At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on the occasion of 'Picasso and the Weeping Women: The Years of Marie-Thérèse Walter and Dora Maar,' the dichotomy reigns. Take the colour of the walls, which alternates between the spectacular (aubergine and mustard) and the funereal (dove grey). Or what hangs upon those walls: a miscellany of female body parts - dagger-like nails, egg cup eyes, comma-shaped nostrils, tongues as spears, arms as leaves, breasts as targets - versus an overarching vision of woman as muse, as smooth and uninterrupted as a waking dream.
'A Muse creates nothing by herself; she is a calm, wise Sibyl, putting herself with docility at the service of a master.' Simone de Beauvoir put it thus in The Second Sex; Picasso couldn't have said it better himself - and though he was indeed fond of anatomical contortions, one doesn't imagine he would have meant it (as de Beauvoir did) tongue in cheek.
How does the museum mean for us to read this maxim, emblazoned upon the wall next to a small photograph of the young Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom Picasso picked up outside Galeries Lafayette only to transform into a succession of relentlessly fertile flower-goddesses? And what about this quote, plastered on another wall, from Picasso's follow-up mistress, Dora Maar, the surrealist photographer whom curator Judi Freeman labels 'relatively sophisticated': 'They're all Picassos, not one is Dora Maar... Do you think I care? Does Madame Cézanne care? Does Saskia Rembrandt care?'
How Maar herself meant this string of questions to be taken cannot be answered, for the context is erased entirely. So too, is any discourse - critical, theoretical, speculative, historical - that might upset the dichotomy, and attendant hierarchy, between master and muse that this exhibition shamelessly enshrines.
Picasso is every feminist's bête noire. Here is a man who enjoyed pitting the women in his life against one another (Françoise Gilot quotes Picasso on what happened when Walter and Maar insisted he choose between them: 'I was satisfied with things as they were. I told them they'd have to fight it out themselves. So they began to wrestle. It's one of my choicest memories.') He distorted these women's likenesses so as to represent his own paranoid delusions, sadistic reveries, and post-adolescent fantasies; and produced art so unutterably beautiful one simply doesn't care.
There is certainly a case to be made for the irrelevance of biography. An artist's virtues and vices may be alternately titillating or illuminating, but unveiling the life, or worse yet, psychoanalysing the artist, sheds more light upon the analyst than the analysand. (Pity poor Maar whom, decades after their liaison had ended, Picasso 'rescued' from the psychiatric hospital at Sainte-Anne only to place in the hands of analyst Jacques Lacan.)
But what happens when the museum explicitly foregrounds biography, as it has here - when the show opens with a massive time-line which breaks Picasso's career into periods named after the women he slept with at those times; when the wall text that announces each of those periods is accompanied by a photograph and physical description of the woman in question: when the work on view - the series of 'Weeping Women' Picasso painted obsessively from January to November of 1937, initially developed as he struggled with the imagery for Guernica - is reduced to a manifestation of the 'trauma' occasioned by the artist's tireless womanising of the 20s and 30s?
What happens is that the museum accepts (or should accept) a responsibility to interrogate that biography, to question the conditions under which the relationships that ostensibly fostered the work flourished and collapsed. Why is Picasso's fixation upon women's tears never analysed, beyond the reference to the tradition of the mater dolorosa? If Picasso wrung the women in his life dry, distilling them into essences (shrewishness, abundance, sorrow), why does the museum follow suit? What of the fact that Maar was not a 'relatively sophisticated' photographer, but one of the few women to exhibit work in the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936? Why were none of her photographs shown here, especially Portrait of Ubu, a 1936 image of a praying mantis which inspired certain etchings Picasso produced the following year?
To show Maar's work would be to undermine the mythology that governs this exhibition. The muse cannot be permitted to speak: she can only be spoken for. Here, the museum recapitulates the same retrograde strategy that informed the Museum of Modern Art's characteristic and much-criticised 'Primitivism' and 'High and Low' shows: one half of a complex equation is denied all particularity, allotted merely a supporting role. Where African statuary was homogenised and reduced to inspiration for the European avant-garde, and 60s graphic design into fodder for Andy Warhol, so a group of women become nothing more than Picasso's artistic material - lumpen, accommodating, and mute. In the museum, in the service of the dichotomy, misinformation (not to mention sexism, racism and elitism) triumphs once again.
First published in Issue 17