Is Hannah Gadsby’s Picasso Show at the Brooklyn Museum ‘Disastrous’ or Are Its Critics Just ‘Hysterical’? Here Are All the Hot Takes
Though it just opened days ago, “It’s Pablo-matic" has already inspired several waves of “takes.”
From its punny title on down, the Brooklyn Museum’s new exhibition “It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby” was designed to start a conversation. Love it or hate it, it’s hard to deny that the show, which looks at the artist’s complicated legacy through the eyes of Gadsby, an Australian comedian best known for the Netflix special Nanette, has succeeded in that regard.
Even before it even opened, the show elicited the kind of fervent takedowns you rarely see from art critics these days. Then, just as quickly, the backlash brought on its own backlash. Only three days out from the opening it already feels like we’re in the third or fourth wave of “takes.” (Which in itself is a little funny, because both sides of the debate have accused the other of indulging in the kind of rapid, vapid opinions that dominate Twitter discourses, not legitimate art-historical ones.)
“There’s little to see. There’s no catalogue to read. The ambitions here are at GIF level, though perhaps that is the point,” wrote New York Times critic at large Jason Farago of the exhibition in a review last week. The show, he argued, “backs away from close looking for the affirmative comforts of social-justice-themed pop culture.”
Gadsby is after a revisionist history with the show, which is one of 50 international exhibitions presented on the 50th anniversary of the artist’s death. The comedian aims to redress Picasso’s legacy with a consideration of his fattened ego and misogynistic tendencies, his documented abuse of women and colonialist imagery.
But the gesture extends beyond show’s titular artist too. For Gadsby, Picasso represents Modernism writ large; he’s the male “genius” in a decades-long movement of male geniuses, many anointed at the expense of equally talented women artists.
In response, Gadsby has paired a selection of (mostly minor) Picasso pieces with works by pioneering women artists of the 20th and 21st centuries— Nina Chanel Abney, Dara Birnbaum, Käthe Kollwitz, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, and so on. These creators may be also geniuses in their own right, but their works’ connection to Picasso has been seen as tenuous at best.
“The function of a public museum (or at least it should be) is to present to all of us these women’s full aesthetic achievements,” Farago wrote, before offering an alternative location for Gadsby’s presentation: “There is also room for story hour, in the children’s wing.
That “Pablo-matic” engages in a skin-deep, pseudo-historical investigation of its chosen topic is an opinion shared by other critics too. Artnews’s Alex Greenberger wrote in a review of the “disastrous” show that its “problem—Pablo-m, if you will—is not its revisionary mindset, which justly sets it apart from all the other celebratory Picasso shows being staged this year to mark the 50th anniversary of his death… It is, instead, the show’s disregard for art history,” he wrote, noting that Gadsby studied art history in college only to abandon it out of frustration “with its patriarchal roots.”
But while these and other biting reviews circulated online, some pointed out that they came mostly from male critics. “So many angry, hysterical reviews from male art critics must mean that Pablo-matic @brooklynmuseum is saying something really important,‘” wrote the feminist collective Guerrilla Girls, which has a piece in the show, in an Instagram post.
Meanwhile, Lisa Small, a Brooklyn Museum curator who, along with colleague Catherine Morris, helped Gadsby organize the exhibition, posted a picture of herself laughing with the comedian. Its caption read: “that feeling when / It’s Pablo-matic / gets (male) art critics’ knickers in a twist.” (Morris reposted it with the caption “An @nytimes columnist got VERY EMOTIONAL about our show.”)
Australian author Kaz Cooke summed up the sentiment in a Twitter post of her own: “So far male reviewers of @Hannahgadsby’s co-curated Brooklyn Museum Picasso show have slagged it for being about Picasso, not being enough about Picasso, not being funny enough, not being serious enough, having the wrong paintings by women, & having paintings by the wrong women,” she wrote.
Shortly after the show opened, Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak weighed in, too. “To those who question whether Gadsby’s voice belongs in this exhibit, I would simply ask: Whose interests are threatened by including it? Or, who benefits from excluding it?” She wrote in an op-ed for the Art Newspaper.
“[‘It’s Pablo-matic’] is not about cancelling Picasso. Quite the opposite,” Pasternak continued. “Cancelling means refusing to engage. Refusing to have the conversation. Refusing complexity. Ours is an exhibition that invites complexity. And I’m confident Picasso can handle a little complexity. In fact, he invited it.”
“I’m also confident that our audiences can handle complexity, too.”
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