Making Picasso Great, Again

Pablo Picasso Femme a la Montre 1932 from the collection of Emily Fisher Landau.

On view at Peréz Art Museum Miami until October 16, 2018, Femme a la Montre, a 1932 painting by Pablo Picasso, is displayed alone in a dark, quiet, cavernous room. Under dramatic lighting, the painting behaves as a guide to draw the viewer towards it slowly. It feels like a communion procession intended for devotion. The atmosphere is thick with anticipation and the museum has been transformed into a cathedral where the soul meets God and his son is Picasso.

Don’t get me wrong, I have had many cathartic experiences with art in my lifetime and hope to keep having them, but this position of sanctitude has not been held by painting itself since Picasso’s time. In fact, it is Picasso who is often credited for destroying beauty and unleashing the beast of modernity. By the time of his death, the preciousness of art and the belief in artistic genius had been almost completely eradicated and replaced with more complex modes of analysis that leave room for diversity of thought and deeper understanding. The style of interpretation is most often for the institution to decide and it is left up to its audience to challenge whether the framework is current or outdated, relevant or not. Based on this logic, on the surface it seems, PAMM has been affected by some sort of deficit or cultural amnesia.

Although I would enjoy it more to interpret this act of curatorial forgetfulness as a commemoration to the dead, I’m afraid the truth of the matter is, it is a sad attempt once again by the patriarchy to erase history, or at least, the one that is balanced to include women, not as muses and mistresses to powerful men, but as, well, you know… WOMEN. (This is when I personally become “take my earrings off and hand them to my girlfriend” kind of appalled.)

With a single swipe right of the pendulum, a patriarchal power grab has taken place here in this room at an important international museum that touts its own cultural inclusivity and social awareness while it embraces the term contemporary within its vision statement, and whose female identified staff members skip out on work to engage in feminist political actions.

It is utterly mind-boggling. I am totally confused.

Which brings me back to the painting and more specifically to its subject. Let’s get one thing straight. If I stuck with the first analogy to religious symbolism with a dash of Feminist art criticism, I could take this monologue in a different direction at this point, because I could read her, the subject of the painting, Marie-Thérèse Walter, as the martyr, as Christ, or as a vision of Mary but the prescribed language surrounding her in this context describes her as Picasso’s “golden muse.” So, I will go with my first theory which is usually best anyway.

At this moment in time and as it is framed, the painting is not about her, she is not the true subject, it is a stand in for Picasso, the genius, Our Light, Our Savior. (This is when the heels come off.) How is now the time to revive an archaic belief in male genius? Should it ever be the time for art to regress back to when men like Picasso could be men like Picasso? Or is that exactly where we have found ourselves once again? He was a person, not a god, and this presentation of his work insinuates all-powerfulness, all-knowingness and sends the message to its audience that Picasso is some sort of artistic savior which is at the least misleading to the public and at worst an abomination. How has the museum managed to exclude the progress that has been made in terms of sexual politics/ gender equality and the contributions of women throughout art history in relation to this specific object? Haven’t they too watched Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette? Is this really what I think it is?

The Tate Modern wants us to think of this period in Picasso’s painting as a love story about his relationship with the subject who happened to be a teenager when she met Picasso, a forty-something year old man with a wife and children. In fact, the institutional statement regarding the recent exhibition, Picasso 1932, states “The escape offered by his relationship with the significantly younger Marie-Thérèse Walter became a key inspiration for much of his work from this period.” Here and in articles about the exhibition, she is framed as his great escape from whatever misery was his domestic life. His wife? His children? That’s so boring and totally anti-intellectual. Are we talking about art? or writing for a telenovela?

It is as if the institutions want us to believe in the mystery and romance of Picasso, to be convinced by the sweetness in some of his paintings; only a thin veneer of charm in my opinion. In reality, his relationships were abusive, his affairs brutal and his marriages dysfunctional. And this approach, this blindness, is exactly the most maddening quality of systemic misogyny– and on a societal level once again gives men, young and old permission to continue being total fucking assholes. Shouldn’t the interpretation of art for the public in a “contemporary” art museum follow a more current and conscious methodology? Or have we regressed back to the 50’s along with the United States’ current administration? Do women have to do the labor of consciousness raising within western art, AGAIN? The museum, the public art institution, is not the white cube of Cézanne. It has been established and accepted widely for decades, there is no neutral space!

Within an article by Jane Wooldridge in the Miami Herald, the author asks poignantly,

“Is the timepiece in Pablo Picasso's Woman with a Watch simply a marker that distinguishes this from the prolific artist's many other paintings of his muse, Marie-Therese Walter? Or does it refer to the time he steals away from his wife to spend with his lover?” However muted, I think it was a great question and if the museum were to consider its reflection then maybe, just maybe the subjectivity of Marie-Therese Walter could come alive for the audience and just maybe the audience would go away with a better understanding of what has happened in art since 1932! There is no doubt that Picasso’s work has its place in the history of painting, but which history is being told here? And what about the present?