Picasso, 50 years after his death, re-examined through #MeToo lens

3 mins read
"Le corsage orange - Dora Maar"†(1940)†by Pablo Picasso. Photo: Marijan Murat / dpa

Paris (dpa) – Pablo Picasso’s painting “Dora and the Minotaur” dates back to the year 1935. It shows the mythical creature with its human body but the head of a steer sexually assaulting a woman. In Greek mythology, the monster eats children, while with the painter it is assaulting Dora Maar, who was Picasso’s lover and muse at the time. 

Today, in the age of #MeToo, such comments by the Spanish artist as “To me there are only two kinds of women: Goddesses and doormats” would trigger a storm of outrage.

Picasso’s macho and sexist treatment of women is well known. Countless books and articles have been published on the subject. But now in the wake of the #MeToo movement, views about the painter have changed. 

Cécile Debray, director of the Picasso Museum in Paris, observes that these days, one has to think about how to show Picasso. In an interview with dpa, Debray said that when she took up her post at the end of 2021, Picasso’s aura had begun to fade above all in academic circles and with young people.

“Picasso not only put his masculinity on display, but he also represented the love act in which he often used his women companions as a model,” she noted. He took up the myth of the minotaur and portrayed it in terms of sexual potency. Now, this biographical aspect is being called into question. A few weeks ago in Lyon, a conference theme was: How can Picasso be exhibited today?

Like many museums, the Picasso Museum in Paris is also now marking the 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death, on April 8, 1973. But alongside a chronological exhibition of Picasso’s major works there are also two shows of contemporary artists. These attempt to newly interpret the Spanish painter’s work. In one, the Afro-American artists Faith Ringgold addresses, among others, the issue of discrimination against black women. In the other, Pierre Moignard grapples with Picasso’s erotic drawings. 

On the 50th anniversary of Pablo Picasso’s death, exhibitions are taking place all over the world. Photo: Gˆbel/dpa

Debray says that the debate about Picasso and his relationship with women is something which touches her in two ways – as a representative of the female sex and as an art historian. “I understand the #MeToo movement, which is ideological in its stance.” But she also has an institutional position to defend and one as an art historian.

Picasso was born October 25, 1881 in Malaga and died 91 years later in Mougins in southern France. As founder of the cubism style of painting and as an important figure in surrealism, his is a huge place in the history of 20th Century art. He left behind a comprehensive body of work consisting of paintings, works on paper, sculptures and ceramic objects. Among his most important paintings were “Les Demoisselles d’Avignon” and “Guernica.”

Throughout, his work is inseparable from the numerous women in his life. He painted them countless times – at the beginning of a relationship in gentle compositions, but at the end often as distorted figures. Of the seven women who by official count shared his life, two committed suicide and two suffered from depression. The only one who succeeded in leaving him was Francoise Gilot, who published her “Life With Picasso” book in 1965. She described a moody man who made life difficult for those who shared it with him.

“Each time that I change a woman, I should burn the previous one. That way I would be rid of them. They would no longer be there to complicate my life,” is a comment by Picasso that art historian Julie Beauzac cites in her 2019-launched podcast series on art and feminism titled “Vénus s’épilait-elle la chatte?” (Does Venus shave her pussy?). 

Emmanuel Guigon, director of the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, says that examining Picasso and the feminist and feminine view of his work is an extremely topical debate, one which should not be caricatured. In remarks to the French radio station France Info Guigon said he did not believe that Picasso was violent toward women. That he was a man of his times, an Andalusian and without doubt very seductive, goes without saying.

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Picasso’s “Woman with Flowered Blouse” were among many of the artist’s works to include female subjects. Photo: Christian Hager / dpa

In June 2021 young female art students created a scene in the Barcelona museum when they stood before Picasso paintings wearing T-shirts with the inscription “Picasso Maltratador” (“Picasso, Woman Abuser”). Since then, Guigon has increasingly organised workshops and conferences where the work of the Spanish painter is illuminated anew.

A similar protest action took place in 2018 in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Performance artist Emma Sulkowicz, who contended that Picasso’s cubist paintings dismembered women’s bodies, stood before “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” half-naked and with tiny stars painted on her entire body.

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