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The Ignorant Imperative: Hannah Gadsby on Pablo Picasso

The humourless comedian Hannah Gadsby has much to thank one of the twentieth century’s titans of art. By placing him in the stockade of feminist disapproval, the Australian was picking the easiest target and avoiding the most profound questions of his oeuvre. To be so personal, and play the man with such indignation, is the first refuge of the talentless.

While Gadsby’s Netflix run known as Nanette happily dabbled with Picasso as the problem figure for women, a mere phallic “kaleidoscope filter” who was “rotten in the face cavity”, another frontier needed to be conquered. Art graduate credentials stirred. Dangerously, Gadsby felt that it was worthwhile to actually move into a field her target was infinitely far more gifted at than her, though not a fact she would ever dare admit. (Patriarchy tends to operate as a one-word pejorative, much like communism to the red baiter or cosmopolitanism to the Stalinist.) Enter the Brooklyn Museum art exhibition It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby, curated by Gadsby with the assistance of Catherine Morris and Lisa Small.

This chaotic, streaky effort keeps company with something like a dozen exhibitions and events intended to mark the 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death in 1973. Artists in the exhibition have been selected to provide feminist ripostes to the misogynist ogre, with some the pieces coming after the artist’s death. The work of Betty Tompkins, Joan Semmel, Kaleta Doolin, Kathe Köllwitz and Maria Martins find room, but they do so within the gravitational pull of Picasso’s own stifling gravitas, which seems to exert a dwarfing effect.

Discordantly for Gadsby, the choice artists are not exactly in accord with her art-artist divide, one which holds that decent art comes from decent souls. Semmel is happy to admit loving Picasso’s work, marvelling “at the ground it has broken, opening new doors into seeing.” Kiki Smith holds much the same view. “As a printmaker I know very few who can get anywhere near the depth of his understanding and his playfulness.”

The textual and audio contributions from Gadsby are cringingly childish. Beside Reclining Nude (1932), itself a Picasso feature, she finds the image uncomfortable because the breasts “can look like a sideways owl and two doughnuts – at the same time.” And forget anything valuable about the sketch selections from the Vollard Suite. “I’m not going to sell these works by contextualising them in terms of PP’s technical prowess because I just don’t care.”

As Alex Greenberger writes with damning precision, the choices have little to say about Picasso per se, and suggest the impossibility of re-centring art history if the man being centred remains Picasso. What is neglected is the work of such figures as the late Françoise Gilot and Dora Maar, at times tormented lovers of Picasso who would have provided ideal counterpoints of modernism to the man. “It would’ve been nice to have more artists who were thinking about Picasso, or whose work, at least, has something to do with him. But this seems like too much to ask from the curators, especially Gadsby, who greets that line of thinking with a big, fat raspberry.” As the audio guide accompanying the exhibition says, “We are unsettled. That’s a little joke. Or is it? I don’t know.” Indeed.

It would be churlish to ignore the fact that Picasso the man has been very much in darker news columns, both artistic and more general, over the decades. That he was a brute, uncharitable, and dismissive at points about women is a point so obvious as to be almost dull. The nasty produce good art. Discuss.

Of greater interest were those feminist revisionists in the vanguard, ready to pounce. Linda Nochlin readied a Molotov cocktail in her 1971 ARTnews essay and hurled it at his reputation with full force. Precocious he may have been, and adept as to make it to the Academy of Art in Madrid at the tender age of 15, but what if he had been born a girl? The making of art, she suggested, had been rendered into a “semi-religious” form, tying art historians, critics and artists themselves to a credo and cult. But there is nothing of that subtlety or relevance to feature in Gadsby’s puerile effusions, which never move much beyond the anger of undergraduate resentment.

The curators have been trying to defend their shabby choice of Gadsby and the selections. For them, any criticism is bound to be a confirmation of their choice, an affirmation of their mountain bound wisdom. If men make a point about art, then they are merely being “Pablo-matic”. Well done: make another audio, and whilst you are at it, pop a video on TikTok. Gadsplainer, rise!

Gadsby might be mortified (who knows? Who cares?) about another curious parallel, but her attack on Picasso takes the form much in keeping with those habitual philistines who populated the various art galleries of Australia between the two World Wars. There were also a few truly salty critics doing a particularly vicious line in anti-Semitism. When it came to art commentators such as Sir Lionel Lindsay, Picasso was to be hated as that “Jew from Malaga”, very much part of a broader disease of “modern art” peddled by a sinister cabal of Jewish art dealers and their accomplices.

