With Hannah Gadsby’s ‘It’s Pablo-matic,’ the Joke’s on the Brooklyn Museum

If you studied art history or another of the humanities in the 1990s or 2000s — say, if you are around the age of the Australian comic Hannah Gadsby, 45 — you may remember the word “problematic” from your long-ago seminar days. Back then it was a voguish noun, borrowed from French, that described the unconscious structure of an ideology or a text. Soon, though, like so many other efforts to think critically, “the problematic” got left behind in this century’s great shift from reading to scrolling. These days we encounter “problematic” exclusively as an adjective: an offhand judgment of moral disapproval, from a speaker who can’t be bothered by precision.

A whole cast of professional art workers — conservators, designers, guards, technicians — has been roped in to produce “It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby,” a small exhibition opening Friday at the Brooklyn Museum. (It is a title so silly that I cannot even type it; I am cutting and pasting.) The show, one of many worldwide timed to the 50th anniversary of the Spanish artist’s death in 1973, is essentially a light amusement following on from “Nanette,” a Netflix special from 2018. In that routine, a sort of blend of stand up and TED Talk, Gadsby riffed on having “barely graduated from an art history degree,” at the bachelor’s level, and attempted a takedown of the Spanish artist: “He’s rotten in the face cavity! I hate Picasso! I hate him!” Now this entertainer has come through the museum doors, but if you thought Gadsby had something to say about Picasso, the joke — the only good joke of the day, in fact — is on you.

Like the noun-turned-adjective “problematic,” this new exhibition backs away from close looking for the affirmative comforts of social-justice-themed pop culture. At the Brooklyn Museum you will find a few (very few) paintings by Picasso, plus two little sculptures and a selection of works on paper, suffixed with tame quips by Gadsby on adjacent labels. Around and nearby are works of art made by women, almost all made after Picasso’s death in 1973; finally, in a vestibule, clips from “Nanette” play on a loop. That’s the whole exhibition, and anyone who was expecting this to be a Netflix declension of the Degenerate Art Show, with poor patriarchal Picasso as ritualized scapegoat, can rest easy. There’s little to see. There’s no catalog to read. The ambitions here are at GIF level, though perhaps that is the point.

So far as it has an argument — a problematic — it goes like this: Pablo Picasso was an important artist. He was also something of a jerk around women. And women are more than “goddesses or doormats,” as Picasso brutally had it; women, too, have stories to tell. I wish there was more to inform you of, but that’s really about the size of it. All the feminist scholarship of the last 50 years — about repressed desire, about phallic instability, or even just about the lives of the women Picasso loved — is put to one side, in favor of what really matters: your feelings. “Admiration and anger can coexist,” a text at the show’s entrance reassures us.

That Picasso, probably the most written about painter in history, was both a great artist and a not-so-great guy is so far from being news as to qualify as climate. What matters is what you do with that friction, and “It’s Pablo-matic” does not do much. For a start, it doesn’t assemble many things to look at. The actual number of paintings by Picasso here is just eight. Seven were borrowed from the Musée Picasso in Paris, which has been supporting shows worldwide for this anniversary; one belongs to the Brooklyn Museum; none is first-rate. There are no other institutional loans besides a few prints brought over the river from MoMA. What you will see here by Picasso are mostly modest etchings, and even these barely display his stylistic breadth; more than two dozen sheets come from a single portfolio, the neoclassical Vollard Suite of the 1930s.

Unsigned texts in each gallery provide basic invocations of gender discrimination in art museums, or the colonial legacy of European modern art, while next to individual works Gadsby offers signed banter. These labels function a bit like bathroom graffiti, or maybe Instagram captions. Beside one classicizing print of Picasso and his lover Marie-Thérèse Walter: “I’m so virile my chest hair just exploded.” Beside a reclining nude: “Is she actually reclining? Or has she just been dropped from a great height?”

There’s a fixation, throughout, on genitals and bodily functions. Each sphincter, each phallus, is called out with adolescent excitement; with adolescent vocabulary, too. What jokes there are (“Meta? Hardly know her!”) remain juvenile enough to leave Picasso unscathed. The adults involved at the Brooklyn Museum (principally its senior curators Lisa Small and Catherine Morris, Gadsby’s collaborators here) really could have reined in this immaturity, though to their credit, they’ve at least fleshed out the show with some context on the cult of male genius or the rise of feminist art history in the 1970s.

