‘This is an experiment’: is Hannah Gadsby’s Picasso exhibition really that bad?

The Brooklyn Museum is always looking to create a stir – and boy did it succeed this time around.

Since its opening last Friday, It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby has inspired punchy Twitter discourse about the end of the culture war, and establishment takedowns the likes of which we haven’t seen since the New York Times weighed in on Guy Fieri’s Times Square outpost. The paper’s art critic Jason Farago left the Picasso show “sad and embarrassed”; the Artnews review of Pablo-matic came with a headline trumpeting that the show is “disastrous”.

Related: ‘Notoriously cruel’: should we cancel Picasso? Collectors, artists, critics and curators decide

The exhibition consists of six mini galleries where 50 works by Picasso face off with 49 pieces by contemporary feminist artists, all but one of which were plucked from the museum’s own collection. The extravaganza’s nerve center is a screening room where clips are played from one of its three co-curators, Gadsby, whose 2018 Netflix special Nanette was partly ad hominem aimed at Picasso. Gadsby, an Australian comedian who studied art history as an undergraduate, doesn’t just not care for Picasso. They loathe the guy. He was a misogynist, an artist who “just put a kaleidoscopic filter on his penis” and slept with underage women, Gadsby tells the audience. Nope, nope and nope.

The show is framed as a canon deep clean, its walls adorned with endless sidebars and chatty commentary. Ambling through the galleries is a little bit like walking through the Twitter feed of somebody who follows the accounts of people who enjoy talking about “canonical narratives”, “metaphorical barricades”, and “power structures”. (Mere days after starting to work on this article, this writer’s phone began autocorrecting “Brooklyn Museum” to “Brooklyn Misogynist”.)

“We did it because we knew it would be conversational. Our goal is to get people to see the show and make their own decisions,” said Catherine Morris, the Sackler senior curator at the Elizabeth A Sackler Center for Feminist Art (problematic in its own way, but that’s another story). “I wouldn’t say the word ‘surprised’,” her in-house partner, Lisa Small, the Brooklyn Museum’s senior curator of European art, added about the public’s reaction. “I think we knew that nerves might be touched.”

Indeed, the crowds have been streaming in. “I’m not rejecting criticism of any kind, but I think some of it comes from at least partly that place of, you know, being discomforted by the experiment,” Small added.

And what, exactly, is the experiment? If you ask Small, it’s “reframing history” by recasting the most famous artist in the western world as something other than “this iconic touchstone that is immovable”. Morris, who grew up eating family meals beneath the National Gallery Picasso reproductions that hung on the wall of the dining room, sees her latest as something provocative and playful, “a kind of reimagining of history”.

Though Picasso has become a byword for genius, his name doesn’t appear on the plates next to his works (some on loan, some from the museum collection). Gadsby’s bathroom wall doodles make it pretty clear why the trio of curators made this choice. The guy was a pervert and bastard and doesn’t deserve time in the sun. Picasso was famously quoted saying that there were two kinds of women: goddesses or doormats. He was awful to women – to those who slept with, or those he tried to sleep with.

Another curious choice of the curators was not to bring in the works of the women who were personally overshadowed by his celebrity. You won’t find anything by Dora Maar, the photographer who served as the muse for his Weeping Woman series, or the artist Françoise Gilot, whose astringent memoir about her time as Picasso’s lover has become a seminal feminist text. The pieces that talk back to Picasso were made in the years after his death, works by women such as Kiki Smith, or the 1970s activists Guerrilla Girls. There is also a luminous work by Mickalene Thomas, the rhinestone-loving painter who is a darling of the Brooklyn Museum. “We were thinking about one [piece] in particular, but it was too big to fit into that gallery. So we were very lucky that one of our trustees had one that was of the same intentionality and that happened to work in the space,” said Morris.

Each piece on display is accompanied by multiple wall texts. There’s the more institutional-sounding curatorial context, quotes from the artist, as well as jottings from the mind of Gadsby. “One of the statistics that just kind of always chills my bones, is visitors spend five seconds looking at a label,” said Small. “People really don’t read labels or if they do they read them really, really quickly.” Morris added: “the people have a basic understanding of Picasso and kind of know the landscape, if you will. This is a landscape that maybe needed a few more guideposts.”

You’ve probably had the pleasure of being mansplained, but have you ever been Gadsplained? Their thoughts on Picasso’s The Sculptor: “I invite you to scan from her breasts up to her mid-cheek. Notice anything? That’s right … that there is a cock and balls.” Picasso’s 1937 painting The Crying Woman is accompanied by this tidbit: “The weeping woman appears in heaps and heaps of Picasso’s works in the 1930s, like, heaps and heaps and heaps. Heaps. I am not kidding, heaps. This is far from the best one.” (Note: it’s actually quite wonderful.)

The showcased artists were also invited to reflect on Picasso’s legacy. Few of them appear to have a serious bone to pick with Picasso. Betty Tompkins, creator of Fuck Painting #6, recalls her art school days, when her professor used to regale the class “with tales of his mistresses, the arrests, the failed marriages, the drinking, etc. It was the most mesmerizing art history class I ever had.” As for the man of the hour, “my thoughts about Picasso have changed over the course of my career, as I’ve learned more about him as a human. That said, I still think, without a doubt, he was a great artist, despite being a horrible human being.”

Kiki Smith’s words aren’t vibrating with antipathy either: “I love a great deal of Picasso’s work, and I’m always learning from it. As a printmaker I know very few who can get anywhere near the depth of his understanding and his playfulness.”

“This is a landscape that maybe needed a few more guide posts,” Morris said of the show’s text-heaviness. Small added: “This exhibition is an experiment in how to make a [museum show with a] more conversational voice.”

And what a conversation it’s kicked off! What has Gadsby’s reaction been to the roasting? “I’m not going to speak for them,” Small said. “But I don’t imagine that any of the criticisms that have come down about this show are going to trouble them in any real meaningful way.”

It’s Pablo-matic is shaping up to be a cultural inflection point. It’s going to be hard to forget that there’s something problematic with being quite so dogmatic.

  • It’s Pablo-matic is on view at the Brooklyn Museum until 24 September