It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby

Left: Pablo Picasso, 1920. © 2023 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Right: Hannah Gadsby, 2018. (Photo: Alan Moyle).
Left: Pablo Picasso, 1920. @2023 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Right: Hannah Gadsby, 2018. (Photo: Alan Moyle).

In our current era where historical and critical thinking are on the wane, one can’t complain about a show being ahistorical, but one can be faulted for lacking a cogent dialogue. Consequently, though mashing things together can produce interesting results, the parts must communicate with one another in a meaningful manner. Problematically, the exhibit, It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby at the Brooklyn Museum resembles Gadsby’s stand-up comedy routine—it rambles from subject to subject, and in this case, its cohesion relies on the audience’s attempt to understand how it is all connected to the red-herring Picasso. Considering Gadsby has been put in the position of playing auteur in a medium she is unaccustomed to, one which is visual and not language-based, it might have been a more interesting exercise in a post-way of thinking to present solely the exhibition’s wall texts, or conversely just the works themselves without commentary rather than clinging to the conventions of theme based exhibitions.

Ultimately, the value and impact of any critical or innovative exhibition depend on the discussions it sparks within the art community. From such a perspective certain concerns have arisen surrounding the exhibition It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby and Gadsby’s involvement in curating it. So far so good, after all the history of Modern art is a record of the differing actions and debates, which in the name of offering new perspectives challenged the established norms. With this in mind, it is important to recognize that art and art history are complex and multifaceted, and there is always room for different interpretations and methodologies, especially when it comes to questioning the canon.

Some background, Gadsby is an Australian comedian recognized for their thought-provoking observation-based comedy performances. They are best known in the States for their Netflix production Nanette, which includes a scathing critique of Picasso, his influence, and the mythologies promoted by art history per se. We are told in the press material that it was this segment that served as a catalyst for this exhibition. This rogue act on the part of the museum’s curatorial staff has raised questions about the authenticity and credibility of the resulting endeavor. One wonders if Gadsby’s curatorial collaboration with senior curators Lisa Small and Catherine Morris is a genuine attempt by the Brooklyn Museum to position itself as a platform for new perspectives or merely one calculated to generate publicity.

Although Gadsby’s objective as a comedian is to be a thought-provoking agent for change, she normally does this in a field that values entertainment over historical knowledge and connoisseurship. Comedians do not need to substantiate their views. In “Its Pablo-matic, “ emotionally formed positions take the place of well-argued analysis. Even with the best of intentions, such an orientation can undermine and distort one’s understanding of the task before them. So, an obvious question is: does this collaboration primarily serve as a spectacle designed to provoke outrage and bemusement, or is there something of substance here? As a critic, I must navigate the complexities of this question while remaining open to the fact that Gadsby’s vision may have a place among the multifaceted and often contradictory interpretations inherent in the critique of contemporary culture.

The presence of Gadsby’s name in the full title of Pablo-Matic makes one suspect the exhibit to be an elaborate joke foisted on the anniversary of the artist’s death 50 years ago – this is reinforced by the use of a brand of burlesque and humor used throughout the exhibition, from the garish palette for the gallery walls to Gadsby’s comments which are displayed alongside Picasso’s artworks. All of this tends to undermine the seriousness of the exhibition’s themes, which we are told is meant to address the continued celebration of Picasso’s misogyny, bad behavior, and colonialist impulses. Much of the work accompanying the merger collection of minor Picasso works by women and feminist artists does not directly engage with Picasso’s art. Ironically the wall text accompanying many of the works by women artists separate Picasso the man from that of Picasso the artist. From what appears to be the randomness of many of the curatorial teams’ choices, It’s Pablo-matic should serve as a cautionary tale, illustrating the repercussions that occur when an ill-prepared institution engages in academic activism with the intent of rectifying past wrongs. In this case, they ultimately insult both their audience and their cause.

