Some reviews were scathing, dismissing the exhibition on Picasso and feminism co-organized by the Australian comic Hannah Gadsby as weak in scholarship, thin on significant works of art and knee-jerk in its politics.
“Don’t Go,” blared a headline on the website Hellgate, while the Guardian asked, “Is Hannah Gadsby’s Picasso exhibition really that bad?” Even Gadsby’s home turf paper declared, “Hannah Gadsby’s new Picasso exhibition is a joke.”
Yet in spite of — or perhaps because of — these strong reactions, people lined up at the Brooklyn Museum for the show’s opening on June 2, increasing general admission by 51 percent over the weekend before.
And the Brooklyn Museum is standing by the exhibition, “It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby,” arguing that it had anticipated objections when it hired Gadsby, who had eviscerated the Cubist painter’s misogynistic attitudes toward women in a 2018 Netflix special, “Nanette.” The exhibition, its organizers said, was meant to prompt heated discussion.
“We welcome the debate,” Anne Pasternak, the museum’s director, said in an interview. “We knew the show was going to be controversial, and if the result is that more people are engaging with the art, we think that’s frankly awesome.
“If you want a show with hundreds of Picassos, go to Paris,” she added. “If you want an interesting conversation, come to Brooklyn.”
The exhibition — which was also organized by the museum’s senior curators Lisa Small and Catherine Morris — presents paintings, drawings and sculpture by Picasso alongside works by female artists in the museum’s collection, to explore the Spanish artist’s troublesome legacy.
Picasso abused his female muses, using them in his work; two took their own lives. “Every time I change wives I should burn the last one. That way I’d be rid of them,” he once said. “They wouldn’t be around to complicate my existence. Maybe, that would bring back my youth, too. You kill the woman and you wipe out the past she represents.”
On a recent morning at the museum, several visitors said they were moved by the exhibition. “It’s the violence that’s inherent in his work that is getting to me and making me cry,” said Lori Handelman, 64, who lives in New York and is retired. “It’s very pointedly through an angry lens, which I think is appropriate.”
Others wrestled with the show’s negative take on Picasso. “It’s good to make a statement like this,” said Garoan Jacobs, an artist from Berlin, “but I still love Picasso.”
The critical response to the Gadsby show questioned the exhibition’s seriousness of purpose, arguing that Gadsby’s wall banter and sarcasm had substituted for a more substantive effort to engage with the artwork. Jason Farago in The New York Times called the exhibition “essentially a light amusement,” one that shortchanges the women artists in the show. He added that it “backs away from close looking for the affirmative comforts of social-justice-themed pop culture.”
Alex Greenberger in Art News critiqued “the show’s disregard for art history.”
But several reviews applauded the exhibition’s alternative approach to the typical celebration of a “genius” artist. “There is something refreshing about a show that doesn’t let Picasso preen on his pedestal,” wrote The Economist. “Many of his works here feature an artist in a studio with a comely nude model, a tableau that feels at once charged and vampiric. The contrast between Picasso’s pert breasts and curvy hips and the female bodies created by female artists feels potent.”
The Brooklyn Museum is no stranger to controversy. In 1999, the mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, threatened to cut its city financing in response to the exhibition of Chris Ofili’s painting of the Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung in the museum’s “Sensation” show. In 2002, the museum hosted a “Star Wars” exhibition that reviewers criticized as lowbrow. And it was upbraided for featuring a Louis Vuitton shop in its 2008 Takashi Murakami exhibition, which included handbags. More recently, a show of work by the street artist and commercial designer KAWS garnered some tough reviews, but drew large crowds.
The Gadsby show was developed in response to an invitation extended to several institutions by the Musée Picasso to mark the 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death in part by considering what the artist and his work mean today. “It seemed necessary to think about that question in terms of the culture shift brought about by feminism over the 50 years since his death,” Small said.
“We wanted to foster dialogues about the myths and tropes of the male-dominated Modernist canon that Picasso exemplifies,” the curator added. “It was also an opportunity to present and interpret our own collection of feminist artworks.”
Among the other artists included are Mickalene Thomas, Judy Chicago and Marilyn Minter, all of whom were informed that their pieces would be in the show. Thomas and Minter declined to be interviewed.
Chicago said she saw in the derisive reviews confirmation of the misogyny that Gadsby confronted in the museum show and in “Nanette.”
“There is a level of hysteria — and hostility — in some of the writing that reminds me of the hysteria that surrounded ‘The Dinner Party,’” Chicago said, referring to her famous feminist installation from the 1970s, which resides at the Brooklyn Museum.
“There is very little space to critique the great heroes of art history, as if they’re above analysis — this very odd idea that patriarchal attitudes and misogyny do not affect either the worldview or creative production of male artists, and of course they do,” Chicago said. “I celebrate and congratulate the Brooklyn Museum for trying to begin that conversation.”
Similarly, the feminist collective Guerrilla Girls, which also has a work in the show, wrote in an Instagram post: “So many angry, hysterical reviews from male art critics must mean that Pablo-matic @brooklynmuseum is saying something really important.”
The museum invited Gadsby — who studied art history in college — to collaborate on the show because of “Nanette,” in which the comic and actor, who identifies as genderqueer and uses they/them pronouns, connects Picasso to Donald J. Trump and Harvey Weinstein, calls the artist “rotten in the face cavity” and proclaims, “I hate Picasso! I hate him!”
“We felt Hannah’s voice was an excellent addition to an expanded conversation about Picasso’s legacy,” Morris said, “and the emergence of feminist revisionism and critique of modernity.”
The curators worked together on conceptualizing and choosing pieces for the show, with Gadsby an integral part of the process.
The exhibition incorporates clips from “Nanette,” as well as wall text by Gadsby with quips such as, “Art history taught me that, historically, women didn’t have time to think thoughts — they were too busy napping naked alone in a forest.” Next to the etching on paper “Sculptor and Model Looking at Herself, 1933,” the comic writes: “Alternative title: ‘If I angle the mirror to reflect the sun, I can burn your face off. Look at my penis.’”
As for the criticism that the exhibition is light on Picasso masterworks, with only eight paintings, Pasternak said the Brooklyn Museum was a late addition to the 50th anniversary celebrations and had difficulty securing major loans.
In interviews, Brooklyn Museum officials said that gravitas and levity were not mutually exclusive. “No one is questioning that Picasso is a prodigy or a genius,” said Morris, senior curator for the museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. “Humor and seriousness don’t exist in opposition to each other.”
Small, the museum’s senior curator of European Art, said she hopes the strong reactions “don’t prevent visitors from coming to the show and seeing for themselves and also doesn’t have a dampening effect on other institutions that want to take risks.”
Scholars in the art world, many of whom have not yet seen the Gadsby show, have been abuzz on the subject. Some see the piling on as unfair. Arnold L. Lehman, the former Brooklyn Museum director who presented the “Sensation” exhibition, said, “Not only is it critical for museums to preserve art history as the tangible evidence of civilization; it is also critical for museums to examine and debate that history.”
But others view the show as a gimmick that should have been avoided. “The museum has better things to do than to make the case for women artists by beating up on Picasso,” the art historian Robert Storr said. “Being anti-Picasso is so easy — it doesn’t get to any of the underlining structural issues. What’s needed is a critique of institutional sexism, not the targeting of one long-dead artist who’s no longer making art.”