The trouble is obvious, and entirely symptomatic of our back-to-front digital lives: For this show the reactions came first, the objects reacted to second. A show that started with pictures might make you come to wonder — following the pioneering feminist art historian Linda Nochlin — why Picasso’s paintings of women are generally lacking in desire, quite unlike the pervy paintings of Balthus, Picabia and other cancelable midcentury gents. A show properly engaged with feminism and the avant-garde might have turned to Lyubov Popova, Natalia Goncharova, Nadezhda Udaltsova or Olga Rozanova: the remarkable Soviet women artists who put Picasso’s breakdown of forms in the service of political revolution. A more serious look at reputation and male genius might have introduced a work by at least one female Cubist: perhaps Alice Bailly, or Marie Vassilieff, or Alice Halicka, or Marie Laurencin, or Jeanne Rij-Rousseau, or María Blanchard, ​ or even Australia’s own Anne Dangar.

Instead, “It’s Pablo-matic” contents itself to stir in works by women from the Brooklyn Museum collection. These seem to have been selected more or less at random, and include a lithograph by Käthe Kollwitz, a photograph by Ana Mendieta, an assemblage by Betye Saar, and Dara Birnbaum’s “Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman,” a video art classic of 1978/79 whose connection to Picasso is beyond me. (At least two paintings here, by Nina Chanel Abney and Mickalene Thomas, draw on the example of Manet, not Picasso.) The artists who made them have been reduced here, in what may be this show’s only true insult, into mere raconteurs of women’s lives. “I want my story to be heard,” reads a quotation from Gadsby in the last gallery; the same label lauds the “entirely new stories” of a new generation.

This elevation of “stories” over art (or at least comedy) was the principal thrust of “Nanette,” a Sydney stand-up routine which became an American viral success during the last presidency, shortly after the wrongdoings of Harvey Weinstein were finally exposed. “Nanette” proposed a therapeutic purpose for culture, rejecting the “trauma” of telling jokes in favor of the three-act resolution of “stories.” It directly analogized Picasso to then-President Trump: “The greatest artist of the twentieth century. Let’s make art great again, guys.” It even averred that Picasso, and by extension all the old masters, suffered from “the mental illness of misogyny.” (Given this pathologization of Picasso, it is very intriguing that Gadsby has described the Brooklyn Museum show as their own deeply desired act of sexual violence against the man from Málaga, telling Variety: “I really, really want to stick one up him.”)

Most bizarrely, the routine rested on a condemnation of art as an elite swindle, and modernism got it particularly hard. “CUUU-bism,” went Gadsby’s mocking refrain, to reliable audience laughter. (As it is, Picasso’s own Cubist art appears at the Brooklyn Museum through a single 6-by-4.5-inch engraving.) The sarcasm, from a comedian with moderate art historical bona fides, had a purpose: It gave Gadsby’s audience permission to believe that avant-garde painting was actually a big scam. “They’re all cut from the same cloth,” Gadsby told the audience in “Nanette”: “Donald Trump, Pablo Picasso, Harvey Weinstein” — and the art you never liked in the first place could be dismissed as the flimflam of a cabal of evil men.

Not long ago, it would have been embarrassing for adults to admit that they found avant-garde painting too difficult and preferred the comforts of story time. What Gadsby did was give the audience permission — moral permission — to turn their backs on what challenged them, and to ennoble a preference for comfort and kitsch.

So who should be most brassed off by this show? Not Picasso, who gets out totally unharmed. But the women artists in the museum’s collection dragooned into this minor prank, and the generations of women and feminist art historians — Rosalind Krauss, Anne Wagner, Mary Ann Caws, hundreds more — who have devoted their careers to thinking seriously about modern art and gender. Especially at the Brooklyn Museum, whose engagement with feminist art is unique in New York, I left sad and embarrassed that this show doesn’t even try to do what it promises: put women artists on equal footing with the big guy.

“My story has value,” Gadsby said in “Nanette”; and then, “I will not allow my story to be destroyed”; and then, “Stories hold our cure.” But Howardena Pindell, on view here, is much more than a storyteller; Cindy Sherman, on view here, is much more than a storyteller. They are artists who, like Picasso before them, put ideas and images into productive tension, with no reassurance of closure or comfort. 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; there is also room for story hour, in the children’s wing.

It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby
June 2 through Sept. 24, the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn; (718) 638-5000, brooklynmuseum.org.

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