Tag Archives: Picasso

Fame and Misogyny

The Rolling Stones have much in common with Picasso: the artistic success and failures, longevity, fame, Midas power, merchandise deals, appropriated west African culture, misogyny… Both have their respective position cemented in the history of modern art and rock in the top five. However, like the dinosaurs, these great thunder lizards, although still fascinating, are largely irrelevant to both contemporary art and music.

Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon, originally titled The Brothel of Avignon)

Throughout their lives, both were dedicated followers of the current styles. This dedication led to their initial success and explains the motivation better than any revolutionary desire on their part. Charlie Watts would have preferred to be playing jazz; Picasso might have preferred painting in an impressionist style. We will never know because what he painted and what the Stones played kept on making money. Making lots of money was the artistic vision of both Picasso and the Rolling Stones. They were artists as businessmen (Warhol was a camp parody of Picasso’s commercial success).

Following the current fashion explains Picasso’s surrealist and neo-classical period and the Stone’s expeditions into psychedelic rock, 2000 Light Years from Home, and disco, Emotional Rescue. Looking around, we could even find an equivalent in Picasso’s oeuvre. Works as political as Gimme Shelter, as mediocre as Jagger and Bowie’s cover of Dancing in the Streets (much of Picasso’s ceramics), and as regrettable as Brown Sugar.

The Stones no longer perform this racist song that revels in the rape of a teenage slave. Still, it does point to the misogyny and colonial appropriation of Africa by both the Stones and Picasso. As Dorian Lynsky, in his Guardian article “Rock’s fake rebels”, noted: “The Stones’ unpleasantness was integral to their uncanny power. In an era when many young people saw rock stars as potential heroes of the revolution, the Rolling Stones appealed to less altruistic desires: sex and money.”

Collectors like art about money and power because it reflects their fantasy of identity. In turn, their money empowers the abuse of women. Or worse, R Kelly, who was convicted for sex trafficking women and girls. Although we can separate the art from the artist’s misogyny, Shannon Lee, in Artspace, argues that we shouldn’t. We must recognise that mistaking the combination of talent and fortunate circumstances for a unique genius creates and empowers misogynistic assholes. And it is the machismo desire to dominate that drives both that most need to be re-examined.

Creativity and imagination might appear fun and attractive. Still, they are no good unless used towards creating a better world for everyone. Art can be liberating, but only when it empowers all people. However, talent and creativity can be used to oppress, terrorise and humiliate. It has been used to exploit and create hierarchies where there are none.

If there was a Picasso century, as the current NGV blockbuster exhibition title implies, it was followed by a Stones century. (Even though the two were contemporary for eleven years, Stones formed in 1962 and Picasso died in 1973.) The question is, do we want another century of artists like Picasso or the Rolling Stones? And what can we change to stop it from happening again? How do we create a world where success is not measured by macho domination?


Failure in the arts

Consider John Berger’s book Success and Failure of Picasso; you don’t have to have read it. The title is enough. Obviously, Picasso was one of the greatest artists of all time, but the failure of Picasso? Yes, the failure of Picasso, John Berger, the best art critic in my lifetime, wrote a book about the failure of Picasso.

Pablo Picasso, Femme au mouchoir, 1938

All artists will be failures; some will even be magnificent failures. For more on this subject read Adam Zucker on Artfully Failing (probably the inspiration for this post). Jane O’Sullivan in Piecework has a long list of comments from contemporary artists and writers about their failures.  Or my review of “Imperfections” at Trocadero Art Space, an exhibition of imperfect paintings by some of Melbourne’s best contemporary artists. 

(Of course, your art might feel like a failure. If it felt like a success, you would be so shallow. So shallow that I could not be bothered SHOUTING at you!! So to every artists who has felt a sting from my blog posts. This is like the Mafia; it is just business, it is not personal. This is just the business of an art critic. I am your drill sergeant of criticism.)

You knew this from the start, but if you hadn’t tried, you would have regretted it more. Visual arts teaches people about the learning experience of failure. It reminds us that we will all fail. It is the opposite of maths; there is no correct answer. Nothing will ever be the right answer. All there are is attempts at solutions.

(Your job as an artist is to heal the world with art, that is a success, anything less is a failure. Do I make myself clear? If not, sit down and read me all 113 pages of Donald Kuspit The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist, 1993. Where he examines how great modern artists attempted to cure the world through the primordial, geometric, expressive, and even through unorthodox methods of cynicism and disenchantment.) 

