FOCUS: Is Picasso being cancelled?

Fifty years after the Spanish artist's death, the debate around Pablo Picasso's ill treatment of women is heating up. Could he posthumously suffer the consequences of modern-day cancel culture?

FOCUS: Is Picasso being cancelled?
Spanish painter Pablo Picasso in Mougins (France) in 1971. (Photo by RALPH GATTI / AFP)

Pablo Picasso‘s track-record with women certainly would not make him a feminist pin-up today.

There were two wives, at least six mistresses and countless lovers — with a tendency to abandon women when they became ill, a voracious appetite for prostitutes, and some eye-popping age differences (his second wife was 27 when he married her at 79).

Some of the quotes attributed to him would probably cause Twitter’s servers to combust if he said them now (“For me there are only two kinds of women: goddesses and doormats”).

None of this is new — it has been recycled through books and articles from (sometimes traumatised) family members since soon after his death in 1973.

But in a post-MeToo world, it poses a challenge for those who manage his legacy.

“Obviously MeToo tarnished the artist,” said Cecile Debray, director of the Picasso Museum in Paris. 

But she added: “The attacks are undoubtedly all the more violent because Picasso is the most famous and popular figure in modern art — an idol that must be destroyed.”

Spanish painter Pablo Picasso posing with models during a ceramic exhibition  in Vallauris (southern France) in 1958.  (Photo by ARCHIVE / INTERCONTINENTALE / AFP)

‘Perverse, destructive’

Not that the issue is being brushed under the carpet.

The Paris museum has recently invited women artists to respond to the debate, including “Weeping Women Are Angry” by French painter Orlan (a reference to one of his most famous portraits, “The Weeping Woman”).

The sister museum in Barcelona is holding workshops and talks this May with art historians and sociologists to unpack the issue.

The experts are, however, critical of some recent hit-jobs on their beloved master.

An award-winning French podcast on the topic has reignited the debate, leaning heavily on a 2017 book by journalist Sophie Chauveau, “Picasso, the Minotaur”, for whom the artist was “violent… jealous… perverse… destructive”.

Debray said some of their claims were “anachronistic” and given to “conjecture and assertions without historical references”.

But she still welcomed the challenge, saying: “The history of art is nourished by the questions of our time and new generations.”

Christie’s employees in front of Picasso’s ‘Tete de femme au chapeau’ in 2011. AFP PHOTO / CARL COURT (Photo by CARL COURT / AFP)

‘Animal sexuality’

Nor is it simple to separate the artist from the art.

Of her grandfather’s women, Marina Picasso once wrote: “He submitted them to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them, and crushed them onto his canvas.”

But, says another grandchild Olivier Picasso, depicting Picasso as a monster risks removing the agency of the women who loved him.

Some, like Marie-Therese Walter, were young and vulnerable muses who felt discarded (she later killed herself), he told AFP.

But others, like Francoise Gilot, knew exactly what they were getting with Picasso and had no problem walking away when they had had enough.

“Some came out of it well, but for others it went badly,” he said. “It’s all very complicated — these women don’t resemble each other.”

The paintings themselves show some of that complexity.

“There are violent works, others that are very tender, very soft… Each time, after exhausting his inspiration, he moves on to something else,” he said.

“Women were necessary to his creations and without them, there would have been something missing.”

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Queen Letizia and Prince Charles inaugurate first UK museum of Spanish art

Queen Letizia of Spain teamed up with Britain's Prince Charles on Tuesday to inaugurate the first UK museum dedicated exclusively to Spanish art, which is part of an ambitious town regeneration effort.

Queen Letizia and Prince Charles inaugurate first UK museum of Spanish art

Letizia, 49, and the 73-year-old British heir to the throne visited the new “Spanish Gallery” in Bishop Auckland, in northeast England, which boasts one of Europe’s best-preserved bishop’s palaces.

The gallery is home to around 120 works by great Spanish masters of the 16th and 17th centuries, from El Greco and Murillo to Velasquez and Juan de Juanes.

It is inspired by an exceptional collection of paintings by fellow Spaniard Francisco de Zurbaran, which have sat for centuries in the nearby castle.

Philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer and his wife Jane, who are behind the new showcase, purchased the 12 paintings as well as the palace in 2012 after learning the artworks were for sale.

The painting had resided there since a powerful local bishop acquired them in 1756, but were in danger of being uprooted from their longtime home.Jonathan of 70 years was unable to attend after contracting Covid-19.

Britain’s Prince Charles, Prince of Wales (C) and Spain’s Queen Letizia (R) walk through The Spanish Art Gallery in Bishop Aukland. (Photo by RUSSELL CHEYNE / POOL / AFP)

Jonathan Ruffer, 70, was unable to attend after contracting Covid-19.

“He tought it was a real shame, a sadness for the town, and so he thought we should buy the paintings,” Jane Ruffer told reporters on the fringes of the royals’ visit.

“In the end, we got the paintings and the castle and the grounds,” she explained.

“The question then was what to do with it?”

Jane Ruffer noted that the town had traditionally served the castle and its bishop over the centuries, but the couple wanted to reverse that with their present-day venture.

A decade and £200 million pounds ($262 million, 240 million euros) later, the palace now comprises galleries, gardens and parks, with the Zurbarán paintings on display there.

It opened to the public in 2019 after a lengthy restoration, and together with the new Spanish Gallery in the town centre, are “a long-term project” for the couple.

The gallery, which first welcomed visitors in October, is now Britain’s largest collection of Golden Age paintings outside London and the only museum in the country devoted to Spanish art.

“Some (museums) have a room, but the Meadows (Museum) in Texas and this here are the only dedicated Spanish galleries,” said Ruffer, who spent a decade alongside her husband finding and acquiring the pieces at auction

Home to around 24,000 people, Bishop Auckland has been in decline since the closure of the coal mines at the end of the last century and now suffers from high unemployment.

The Ruffers are hoping the sites will become atractions drawing in tourists, helping to boost the local economy and the need for hotels, restaurants and other enterprises.