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925 Silver Collection

Picasso: Drawing on Misogyny by Margaret Hawkins

Goon Mili, “Picasso Wearing a Cow’s Head Mask on Beach at
Golfe Juan Near Vallauris,” 1949, photograph for LIFE Magazine.

Recently, a young woman told me that her painting professor took her class to see “Picasso: Drawing from Life,” at the Art Institute of Chicago, and that she and the rest of her class walked out after just a few minutes. They refused to look at the work of this misogynist. To them, the work’s beauty, inventiveness, historical significance, and instructive qualities were outweighed by the artist’s biography.


Picasso, as we all know now, was mean — violent, selfish, predatory, heartless, petty, epically unfaithful to the women in his life. He was a womanizer who alternately romanced and bullied his lovers. He once burned Francoise Gilot’s face with a cigarette, then painted a portrait of her with the burn mark. He wasn’t very nice to men either. Ironically, the show is organized around the stated theme of Picasso’s collaborations with models, wives, lovers, dealers, and friends.


I approached the show with curiosity and trepidation. Although I’ve walked past Picassos at every major museum I’ve been to, I haven’t spent time with the artist’s work since the #MeToo movement went viral in 2017.  Would I also be moved to flee? It would feel good to take a stand.

Pablo Picasso, “The Minotaur,” 1933, pen and brush and black ink
and brush and gray wash on blue wove paper, 18 15/16 x 24 13/16”.
Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, © 2018 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society, New York.

But how can you resist those beautiful drawings? Instantly I fell under their familiar spell. To me, Picasso’s best work has always been his drawings, and this show has some great ones. My favorites are the minotaurs, half-man, half-bull, all beast. Hairy, wooly, lustful, they’re like adorable stuffed animals but with sex organs and broad shoulders and limitless confidence, beautified stand-ins for the artist or at least his id.

Picasso, like countless other artists, romanticizes sexual force and its potential for violence. The museum is not insensitive to the issue. Apologetic wall text makes sincere efforts to address this concern and the drawings chosen for this show are not the famously priapic ones. Curatorial decisions were clearly aimed at attracting wide audiences and many children were present the day I saw the show. Still, there were many objections to the show itself.

James Mason and Sue Lyon in still from “Lolita,” 1962, directed by Stanley Kubrick.

Until recently no one saw Picasso’s private life as an obstacle to enjoying his work. But the era of the great artist who gets a pass on bad behavior is over, for now at least. #MeToo exploded it. Now we think twice about rewatching “Rosemary’s Baby” or rereading “The Sun Also Rises.” The works make us think of the men who made them.  But if it hurts to look, it also hurts to look away, to give up on art we love. Claire Dederer’s book, “Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma,” written in the wake of this sea change and published in 2023, explores that dilemma [See Bill Lasarow’s “Monster Feminism” Substack piece of April 4th—Ed]. 

The problem, according to Dederer, is not only the ethical balancing act. It is also a psychological one. She points out that people like bad boys. There’s something in us that craves a rebel, even a cynical one. And the ethical problem is more complex than deciding whether you think great art is worth putting up with bad behavior. Canceling art because the artist committed despicable acts is by any other name censorship. And that, in my book, is also a despicable act. Even if you can live with that, subjecting one’s aesthetic choices to a checklist of moral values is not, on balance, going to yield art that satisfies. Great art disarms and pierces us, not always in a nice way.

Part of the mistake of measuring art by the decency of its theme or the behavior of the person who created it is equating genius with admirability. Dederer points out that artists with huge creative energy wield huge power and as we all know, power tends to corrupt. It numbs people to others’ needs and there may be no greater power than creativity. When the arrogance of creative genius is paired with male entitlement, people lacking that same power get mowed down. Picasso found himself in command of a force that filled him with fire and he took advantage, but it would be absurd to discard the products of this force. Better to simply demythologize the people who wield this power. To Dederer’s credit, she includes women in the full spectrum of bad behavior. To do otherwise would be to perpetuate the myth that women are better, “above” men, incapable of either monstrousness or genius. That’s its own sexist trope. 


Caravaggio, “Young Sick Bacchus,” 1593, oil on canvas, 26 x 21”. Courtesy of the Borghese Gallery, Rome.

The question is, what do we do with great art produced by terrible people? Caravaggio murdered a man. The sublime Balthus liked to paint little girls with their skirts pulled up. If you open the despicability sweepstakes to writers, things get really ugly. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote one of the most beautiful books in the English language at the age of 29, reportedly plundered his schizophrenic wife Zelda’s diaries for material for a later book. Great comedians are artists, too, and serial rapist Bill Cosby was one of the greats. That guy was funny. Maybe as a convicted criminal he still is. What about great fictional characters that commit monstrous acts? Are we willing to give up Humbert Humbert? I’m not.


Art that’s been passed through a sanitizing strainer is not art anymore, it’s propaganda.

I admire the young woman and her classmates who left the Picasso show.  In a way, I envy them.  But I cannot share their purity of principle.  They are young and perhaps have never encountered the darker side of loved ones or themselves. They might not fully grasp yet that darkness resides in us all and that beating it back is the task of a lifetime.

 Tanaka Yu, “Bag Work,” 2018, ceramic. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Luckily, that young woman is not only principled, she’s also a quick thinker. Immediately, she led her class to “Radical Clay,” an adjacent exhibit of contemporary ceramic sculpture by Japanese women. Konno Tomoko’s “Liberation” looks like a sea creature, half-flora, half-fauna. Katsumata Chieko’s’s pumpkins resemble female genitalia. The most beautiful, “Bag Work” by Tanaka Yu, is inspired by furoshiki, the Japanese practice of wrapping gifts and precious objects in cloth.  This porcelain form mimics the soft, sensuous folds of luxurious fabric. The piece is crowned with a glorious knot that seals the package and bars us from entry. One might surmise that the enclosure contains a woman’s secret. Glazed in color like that of the flesh of ripe mango, the piece positively glows.


These objects are the exact opposite of Picasso’s drawings, as quiet and recessive as Picasso’s work is aggressive and exhibitionist. But I am grateful to have seen both shows. As for the great man, he was awful. I’m glad he’s not around anymore to terrorize and seduce women, but I’ll never not love how he draws.


Mathieu Laca, “Ernest Hemingway,” 2017, oil on canvas, 48 x 42”. Courtesy of the artist.

Absolutism about Picasso is a symptom of a larger problem. So many now feel they must live by a code that doesn’t allow for nuance. Recently I heard an interview with Nobel Prize winning physicist Saul Perlmutter about his book “Third Millennium Thinking.” Written with Robert MacCoun and John Campbell, the book is about how to apply scientific methods to solve problems in daily life. The authors recommend that we adopt “opinion budgets,” limiting ourselves to few snap judgments the way some writers commit to an exclamation point budget of five in a lifetime. It’s hard to imagine our judgmental society could ever do that but, to quote Ernest Hemingway, that famously eloquent misogynist, isn’t it pretty to think so?

Margaret Hawkins is a writer, critic and educator. Her books include “Lydia’s Party” (2015), “How We Got Barb Back” (2011) a memoir about family mental illness, and others. She wrote a column about art for the Chicago Sun-Times, was Chicago correspondent for ARTnews, and has written for a number of other publications including The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Art & Antiques and Fabrik. She teaches writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Loyola University. Visit Margaret Hawkins’ website.
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