If art is worth doing, then it is worth doing badly and ordinarily. If anyone can be an artist, then art must be something anyone can do, and therefore special skills are not required. If the experiment can be repeated, anyone can do it, like cutting up a newspaper article to make a poem, as the Dadaist Tristan Tzara proposed. 

(Next time your school teacher tells you to write a poem, get your scissors out. Anyone can make readymades, play some of John Cage’s compositions, and form a punk band — look up the tab charts for D, G and A chords, now go out and start a band. Not that your band is likely to be any good, but playing in a band, or doing any art, including graffiti, might be one of the best things you do in your life. It is in my personal the top 100).

Normally I wouldn’t write anything like self-help philosophy, but failure does help explain so much about contemporary art.

(Should we be giving out medals for participation? Why not? After all, the military does it all the time – service medals, campaign medals…)


Framed reviewed

One of the most mysterious art crimes is the theft and ransom of Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV in Melbourne. Not a lot is known about it apart from some ransom notes sent by the thieves. The painting was returned undamaged after being held by the Australian Cultural Terrorists. So SBS’s four-part documentary was always going to be a stretch.

The various commentators on Framed tell us many contradictory things. That the NGV was amongst the best art galleries in the world and then that it had aircon and security problems at the time. That staff loved that NGV Director, Patrick McCaughey, and that the docents went on strike after he took away their chairs. That Arts and Police Minister, Race Matthews, was good for the arts and that he was pompous. And many guesses at who did the crime while explaining how damaging this was to the people implicated. 

Framed frames people from perennial favourites to secret cabals of art insiders and other wild theories. It then looks at the damage that wild accusations cause. The program presented about five, including Ashley Crawford’s pure speculation, McCaughey’s biography and the anonymous letter sent to Virginia Trioli. And why do all these wild theories assume that it was a man who stole the painting? Why not a woman? If they wanted to go wild, they could have asked Trioli if she stole it; after all, she has written about being involved in stealing the bronze dog, Larry La Trobe.

Part of the mystery of the theft of the Weeping Woman is that it is a very different kind of crime. And it has become a genre of stories, very creative non-fiction in autobiographies and speculations from authoritative sources. As everybody wants to solve the mystery themselves.

Framed doesn’t frame the cubist painting regarding the politics in Australia’s historical relationship to modern art. What it symbolised to the NGV and a “philistine country” (to use McCaughey’s own words). TV is good at setting the scene, and the program includes lots of shots of Melbourne in the early 1980s and McCaughey in different coloured bow ties. Unfortunately, there is not the same background about the painting or Picasso.

Instead of presenting unprovable speculations, the program could have shown more details and context about art crimes. Although it briefly examines art forgery, it doesn’t look at art theft in any great detail and even less about art theft for ransom.

Would someone steal art to get better security for the gallery? Were there art thieves in Australia who could smuggle stolen paintings out of the country? What happens in other art for ransom theft in Australia? And why did the police drain the NGV’s moat in their search? I answer these questions that Framed doesn’t in my yet unpublished book on Australian art crimes. 

Incidentally, presenter Marc Fennell asked the questions when I was a contestant on Mastermind.

Picasso, The Weeping Woman

The alleged theft of La belle Hollandaise

Bizarrely, Picasso’s Weeping Woman was not the first of his paintings to have been allegedly stolen from an Australian state art gallery to make a point. In 1967 Picasso’s La belle Hollandaise (The beautiful Dutch woman) was stolen from the Queensland Art Gallery. At the time the painting was valued at $200,000 (the equivalent of $2,367,132 today).

Picasso had painted it in 1905 on cardboard mounted on wood, 77.1 × 65.8 centimetres, in gouache, a water-based poster-paint. La belle Hollandaise depicts a young woman wearing nothing but a traditional Dutch lacy-cloth cap. It was painted when Picasso was between his early ‘Blue period’, when he painted sad, downbeat subjects, and his ‘Rose period,’ when he focused on pleasant scenes in a primarily pinky hue.

The eccentric multi-millionaire grazier Major Harold De Vahl Rubin had purchased La belle Hollandaise for £6,000 in 1940 (about $477,882 today). In 1959 he wanted to know its current value, so he put it up for auction and bought it again, setting a record for the highest price paid for a living artist. Satisfied that he knew its value, he then donated his entire collection of modern European art to the Queensland Art Gallery: a Degas, a Renoir, a Toulouse-Lautrec, a Vlaminck, and three works by Picasso, including La belle Hollandaise.

