Drawing the line - Can you adore the art of an abuser?
by The Dyás Admin·
I am eight years old and stand, in total awe, in front of original artworks of one of the world’s most famous artists. My hometown is hosting a travelling exhibition of original linocuts, showing the various stages of their creation. I stare at the linoleum blocks, the different cutting and carving tools, while my mum reads out loud the descriptions next to the objects and prints. I am most intrigued by the print of Portrait of a Woman after Cranach the Younger. She’s odd, she’s different, yet so colourful and vibrant and sits with poise, commanding all my attention.
When we leave, I beg my mother to buy the exhibition book, featuring all the artworks we have just admired. Again and again I flick the pages to Portrait of a Woman and compare it to the original, unable to make up my mind which one I am more mesmerised by.
From that moment on, I am in love, and even more so when I find out that a painting in my room, Child with a Dove, has been painted by the same artist.
Child with a Dove- Pablo Picasso
Fast forward twenty years, and I stand in New York City on a blustery and rainy day in December. I stare up at the impressive Guggenheim Museum and am eager to get in. Hundreds of paintings and artworks by my favourite painters are waiting for me inside and I am giddy with anticipation. I wander amongst the paintings, getting told off for stepping too close, soaking them in and smiling to myself. How lucky am I to see the art of my favourite artist? How lucky am I to come close to the genius that is Pablo Picasso?
The hidden truth
A quick search on the Internet on Picasso throws up a wealth of information on everything about him: his life, his art, his style, his achievements, his legacy, and even a conspiracy that he may or may not have been connected to a heist in the Louvre. A now archived page from the BBC (2014) describes Picasso as “widely acknowledged to be the most important artist of the 20th century.” A page for Tate Kids (2022) calls Picasso “one of the most famous artists of the twentieth-century [...] because he was brilliant at drawing. [He also] helped us see the world in new ways.”
I want to cling to these pages and skip over to all those magnificent paintings he created, all those absurd masterworks of cubism (which he is credited for inventing together with George Braque [Tate, 2022]). I want to dissect his art and its vibrancy and beauty, but this time, something stops me. Pablo Picasso was not only Pablo Picasso, the world famous artist. He was also Pablo Picasso, the abuser.
In an article discussing the abusiveness of a number of well-known artists, Ruth Millington (2020) writes that Picasso was not only a womaniser who regularly cheated on the women he was with, but also regarded and treated them as objects that could be disposed of. He is said to have mentally, emotionally and physically abused m women and was quoted saying: “Every time I change wives I should burn the last one. That way I’d be rid … You kill the woman and you wipe out the past she represents” (Millington, 2020). While Picasso was able to portray women beautifully and with skill and finesse, his misogynistic attitudes and behaviour now overshadows the brilliance of those works - for me at least.
Can and should we separate artist and art?
I ask the same question as Millington (2020) but I face more than one dilemma:
- Can you morally admire someone’s artistic work yet be appalled by his or her actions?
- Why are museums, galleries and the Internet so unforthcoming about the dark side of those artists?
I don’t claim to be an art fanatic and I didn’t study art. I read the news and I am an open-minded and informed citizen. But I can’t help but wonder: Is it my own ignorance that has prevented me from knowing that my once favourite artist abused women? Or have museums, the art-elite, and society at large been protecting Picasso's legacy?
Picasso is in good company, as the list of creatives, artists who have also been abusers, is rather long. Many are no longer alive but their legacies live on, albeit often shaded by the harrowing details of their past abuses. Eric Gill, hailed as one of “the greatest British artists of the 20th century” (Cooke, 2017), sexually abused his daughters for years, yet museums displaying his art have traditionally avoided sharing those facts with exhibition visitors. In 2017, an exhibition about Eric Gill and his works openly dealt with his past and displayed some of his work in New light - including sketches that used his daughters as models. But many still claim that, despite his dark past, he is an extraordinary artist whose work can and should be admired in spite of the man who made it, and the horrifying connotations of some of the pieces he produced. (Cooke, 2017)
There is no easy answer to this and more research and in-depth conversations need to be had. As a start, Millington (2020) suggests, “curators’ narratives and wall labels need to share the true story behind problematic artworks’ creation and makers." Honesty and transparency should be essential in any industry, but are especially important in the art industry. Works of art are shown not only to visually impress but also to tell stories, and the audience and the public are deserving of the truth behind the creator.
Words by Carola Kolbeck