The first time I saw a painting by Picasso I was 17 years old. It was a smallish, squarish cubist painting of a fractured tabletop holding bottles, sheet music, a violin, and a record album with the words “Ma Jolie” (“my pretty one”) on the cover—Picasso’s nickname for his then-lover, Eva Gouel. At the time, I remember loving it, but it’s hard to say whether this was because I was looking at “a Picasso” or because I appreciated the way its colors and shapes came together.
For teenage me, my enthusiasm for “Ma Jolie” was impossible to separate from my enthusiasm for all of the mega-famous artists that I looked up to. Coming off of an obnoxious childhood obsession with art that left me writing fan fiction imagining Da Vinci and Monet as pen-pals and that culminated in a bizarre diary detailing the work of a mostly male, mostly western canon of well-known painters and sculptors, there was always a good possibility that I was going to love Picasso.
A dozen years later, I wrote about a Picasso exhibition in Las Vegas for an art magazine where a certain level of adoration for the artist was expected and which I was more than happy to provide. I said things like “By now we’re all familiar with the story of the man. An artistic prodigy from the age of four and a classically trained virtuoso as a teenager…” and “on the lighter side of the exhibit, Picasso depicts a lover and mother of his children, Françoise Gilot, as a beautiful, tranquil presence…a pillar of stability and organization in the artist’s often chaotic life.”
Obnoxious, again, but standard for the way writers write about Picasso, casting his lovers as simple muses and referring to his legacy as if it were as uncomplicated as his talent.
In 2017, the #MeToo movement amplified a chorus of voices that suggested we recast Picasso’s genius in light of the artist’s misogyny. A spate of articles came out that unearthed biographies and previously published accounts of family members including Françoise Gilot and Picasso’s granddaughter, Marina Picasso. Allegations about Picasso’s conduct made headlines for several years, referencing the artist’s own words about women (“goddesses or doormats” and “machines for suffering”) as well as the effect of his abuse and revolving-door affairs which drove Dora Maar to psychiatric hospitalization, resulted in the abduction and captivity of Irene Lagut, and altered the career path of many young women from “artist” to “muse.”
One particularly heartbreaking account from Françoise Gilot’s 1964 memoir, Life With Picasso, relays the artist’s reaction to her decision to end their 10-year relationship, quoting him:
“Every time I change wives I should burn the last one. That way I’d be rid of them. They wouldn’t be around now to complicate my existence. Maybe that would bring back my youth, too. You kill the woman and you wipe out the past she represents.”
Really awful stuff. And yet, in light of Picasso’s artistic capabilities and influence, it is not surprising that these accounts—though public for decades—have only served as small ballasts of criticism against the art world’s hundred-year love affair with the greatest artist of the 20th century.
From where we stand now, at the internet-proclaimed “end of #MeToo,” the debate about whether or not we can separate the art from the artist feels passé in the same way that the debate about whether or not politics can affect real change feels naive. There’s an emerging vibe that it’s cool to be beyond it all. Mildly engaged in the things we care about and slightly anarchic about the things we don’t.
This is the context that accompanied me into the final stretch of the Nevada Museum of Art’s Picasso in Clay exhibition, relieving me of any obligation to write favorably about a man whose legacy will be affected by my words not at all. Still the most profitable artist of last year, still displayed and collected by major institutions all over the world, and still the creator of a multi-billion dollar empire, Picasso is in no danger of being canceled.
That is why I am sad—but not shocked—that the Nevada Museum of Art chooses to ignore the less-than-appealing aspects of Picasso’s reputation in their exhibition of the artist’s rarely seen ceramic works. In every piece of wall text, didactic material, and public lecture surrounding the show, only one speaker gave lip-service to Picasso’s treatment of women, offering, “We know [Picasso] liked women, he wasn’t very nice to them, but he loved them.” One statement after 45 minutes of rich description, funny anecdotes about Picasso’s goat, and two acknowledgements that the bullfighting pieces in the exhibition might make some people uncomfortable.
For the audience’s part, no one had any questions during the Q&A about the women whose faces appeared on the pottery. Polite company, maybe? Or are we just beyond it all?
I get the appeal of walking into an exhibition like Picasso in Clay and earnestly taking in the wall-sized black-and-white photograph of Picasso making pottery. I understand sitting down in front of stunning engobe pitchers and enamel plates and admiring their beauty and simplicity. Noticing how the artist’s marks are even more pronounced when they are incised in clay and how fun and playful women’s faces and owls’ bodies appear when in pitcher form.
As I walk through the exhibition, most of the time I am not thinking about Françoise Gilot and the years she lived with Picasso during his residency at Suzanne and Georges Ramié’s pottery studio, where all of the Picasso in Clay pieces were made. I am not thinking about Suzanne Ramié’s younger cousin, Jacqueline Roque, who—also during this same residency—would become Picasso’s next wife and who would commit suicide when he died (one of two lovers who would take her life in this way). I am certainly not thinking about how my sensibilities are offended by depictions of bullfights.
Most of the time, I am just enjoying the plates and bowls. I like the blue one that looks like a pie dish with a face. The gallery-goer next to me likes the plate next to it with the faun face, which looks devilish to me.
“It speaks to my inner goblin,” she says.
When I ask her if she is a fan of Picasso, she tells me that there is a way to appreciate the art and also know what the artist did.
This honest (and less cynical) approach is not out of the question for institutions that think displaying Picasso is worthwhile. There is a way to show the work and talk about the man at the same time.
Cécile Debray, the newly appointed president of the Musée Picasso in Paris, recently addressed how the museum would begin to “question Picasso’s posterity and echo the current debates around his work” by launching a series of collaborations with contemporary artists.
The first collaboration, which opened in April and closes next month, is a double collage series by French artist ORLAN titled, Weeping Women are Angry and ORLAN Hybridizes With Picasso’s Portraits of Women.
Inspired by Picasso’s compositions of Jacqueline Roque and Dora Maar, ORLAN pastes her own flashing eyes, screaming mouth, ears, cheeks, and various appendages into distorted photo-collage arrangements inspired by the portraits that Picasso completed for his atrocity-of-war masterpiece, “Guernica.” Disjointed and sickly bright, ORLAN’s hybrid portraits both draw on the original horror of Picasso’s arrangements and critique them, pulling the focus back onto the weeping women who we imagine must be angry as well as sad.
Collaborations like this make a lot of sense for museums that focus solely on Picasso’s oeuvre. For one-off collector exhibitions like Picasso in Clay—which attract a general audience that may or may not know (or may or may not care) about the artist’s darker side—I would settle for not pretending. A paragraph or two about the artist’s muses, a slide in a lecture about the aftermath of his abuse, a question for the panel about how exactly we should display Picasso.
Picasso in Clay: Selections from the Robert Felton and Lindsay Wallis Collection is on display at the Nevada Museum of Art until Aug. 7.
Cover photo: Courtesy Nevada Museum of Art
This article was funded by a grant from the Nevada Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.