Long before achieving fame as a stand-up comedian with their hit Netflix special, “Nanette,” Hannah Gadsby was already exploring their creative talents as a young artist. In 1995, within the confines of their parents’ basement, Gadsby crafted their own rendition of Pablo Picasso’s “Large Bather with a Book,” a 1937 masterpiece featuring a figure engrossed in an open volume, their back rendered in abstract geometric forms and spheres. It was an impressive effort for a teenager and, surprisingly, found its way into a museum—specifically, the Brooklyn Museum. Here, alongside works by renowned artists such as Cecily Brown and several Picasso pieces, Gadsby co-curated the New York Exhibitions “It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby.”
New York Exhibitions: Art History in Flux
While “Pablo-matic” might be dismissed as a humorous endeavor, it has sparked a polarizing debate. Critics argue that the show is trivializing art history, while its supporters view it as a bold step towards rejuvenating a stagnant canon.
Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, addressed the controversy, emphasizing that many young art historians express indifference toward artists like Picasso and Degas. She aims to engage in conversations that reflect the contemporary discourse.
New York Exhibitions: Reevaluating the Canon
“Pablo-matic” represents one facet of several museum exhibitions in New York that advocate for a reinterpretation of art history in light of the progress made in gender and racial equality. These exhibitions encourage us to begin anew and reevaluate our understanding of art’s historical narrative.
Challenging the Canon
While it is evident that the art world’s canon has long been dominated by white men, the need for reevaluation is not without merit. This is highlighted by artist Kaleta Doolin’s work, “A Woman on Every Page” (2018), in which she carved a vaginal void into every page of H.W. Janson’s seminal textbook “History of Art.” This groundbreaking textbook, first published in 1962 and still in use today, epitomizes the skewed representation within art history. The open book displaying Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907) serves as a powerful visual statement.
Navigating the Pitfalls
However, reevaluating art history should be a thoughtful process, not a platform for hasty judgments. “Pablo-matic” has drawn criticism for presenting works that only tangentially relate to Picasso’s legacy, with some pieces referencing other artists like Matisse or Manet. While Picasso’s problematic behavior towards women certainly warrants critique, shoehorning unrelated works into the narrative appears misguided.
Notably absent from the exhibition is the work of Françoise Gilot, an artist and former partner of Picasso who exposed his misconduct during their tumultuous relationship. Gilot’s omission became more conspicuous when she passed away shortly after the exhibition opened.
Art History’s Evolution
“Pablo-matic” exemplifies the evolving landscape of art history—a realm in flux, with both positive and negative consequences. Museums now engage in self-reflection regarding their role in shaping culture and discourse while striving for relevance and a broader canon. While museums were once sanctuaries for exploring meaning, beauty, and the human experience, they now favor accessibility over nuance.
Celebrating the Posterior
“Rear View,” an exhibition at LGDR gallery in Manhattan, is another manifestation of this shift. The show playfully explores the historical fascination with the human posterior in art, offering a mix of masterpieces and contemporary works. Despite its potential to appear superficial, the exhibition features significant artworks, including pieces by Barkley Hendricks and Félix Vallotton. It showcases feminist perspectives through artists like Issy Wood and Jenna Gribbon.
Embracing Change in Art History
In this evolving landscape of art history, museums and exhibitions grapple with the delicate balance between tradition and innovation, striving to provide accessibility without sacrificing depth. The dialogue continues, challenging the boundaries of the art world’s narrative and the stories it chooses to tell.