From a historical point of view, one might begin criticizing the exhibit for not including works by artists who were involved with Picasso, such as Françoise Gilot and Dora Maar, or the international array of women artists associated with Cubism (which is a show still waiting to be done). Such exclusions undermine the stated intention of the exhibition, which is to re-center art history. Meanwhile, the curators to poke fun at Picasso – have cast the contemporary women artists in a subordinate role, disregarding their genuine achievements, and seemingly ignoring the efforts of feminist art historians who have dedicated their careers to addressing the relationship between modern art and gender. In this alone, this exhibition again fails to fulfill its objective of rewriting art history in such a way as to place women artists on equal footing with their male counterparts. Seemingly for these curators, the way to do this is to lower the bar, for if Picasso were not here – the exhibition of art by women would be without critical purpose – a mere sampler based on what was in the museum’s collection.

Taken as a whole this exhibit comes across as poorly conceived, somewhat like the project of an angry graduate student seeking attention by being outrageous. As such, it represents a hip post-modernist (subjective and ahistorical) perspective with the hopes of denigrating the very institutions that provide it with a platform— history and criticism. While some might appreciate Gadsby’s approach, seeing it as a thought-provoking and innovative contribution to present artistic discourse others, like myself may view it as a glib and somewhat conventional in its reactionary notions concerning Modernist art. I suspect that this is the place for me to insert a disclaimer — this review is not by a male art critic who has been upset by a feminist critique of the phallocentric nature of the art world, rather it is directed at the self-indulgent nature of Gadsby’s critique and the fact that it brings no new insights to our understanding of Picasso, his work and influence, or that of the women artists who have been cast in supporting roles.

The intended and very necessary re-centering of art history could have been better achieved by including the works of female artists who were contemporaries of Picasso, instead of offering a vaudevillian-style attack on avant-garde art as a grand deception. In this, Gadsby’s message seems to be the feminist version of the standard 1950s condemnation of modernist art as an elitist scam meant to make everyone feel stupid in which abstract art is portrayed as its greatest con. The responsible adults at the Brooklyn Museum could have countered such an argument, but then again, I assume given that they initiated this collaboration, they egged Gadsby on from the wings.

As for why Picasso should be brought down in size yet again, it seems simply because he takes up too much rhetorical room and Gadsby wishes to deny male society such a powerful tool. But then again, in actuality Its Pablo-Matic, less of a point to make concerning Picasso and his misogyny than those made by the Netflix Genius series’ biopic where Picasso is portrayed as a seductive and insecure man with whom very talented women fell in love, much to their detriment. What this has to do with the historical importance of Picasso’s work? Problematically, Gadsby seemingly does not understand, history is not the product of individuals but, rather that of material conditions and forces. If she had written Pablo-matic as an article, I’m not sure it would have made its way through the peer review process.

This having been said, there is another way to go about addressing this exhibit, we might ask what does Hannah Gadsby’s Pablo-matic deliver? If we seriously believe that with the end of Modernism, we have transitioned to the post-historical, what sense does this exhibit make when viewed through that lens? What if we look past the sophomoric aspects of this exhibit and shift our attention? If this exhibit is meant to prompt viewers to question dominant narratives and present a more inclusive and diverse interpretation of art, then the subject of Its Pablo-matic is not Picasso but Gadsby’s attempt to challenge traditional hierarchies of historicism. In that case, the exhibition should have been organized to encourage critical reflection on the role of historical thinking, rather than merely sublimating it. The problem with this exhibit lies in the manner in which this curatorial collaborative wields the idea of the post-historical. Seemingly they fell into their own trap, cherry-picking the licenses that the concept affords, without the responsibilities that accompany these. Yet even with this, using the post-historical as a critical framework does not make this exhibit or its conceits more interesting, though it does make its failings more comprehensible.

It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby June 2–September 24, 2023 #PicassoCelebration

About the Writer: Saul Ostrow is an independent curator and critic. Since 1985, he has organized over 80 exhibitions in the US and abroad. His writings have appeared in art magazines, journals, catalogues, and books in the USA and Europe. In 2010, he founded along with David Goodman and Edouard Prulehiere, the not-for-profit Critical Practices Inc. as a platform for critical conversation and cultural practices. His book Formal Matters (selected and revised) published by Elective Affinities will be launched Fall, 2022. He served as Art Editor at Bomb Magazine, Co-Editor of Lusitania Press (1996-2004) and as Editor of the book series Critical Voices in Art, Theory and Culture (1996-2006) published by Routledge, London.