Grinning, with both hands wrapped around a microphone, the comedian Hannah Gadsby stood onstage in front of a sold-out Sydney Opera House. Her award-winning routine Nanette was being filmed for release on Netflix. She began, as usual, to apply and release the audience’s tension, her voice working like the comedy equivalent of a masseuse. Then something changed. Like a caged animal goaded on all sides, she raged and became terrifyingly real. She peeled back layers of anger, indelible pain and, at times, deadly seriousness. She’d been beaten and raped. She fulminated against the way that men who abused their power could so often continue to be blindly revered. “I don’t like Picasso,” she spat. “I fucking hate him.” And for good reason: he was a philanderer and misogynist. According to Gadsby, Picasso the man was so bound to his work that it was impossible to disentangle the work from the man.
As Gadsby’s Nanette aired and went viral in June 2018, Adelaide curator Maria Zagala was busily preparing her next exhibition, Picasso: the Vollard Suite, for theArt Gallery of South Australia (AGSA). The timing for a Picasso exhibition could not have been more inopportune.
“I saw the Gadsby film and was really affected by it,” Zagala says, as she shows me around Picasso: the Vollard Suite, which comprises one hundred intaglio prints made by Picasso in the 1930s. She points out that Nanette broached subjects that are often muted in art history.
“One of the rules of art history,” says Zagala, “is that you don’t talk about the fact that Picasso represents rape, or that he’s in a relationship with a seventeen year old.”
That seventeen year old is Marie-Thérèse Walter. She met Picasso in Paris in 1928, and later fell pregnant with his child. At the time of their affair, Picasso was aged in his 40s and already married. Gadsby’s Nanette singles out this relationship as especially odious.
Purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in the 1980s, this collection of Picasso’s Vollard Suite is rare. Prints from the Vollard Suite were being sold in the 1950s individually, and most buyers ended up owning one or two. Few complete collections exist. But the prints are best viewed together, as they are here, offering a tour of some of the key motifs in Picasso’s work.
The French avant-garde art dealer Ambroise Vollard commissioned the prints in 1933. Before Vollard could arrange and display these prints, however, he died in a car crash. It was left instead to the art historian Hans Bollinger to establish an authoritative grouping in the mid-1950s. He identified seven thematic threads: The Plates, Battle of Love, Rembrandt, The Sculptor’s Studio, The Minotaur, The Blind Minotaur, and Portraits of Ambroise Vollard. Even though most curators follow this arrangement, Bollinger’s is just one interpretation of Picasso’s work.
Zagala’s own arrangement is “slightly different”. Working with Sally Foster, curator of international prints at the National Gallery of Australia, she’s tried to create a journey for viewers to follow the prints’ emotional intensity and the artist’s metamorphosis.
“We got all the prints out, looked at them ourselves, and put them in our own groupings. That entailed entering the world of the prints and trying to work out what’s happening here for ourselves.”
What was happening in Picasso’s life at the time was his affair with Marie-Thérèse, then aged in her early 20s. “He’s obsessed with her,” says Zagala. It’s no understatement. Marie-Thérèse appears in almost every one of the hundred prints.
While art historians often discern autobiography in Picasso’s work, seeing him, in the Vollard Suite, both as the sculptor enamoured of his creation and later as the Minotaur trapped in a crucible of reason and passion, Marie- Thérèse also undergoes a transformation. She appears as Picasso’s muse, lover, prey, judge and saviour.
In the most disturbing prints, Picasso depicts Marie-Thérèse being raped. Bollinger’s euphemistic description beneath them reads: The Battle of Love.
Picasso certainly isn’t the first artist to depict sexual violence, but he does so in an unconventional fashion. “Here, he’s done away with the distancing use of mythology and he’s just representing the act,” says Zagala. “They’re just these images of force and brutality, but they’re also very much based on renaissance and classical imagery. I can see he’s referencing Michelangelo’s drawings in these.”
The prints cast a terrible fray, the attacker blurred, a whirl of consuming lines. The only thing that lures the eye away from this chaos is the young woman, Marie-Therese, supine and clearly struggling. It’s a pitiful scene.
Although these prints don’t appear to condone sexual assault (they instead evoke a great deal of sympathy), showing the work of an artist like Picasso, who’s been accused of misogyny and worse, can be controversial.
Zagala says that today, in the age of #MeToo, curators face ethical issues about showcasing particular artists. “There’s definitely a cultural shift taking place,” she says. “I’m feeling it as a curator, and museums are feeling it.”
While she believes that there should be consequences, she worries that the endpoint of the revolt against artists for their actions could be censorship.
“It’s happened for example with Chuck Close, an artist in the US. He’s been accused of sexual harassment, and his works and exhibitions have been taken down.”
Gadsby’s comments in Nanette have affected the way Zagala has curated this exhibition considerably. After watching the film, she received permission from the AGSA to examine the ethics of showing Picasso’s work. As a result, the AGSA will host a public forum on interpreting Picasso’s works early next year, featuring two academics, Professor Memory Holloway, from the University of Massachusetts, and Professor Meaghan Morris, from the University of Sydney. Zagala has also provided viewers of the exhibition with a reading list to understand better the representation of power in Picasso’s art.
Back in the galleries of Picasso: the Vollard Suite, we come across more etchings of Picasso’s Minotaur, often interpreted as his alter-ego, now depicted wounded and dying in a bullring, at the mercy of female spectators.
“Here you see Marie-Thérèse looking down on him.” Zagala gestures to a row of spectators who appear to share the same adolescent face. “It’s incredibly poignant.”
After the depiction of her sexual assault, Marie-Thérèse’s reappearance as the Minotaur’s judge is striking, the power roles reversed.
“You’ve seen the artist in full power as the one who represents and makes love to the model, and then you see that transformed and the total dominance of the woman and the model, and here the artist is totally at her mercy.
“But it evolves further than that because then she becomes his salvation.”
We enter a small dimly lit room, set apart from the rest of the exhibition, squinting to see the prints that hang on the wall and show the Minotaur again, now blind, his unseeing eyes raised aloft, guided by a girl. The girl once again bears the face of Picasso’s teenage lover.
“He’s totally dependent,” says Zagala, looking sympathetically at the blinded Minotaur. “There couldn’t be anything worse for an artist.”
The young Marie-Thérèse radiates the print’s only source of light. Picasso’s Minotaur seems to be insensate to everything but her. From the virile beast of earlier prints, who disported himself in orgies, he finds himself capable only of following his young guide, in all other respects impotent.
Picasso: The Vollard Suite is showing at the Art Gallery of South Australia until 28 January 2019. The AGSA will also host a public forum on Picasso and #MeToo on 1 February 2019. View further details about the forum here.