In the middle of the night, on Monday 5 June, Robert Ferguson climbed up some scaffolding on the outside of the gothic brick building on Gregory Terrace in Bowen Hills, Brisbane. The building is now known as the Old Museum Building, but back in 1967 it was the Queensland Art Gallery. Ferguson forced open a top floor window with a screwdriver and entered the Gallery. Fortunately for Ferguson, there was no burglar alarm in that part of the Gallery. Little is known about the 22-year-old New Zealander who had been working as a labourer, but his father confirmed to reporters that his son did have a passion for art and was a frequent visitor to art galleries. Ferguson later claimed to have been motivated by a strange idealism. He was aware that the Gallery was considering the sale of La belle Hollandaise to raise money for a new building to be built on the southern bank of the Brisbane River. So he decided to steal the painting, later telling the police, “I was satisfied the public did not appreciate the painting, so I decided to steal it.”

Once he had the painting, Ferguson’s main problem was where to keep it. He claims that for five days he hid it wrapped in blankets in the bush on the slopes of Mt Coot-tha. How the painting survived two rainy days and nights in such conditions is one of the many mysteries surrounding this theft.

Ferguson then decided to return the painting to Mrs Julie Rubin, the widow of the original Australian owner, Major Harold Rubin. Mrs Rubin was frightened by the sudden appearance of this strange young man at her mansion, ‘Toorak House’, in the inner-northern suburb of Hamilton, Brisbane on Sunday 11 June. However, as he was carrying a familiar Picasso, she let him in. Ferguson wanted her to reconsider her late husband’s gift and begged her to keep the painting for a month before reporting it to the police. Mrs Rubin agreed to this and the young man left.

The very next day the police arrived with a search warrant and found La belle Hollandaise in a spare bedroom. It was very embarrassing for Mrs Rubins, who then refused to give the police any information about the young man, except to say that she didn’t know him. This is odd because, who other than Mrs Rubin and Ferguson could have informed the police about the location of the painting?

Ferguson was not arrested until Saturday 24 June. Somehow the police were able to track him down. When they did they found a loaded pistol in his possession. He confessed to the theft, pleaded guilty to the firearms charges and was jailed for a month for possession of the loaded pistol.

La belle Hollandaise still hangs in the Queensland Art Gallery.


Picasso Who?

Writing about the scandal of the current Picasso Museum in Paris, there are several Picasso museums around Europe, Jonathan Jones raised the question of how relevant Picasso is in contemporary art. (The Guardian “Nightmare at the Picasso Museum” 16/10/2014).

I was considered this question. For me Picasso is definitely overrated, it is not that I dislike Picasso, although mostly I prefer George Braque’s cubist work. Often Picasso’s works look like preserved relics, hastily done and looking aged before their time. Too look at it more objectively turned to my blog. After writing hundreds of post about the visual arts this blog for seven years how often have I referred to Picasso?

Only nineteen times; compare to the number of times that I’ve references to Andy Warhol (16), Salvador Dali (10), Joseph Beuys (6), Nam June Paik (4), Jackson Pollock (3) and Henri Matisse (2). I am biased and there were too many references to Marcel Duchamp, about 75, even as I restrain myself from mentioning him, to compare him to Picasso as Jones suggests.

MaxCat, Brunswick, 2009

MaxCat, Brunswick, 2009

Of the nineteen references to Picasso only twice have I written about seeing the influence of Picasso on an artist: Maxcat and Juan Davila. “Maxcat’s innovative use of lines and the sense of poetry with the bird on the figures head reminded me of Picasso.

There have been two negative remarks about Picasso but only one was by me and that was more about Picasso being overrated in the popular media. Black Mark: “I never want to see another documentary celebrating the life of Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Van Gogh or Picasso” The other one was from Singaporean artist, Kamal Dollah: “My view is, you can bore these kids with Picasso and Rembrandts.”

Most of the other references to Picasso have been largely because he is an extremely well known artist; one of the references is about a sculpture of him at an apartment building in Singapore. He is mentioned three times regarding his sculptures from recycled material and his collage. There are three more references to the 1986 kidnapping of Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV by the Australian Cultural Terrorists. One reference to a Picasso painting in a gallery’s collection, one reference to his dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and one quoting the song by Jonathan Richmond and the Modern Lovers.

In the room the women come and go, talking about Picasso – “What an asshole. Just look at his paintings.”


Scandal Shock!

“… as a protest against the niggardly funding of the fine arts in this hick State and against the clumsy unimaginative stupidity of the administration and distribution of that funding.” Australian Cultural Terrorists claim of responsibility for the theft of Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV in 1986.

Melbourne love an art scandal. This is assisted by having some top rate scandals, for example, the unsolved theft of the Weeping Woman. Although sometimes these scandals seem to be borrowed from US culture wars, as in the case of the vandalism of Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ in 1997.