We can be thankful that Gadsby merely hates Picasso for supposedly not supplying adequately informed perspectives of women and merely focusing on the phallus as a kaleidoscope. What proved more telling was her mistake in not picking the works of women who could rightly challenge his standing by giving him a good serve of their own artistic merit.


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  1. Noel Wauchope

    While I’m quite a fan of Dr Kampmark’s writing, on this occasion, I am very disappointed. This condemnation of Hannah Gadsby, and written in such a smartarse style – is just plain wrong.

    On this occasion, I do feel that I have a tiny bit of clout – as I did Fine Arts as my major for an Arts degree at Melbourne University. Prof Joseph Burke ran the show, and he was very good, as was the other lecturer, a woman, whose name I cannot now recall. The thing was, when it came to artists who were my very favourites – these lecturers more or less rubbished them – dismissed them as not really artistic. My favourites were the Pre Raphaelites, and Eugene von Guerard. They dismissed von Guerard as “chocolate-box pictures” – when I thought that his paintings were spiritual and beautiful.

    It wasn’t until Hannah Gadsby ran her series of art programmes on the ABC that at last I heard and saw an art historian that I could understand and really enjoy.
    And, by the way, I’ve always loathed Picasso’s work.

  2. Canguro

    Opinions are bound to vary and to differ in degrees ranging from the merely mild or tepid & possibly indifferent to the passionately vitriolic in both senses of advocacy for and against the protagonists. The subject of Hannah Gadsby was last raised in this forum on the passing of the late Barry Humphries, and included an embedded Twitter tweet from Gadsby which was noted for its discourteous misandry. While nobody denies her her right to hold whatever views she feels entitled to lay claim to, or for that matter, express publicly, the question of wider acceptance of those views is another matter altogether.

    I noted at the time that in terms of overall contribution to the arts, as a prolific performer, humorist, satirist, along with other endeavours such as painting, writing, along with taking part in talking fora, Humphries outranked Gadsby by a very generous country mile and it was, on balance, highly unlikely that her limited appeal would ever come close to even a fingernail’s worth of the output of Humphries when measured across his very considerable career span.

    Tall poppy syndrome perhaps, or perhaps merely an angry dyke with an axe to grind.

    Such would also appear to be the case with respect to Gadsby’s effort to satirise and denigrate Picasso in her underwhelming effort currently on display in Brooklyn. Reviews are less than gushing. No doubt she’s put her best foot forward, but as Binoy Kampmark points out, Picasso’s problematic personality and misogynistic treatment of women is hardly breaking news, and although no justification for his behaviour, perhaps a more nuanced awareness of the Spanish genius’s background and heritage might go some way to explaining why it was that he behaved as he did, being born in late 19th C. in Malaga and raised in typically Latin macho culture.

    Explanation might provide context but doesn’t excuse abysmal behaviour, but nevertheless, when taken as an artefact of the explosive creativity of the 20th century’s most famous and feted artist, where does one draw the line? Is Gadsby’s ill-tempered view a function of an unrealistic expectation that Senor Picasso ought to have behaved like a timid accountant’s clerk, quietly tucked away in the back office, poking his work out from under the door, and meekly seeking the views of others as to how they rated. If so, and I’m not suggesting that is her view, but if so, it suggests a seriously deficient understanding of the nature of pure genius and the forces at work in such an individual.

    All are entitled to their own views, and for what it’s worth, mine is that no-one has earned the right to criticise the the work of others when the critic sits at the foot of the mountain and views his target and their works perched aloft on the summit. Such that choose to so do will be judged accordingly and generally in a negative light.

  3. New England Cocky

    Uhm ….. who is Hannah Gadsby and what has she painted recently?

  4. Anne Naomi Byam

    May I second the remarks in comment by Noel Wauchope, in their entirety. Well said Noel.

    Most would believe that people view art from a subjective stance … and if an artist puts forward their work, and importantly earns reputation and ( a lot of ? ) money from it, then the artist and their art, can be viewed and critiqued, by anyone at all. It does NOT have to be reserved for the peers of the artist to make comment.

    Canguro … furthermore, In my opinion – ( differing from others of course which is as it is with art ) I am one person who cannot tolerate the imagery put on canvas by Picasso. It is an insult to people, male and female… ( not necessarily only women even though he was a mysogonistic little horror ). To call him a genius is in my opinion completely off the mark. Yet many before you, Canguro, have done just that. I do not shy away from modern art and how it does or does not speak to me, just his and a couple of others. No surprise that old masters are preferred.

