It’s Pablo-Matic

Design by Iris Tsouris

This is late for a number of reasons. One, this exhibit has already been slandered a lot. Two, by the time this is published, it’ll have been up for a while now. However, the exhibit is closing in late September, which means I have a little less than a month to tell you why you should and shouldn’t see it. 

“It’s Pablo-matic” is an exhibit currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum, enlisting Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby to examine Pablo Picasso’s misogyny. Who is Hannah Gadsby? Apparently a Peabody-and-Emmy-winning comedian. In 2018, their Netflix special entitled Nanette was released. Gadsby holds a degree in art history and used this background to write parts of the special. In it, they criticize Picasso, calling him a misogynist. This segment of the show was widely praised online, and led to an Emmy win. Personally, I hadn’t heard of Nanette until I heard about this exhibit, but maybe that’s just me (my dad canceled our Netflix supposedly in support of the writer’s strike). 

The exhibit aims to combine the work of Pablo Picasso and of contemporary women artists to emphasize his misogyny. Pieces by Mickalene Thomas, MFA ’02 (known to Yalies for her mural in the Pauli Murray dining hall) and Joan Semmel (no known relation) stun. The contemporary pieces also depict female bodies, often nude, some intimately depicted as if the artist is a fly on the wall, and others draped over furniture, posing grandly. Visitors crowded around these works just as much as any work by Picasso. All the pieces, Picasso and otherwise, are mixed together in the gallery. Although in some cases the presence of contemporary art seems to aim to create a contrast to his, or to even show the influence Picasso has had on female artists, in many cases it causes the exhibit to drift from its already shaky premise. The thread between the contemporary art and Picasso’s work should have been drawn by the voice of the exhibit, in this case Gadsby, but they fail to do this. 

I enjoyed many of the pieces, but I must admit that what stood out most to me were the works by Picasso. Because of how diverse and prolific his body of work is, it would be ridiculous and frankly basic to call oneself a “fan” of his work, and I never have—there are plenty of works of his that have never moved me. However, in this exhibit are works by Picasso that I’d never even known he could produce. Most of the Picasso works are etchings, surreal and almost mythic, some depicting minotaurs, the cousin of his signature bull. The exhibit attempts to criticize them as overly sexualizing, but this seems to be a juvenile take. While there are nude women in many of these etchings, their settings are so dream-like and uncanny that they are unsexualized—their surroundings can’t be earth, and their bodies are barely human. That’s the case at least for the works that show what could be perceived as women—some don’t even include those.

Throughout “It’s Pablo-matic,” Gadsby’s one-sentence quips precede the didactic plaques accompanying Picasso’s works, riddled with Twitter jargon and a snarky tone. Their complaints are so ridiculous that I was left unsure of if Gadsby’s interjections were ironic or not. In response to one remarkable etching by Picasso of a male sculptor with his nude model, Gadsby writes, “No head. No arms. The sculptor shapes only what is absolutely necessary…for him.” Indeed, the sculptor’s piece lacks a head and arms, but Gadsby overlooks the ultimate formlessness of his sculpture—the etch leaves the sculpture a loose blob lacking details. 

Gadsby’s take feels like a tweet from 2016. 2016 Twitter wokeness feels like the theme of this exhibit—even the title of the show, riffing off the word “problematic,” uses the word in the way we have all become (over)familiar with. Their quips add nothing to the art, and indeed take away from the experience. Pablo Picasso was a complicated person, to say the least, and probably a terrible one at times. Of course there should be more discussion of this in relation to his Great Man status. However, that complicated conversation should take place through actual critique and serious discussion, probably not through a millennial “comedian.”

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