Art scandals have been ruined careers and lives, some of them were crimes and art has been destroyed. Melbourne never gave Vault a fair go. Juan Davila sighs at yet another repetition of the cry of ‘obscenity!’ Some of the unfortunate victims of these scandals and some naive realists might be thinking: “what has this got to do with art?” but this discourse is part of what defines art.

In the wake of an art scandal, even people who have not been to an art gallery in decades will express an opinion. The media is full of the story and more comments and from the informed comments to the mad ignorant rants it is this discourse that, in part, defines art. The year of debate about Ron Robertson-Swann’s modernist sculpture Vault in 1980, although driven by local city council politics, inspired the next generation artists to think hard about art and express their ideas not just in their art but in public forums.

This love of art scandals has created its own artists, CDH and Van Rudd for example, who create their own mass media interactive art works by provoking police, politicians or the public. These artists and their art are well known, although not exactly popular. Creating a scandal that goes viral is not the easiest thing to do and not every attempt succeeds in being both a scandal and art.

It has also helped create the environment that fostered Melbourne’s street art and graffiti scene by giving their contentious and audacious actions a wider public eager to discuss them and collect them.

These accidental and deliberate scandals are interesting because they expose the cracks in the facade of our culture and deep divisions in the airbrushed idea of a united society. These scandals raises more questions than they answers prompting further thought, action and creation.


Painting in the Public Eye

The Impressionists were the first artists to be seen painting in public, the new development of oil paint in tubes made that possible. Although the Impressionists worked quickly watching them paint was never a spectator activity – like watching paint dry.

When Hans Namuth filmed Jackson Pollock painting in 1951 in a carefully staged sequence it ended badly. After the filming both Pollock and Namuth were drinking and then started fighting over who was a “phoney”. Was it phoney (inauthentic in someway) for Pollock to preform for the camera? Do photographs of art change the art, already altering our perception of the art before we see it?

In 1950, just a year before Namuth filmed Pollock, Belgian filmmaker Paul Haesaerts filmed Picasso’s painting on glass. Picasso was unconcerned about the camera and self-confident, he had many successful dealings with many photographers including David Dougalas Ducan, Edward Quinn and René Burri.

I was thinking about this as I watched Melbourne Street artists Conrad, Calm, Heesco, Sinnsykshit, Klara and others painting in a Fitzroy laneway off Leicester Street on Monday 3rd of December. It was an interesting afternoon; drivers found themselves in an unofficial pedestrian zone with shopping carts full of bags of paint, Phoenix using recycling bins as a studio table for cutting out paste-ups and cameras pointing everywhere. An approaching cyclists breaks to avoid getting in a shot before being waved through. For more photos of the event see StreetsmArt and Land of Sunshine.

Media watching street art Fitzroy

“Here’s all the other side.” Dean Sunshine says as spots Lorraine, Jacob Oberman, David Russell, Alison Young and myself, the regular street art media crowd of photographers, bloggers and documentary filmmakers. All independents like myself (I don’t know why none of the local mainstream media don’t report on street art) except for a French TV crew from Canel+ there on the day. We are the other side, not as in opponents but the other side to artistic communications, the recorders, reporters and critics, and literally the other side of the laneway.

There were so many video cameras and still cameras recording the event on Monday that sometimes there were more many cameras than artists painting. There is usually someone photographing or videoing a street artist painting, cameras are ubiquitous now, but this time the number of cameras made me really think about them. I had to ask myself did the act of filming change the art?

Some of the cameras were doing time lapses of the artists at work, there were other people conducting interviews, the French TV crew were interviewing CDH and trying to get him to join in with Yarn Corner and yarn bomb a bicycle. Street art does present some different challenges for photographers. Due to its illegality street artists are reluctant to show their faces and the image of street artists seen from behind bending over to paint in low-slung jeans is not attractive one. The yarn bombers don’t face problems with the law and are happy to show their faces.

Of course, all these cameras was going to have some effect on the art just as not watching or recording the artist at work is going to have some effect. But did the cameras make the painting inauthentic and phoney in someway or has the perception and our awareness of the media changed since the 1950s?

Street art needs the cameras to record the image to combat the political spin. After Canel+ broadcasts the piece CDH plans to contact Tourism Victoria, the State Government and municipal councils to say: “We just made a 10 min ad for Melbourne viewed by several million French people. Where’s the support?”

P.S. The video of the French TV crew can be seen on YouTube.

Canel+ interviews CDH

Canel+ interviews CDH


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