    Genius ??

    More like an early 20th century shock jock, with paint brush in hand. !!

    ( once again my subjective opinion only )

  5. Canguro

    Anne Naomi Byam, yes, well, with regards to your second para, ok, that fits with contemporary viewpoints… anyone can be a critic and anyone’s viewpoint has as much validity as anyone’s else. It goes a long way towards explaining why the world is going to hell in a handbasket, when we have to give equal weight to the views expressed by lunatics, eccentrics, fascists, egomaniacs and narcissists along with the sober and considered perspectives of those who may just have made a serious study of the topic under consideration. This one likes it, that one loathes it, a third considers it banal, a fourth infantile, yet another considers it the work or rare genius and so on. Are all to be given equal weight and consideration? One would run oneself ragged (and maddened) trying to achieve the impossible and find accommodation for all these differing views.

    Where, in fact, does the truth of the matter reveal itself?

    And, just to refine the focus, what is truth anyway, in this artistic context?

    There existed a time, it was noted by a man who knew what he knew, when art was objective, that is to say that each piece of art – whether visual or aural, paintings or music – had an identical impact on anyone who was exposed to the presence of these works. A long time ago… possibly not prehistory but certainly in the very distant past. Grecian and Roman relics and artefacts hint at this time. People were taught differently, and these realms had a much greater psychological significance than modern works afford… actually it’s possible to say that much of the modern works of visual art are nothing more than subjective & meaningless junk.

    Too much is made of the artist as a tragic being, pouring out his suffering on the canvas; Francis Bacon for example, or the madman Dali, van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Jeff Koons, Jackson Pollock, others almost too many to mention occupy the shallow pond of modern art where works sell like hotcakes to a gullible and ignorant but eager audience of equally shallow consumers and collectors while as always and everywhere art houses and agents pump the market and prime the gullible when there are dollars to be made.

    These people occupy a different field to the masters of the Renaissance period, or the Impressionists; different mindsets, different psychologies. More materialistic. I don’t believe Picasso was of that ilk… he was not obsessed with the sale but with the creation.

    I stand by the claim that he, by virtue of extraordinary output and cross-media capacity – paintings, ceramics, sculpture – was an outstanding example deserving of the title ‘genius’. Just as we accord the same to the great classical composers like Mozart, Bach and Beethoven to name a few from the much wider field… but no-one is accurately calling any modern composer a genius, nor should any contemporary artist be similarly accorded. And Picasso wasn’t a one-shot wonder – he had, throughout his life, a range of styles.

    With respect, I fail, entirely, to see how a piece such as Guernica can be labelled as an insult ‘to people, male and female’… a work of extreme passion in dedication to the people slaughtered by the Germans in that Basque town in 1937. A little more nuance would make your argument more acceptable. Picasso is not a man who can be comfortably squeezed into a small box and labelled accordingly.

  6. wam

    Picasso, a genius, painter, potter, poet(check on the net) was 19 when queen vic died.
    Think of his attitudes, sexist, racist and imbued with the truth of hypermasculinity? QED
    In my lifetime, the productions from Spain have all projected the attitudes of picasso.
    The Spanish society, has been unable to move passed his era.
    (Project by 17-year-old student Alicia Ródenas is being used in schools to deal with sexism)

    Certainly, Gadsby will find minipicassos, rampant mysogyny hypermasculinity throughout both American and Australian religious society and in politics.
    But if she was serious she would get her comedy from the bible belt with its sexism, racism and homophobia that would render picasso harmless.

  7. leefe

    Talk about cherry-picking.

    Gadsby does not undervalue Picasso’s contribution to art. But she does critique both the limitations of that contribution and the artist himself. And yes, much of that evaluation is from a feminist viewpoint and is, in my personal opinion, entirely valid. Nasty people can produce great works of art. Genius can co-exist with arrogance, exclusion, bigotry, misbehaviour, contempt for others. Genius does not excuse bad behaviour and bad treatment of others.

    Patriarchal society really does not like to have its icons questioned, does it?

  8. Caz

    I know little about art but I know what I like. Picasso, Klimt, Van Gogh, Monet, all beat the Old Masters for creativity and vibrancy. I’ll take Barry Humphries over Hannah every time. Pure genius.

