends.

Many of the works depict his 22-year-old lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom he met five years earlier, when she was 17 and he 45. The year was marked by his furtively shuttling back and forth between Walter and his first wife, the ballerina Olga Khokhlova, and son, Paulo.

But he was aware of his public image: he carefully curated his own retrospective show that year, favouring earlier portraits of his family over the more recent portraits of his lover, keeping his affair secret from even his closest friends.

Walter is thought to be the subject of many of the standout works, such as Le Rêve, which depicts the subject asleep in an armchair, her face one-part phallus – possibly Picasso’s – and Femme Nue Dans un Fauteuil Rouge, which again depicts the subject’s face split into two, suggesting that one half may be the face of a lover in profile.

Although the show was conceived before #MeToo, it is difficult to look at these paintings without wondering about the relationship between the 50-year-old artist and his 22-year-old “muse”. The exhibition explicitly invites us to, quoting the artist as saying: “‘I paint the way some people write an autobiography. The paintings, finished or not, are the pages from my diary.”

In her recent Netflix show Nanette, the comedian and writer Hannah Gadsby sees Picasso’s affair with Walter as “just another part of his oversized mythology as a tortured, insatiable artist”, when in truth, he is yet another man “painting women like they’re flesh vases for their dick flowers”. For her, Picasso and Trump share a misogynistic lineage, as she quips: “Make art great again.”

And although the exhibition doesn’t go as far as the novelist Angela Carter’s wry observation that “Picasso liked cutting up women”, it does nod to the artist’s complicated relationship with his lovers.

The booklet accompanying the show explains: “Some biographers have argued that, since the childhood death of his younger sister from diphtheria, Picasso felt doomed to cause women to suffer. This is suggested by some of the works on paper in which fatal accident is transformed into sexual violence.”

Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy depicts a talented artist at the height of his powers, but in 2018, a time when social media allows for multiple narratives, some details of Picasso’s biography, reflected in his art-as-diary, may suffer further scrutiny.

The exhibition runs until 9 September and is free to Museums Association members.


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26.07.2018, 10:29
I agree entirely - Picasso's views on women do not remotely stand up to contemporary scrutiny, but nor do those of many male artists. It is true that extreme talent in one area of creativity often makes for an obsessively single-minded pursuit of that form of creativity, which may often go with the kind of driven and self-centred personality which does not greatly care about what they put other people in their lives through, in order to pursue their art. It was easier in the past for men to get away, unquestioned, with this kind of entitled attitude in every sphere of life, including their attitudes to women. The kind of awe in which society held and still holds 'genius' also facilitates this sense of entitlement. We may be inclined to allow a 'genius' to get away with all sorts of appalling selfishness and cruelty we wouldn't permit in anyone else. And many people, genuine geniuses or not, may also take advantage of that attitude and believe they have the right to behave badly because they are artists.

It is a bit harsh to put Picasso and Trump in the same boat though - both men are/were selfish, arrogant misogynistic creeps but at least Picasso was talented at something and has left us a legacy of wonderful art!