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A red wall sign for It's Pablo-matic.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan / Time Out

A new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum takes on Picasso's 'problematic' legacy

“It’s Pablo-matic” eviscerates with feminist humor from co-curator Hannah Gadsby.

Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Written by
Rossilynne Skena Culgan

Pablo Picasso is said to have uttered the phrase: "For me there are only two kinds of women—goddesses and doormats." But the latest exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum shows him the door.

"It's Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby," which opens on June 2, juxtaposes the famous artist's works next to feminist pieces with similar themes. Quips by Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby on wall texts lampoon Picasso's works (like "No head. No arms. The sculptor shapes only what is absolutely necessary ... for him."). It's on view through September 24. 

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Gadsby's well known for a comedy series on Netflix called Nanette, where the comedian lambasts Picasso's misogyny (and takes on many other topics, too). Gadsby co-curated the show with Brooklyn Museum staff.

“I think it is 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. But not really,” Gadsby’s quoted as saying in the exhibition.

Artwork at It's Pablo-matic, presented on blue and red walls.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan / Time Out

Even so, the show brings Picasso’s legacy in stark relief. While Picasso’s sordid history with women is nothing new, his icon status has largely gone unquestioned. Plus, the conversations about how we view heroes in the art world have shifted, Lisa Small, the Brooklyn Museum’s senior curator of European Art, tells Time Out New York

“The question that gets bandied about is ‘what do we do with the art of terrible men?’” Small says.

The show doesn't provide an answer to that question because there is no one answer, she said. Instead, the exhibit features Picasso's works alongside pieces by feminist artists who came to prominence in the 50 years since his death.

It's not a cancellation; it's a conversation—and we hope an interesting one. 

"It's recontextualizing not only his work, but these conversations around him," Small tells Time Out

Though “It’s Pablo-matic” acknowledges the transformative power and influence of Picasso’s work, it doesn’t shy away from critically examining the artist’s legacy. Fifty works by Picasso and 50 works by feminist artists fill several rooms of the museum, deconstructing concepts like the female nude, sex, desire, and the chasm in opportunities between male and female artists.

Artwork at It's Pablo-matic, presented on red walls.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan / Time Out

“Picasso has, in many ways, become a problematic figure, and the critical work of feminist art historians and artists over the past 50 years has played a significant role in his reframing,” Small said in a press release.

Brooklyn Museum is one of many across the globe to explore Picasso’s work as 2023 marks 50 years since the artist’s death. They were invited by Musée National Picasso-Paris to think about what Picasso means today, then given free rein to interpret that theme.

In the 50 years since Picasso's death, second-wave feminism blossomed, and those concepts take root throughout the exhibition.

"It's Pablo-matic" begins with a room featuring the Guerrilla Girls, Linda Nochlin, Faith Ringgold and Judy Chicago—canonical feminist artists and scholars. For example, the Guerrilla Girls’ iconic poster reading “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” hangs across from Picasso’s “The Sculptor,” which is filled with hidden phallic shapes. A quote from Gadsby invites visitors to look for the phallic images. “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.” 

A clip of Hannah Gadsby in "Nanette."
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan / Time Out | A clip of Hannah Gadsby in "Nanette."

In addition to quotes from Gadsby, wall texts also feature quotes from the artists themselves. The museum contacted every living woman artist they featured to ask for their thoughts on Picasso. For deceased artists, the museum looked for their previous quotes related to the show. An audio tour is also available.

Some of the featured artists include Cecily Brown, Renee Cox, Käthe Kollwitz, Dindga McCannon, Ana Mendieta, Marilyn Minter, Joan Semmel, Kiki Smith, May Stevens, Mickalene Thomas, and Rachel Kneebone.

Feminist artwork by Mickalene Thomas.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan / Time Out | Artwork by Mickalene Thomas.

Kneebone, whose porcelain sculpture is on view in the show, wrote this about Picasso: "We could cancel Picasso for some of the things he did, but what he created continues to affect people and inspire them. What matters is that we are able to have the discussion, the conversation about him and his work, instead of just bracketing off the one from the other." 

That's a sentiment Small echoes. 

"I think the use of the term 'cancel culture' and in many ways in the action itself that corresponds with that word, is a kind of futile way of not engaging in complexity and nuance and the failures and foibles and flaws of all people, which isn't to say that they should be excused," Small says. "It's not a cancellation; it's a conversation—and we hope an interesting one. Picasso is too big to fail. Picasso's going to be fine." 

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