  9. Clakka

    Quite a few weeks ago, I read about the ‘exhibition’ (?), viewed various images, and the various reviews and commentary, and left it behind as being largely an inconsequential aggravation, except maybe to those of Brooklyn and New York arts community.


    Binoy’s worth a read, a tad strident, and certainly late on the scene.

    Love the comments, some right at the edge of ‘Cancel Culture’ and the politics of style. But identify largely with those of Canguro and am amused by NEC’s. And yes Leefe, maybe so, but neither does feminist society and the many others.

  10. frances

    Having struggled through a background in the arts and lost myself in the Melbourne arts/letters arts scene prior to being radicalised by certain cruelly discriminatory and mindless male attitudes of the day, I rather thought I had mellowed nicely into less militant and more tolerant perspectives whilst retaining some capacity for critical thinking (disclosure: especially after acquiring a clinical psychology degree and later commencing a PhD in the psychology of art).

    But nothing quite prepared me for Hannah Gadsby’s ABC endorsement of the appalling child exploitation by the Melbourne celebrity child photographer during her populist NGV art series for the ABC, where a segment on ‘the nude in art’ somehow justified surrendering every feminist and humanistic principle to bums on seats. Here Gadsby found herself quickly out of her depth during what was no doubt intended to be an accessible stroll through art history but which here proved itself a naive, reckless and arrogant overreach permitting a truly nasty artist to throughly groom her and, in turn, groom her audience.

    My professional complaint to ACMA was, naturally enough, politely acknowledged and ignored.

    After being totally overcome by my first sight of Cezanne’s paintings in the original some decades ago at the Musee D’Orsay, I should have been prepared for my first sight of Picasso’s work at the Musee National Picasso which, thrillingly, also brought me to tears. Each Picasso show brought to Australia since has had the same immense and wonderful impact on me. I just can’t help it.

    But I do wonder how I would have reacted to revelations that Picasso was a child-obsessed sociopath instead of the spoiled and self-centred genius that he was? Shatteringly disappointed, for a start – I know what that feels like given my time spent in a brutally philistine sexist art milieu so long ago. But the tenderness of his brushstrokes and colouration and the dedication and perfection of his relentless explorations into new territories of visual and emotional expression belie the double life essential to such darker purposes: his self-obsession occupied all the available psychic space, to the occasional great suffering of many others.

    As Picasso once remarked somewhat ruefully, in some sense pathetically, ” painting is all I know how to do”.

  11. leefe


    Nah, he was also pretty good at being an arsehole. Genius and jerk in one neat package.


    I don’t have a problem with much of so-called leftist cancel culture. People are entitled to withdraw their patronage of companies, institutions, teams, artists for whatever reason they like, including behaviour they find unacceptable.
    Still, no-one is trying to cancel Picasso as an artist. What is being attempted is an honest examination of the less savoury aspects of his personality and behaviour.

    Agreed, no-one appreciates others pointing out the clay feet of their idols. Butt mainstream society is a patriarchal construct, with patriarchal operation, and it has the power to punish those who expose truths they don’t like. It’s not sensitivity that is the issue, it’s the combination of sensitivity and power.

  12. Harry Lime

    Frances, like Caz above,I know little about art,but isn’t art subjective? Isn’t it why so much pop culture is laced with garbage?You don’t have to be an aficionado to be moved to tears by art.I certainly have been, whether it is poetry,music or architecture.Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,hopefully with a few functioning neurons.To repeat a hackneyed phrase,there’s a fine line between genius and insanity.
    Personally,I love Picasso’s genius.Even Jesus wasn’t perfect..he had a vindictive father, and allegedly,was smitten by a harlot.

  13. leefe


    Mary Magdalene was not a “harlot”, nor was she the woman at the well (who wasn’t a “harlot”, either, but that’s another story). She was an unmarried woman with independent means, from whom JC supposedly cast out demons, following which she joined the group and helped to finance it. The whole sex worker take on her was brought in centuries later by Pope Gregory #whatever-it-was-I-can’t-remember

  14. Harry Lime

    leefe,I’m just overcome by the idea that Jesus was prone to the same failings that we all have, that is , believing our own bullshit,that’s not to say he might have done a few good things.Harlot or not ,I love her.The Popes should know,they had plenty of practice.

  15. leefe

    Personally, if they actually existed, and if he survived, I hope they ran off somewhere quiet and went at it like rabbits for the rest of their lives.

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