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21 March 2023

Fifty years after Picasso’s death, we still struggle with the figure of the monstrous genius

The Musée Picasso Paris’s collaboration with Paul Smith attempts to reframe the great artist. Plus: another backlash for the BBC.

By Andrew Marr

It’s 50 years since Picasso died. All my life he has been the image of the art genius, the hot-eyed magician of shape and form, the mysterious master. And in his treatment of a series of women, he was also a monster. What do we do with this?

He was Midas, as potent in the outside world as Rubens or Michelangelo had been. In John Berger’s groundbreaking 1965 book The Success and Failure of Pablo Picasso, he mocked the desire of the rich to own Picasso paintings of the poor and noted how the artist had a power that was almost magical: “Just after the Second World War Picasso bought a house in the south of France and paid for it with one still-life. Picasso has now in fact transcended the need for money. Whatever he wishes to own, he can acquire by drawing it.”

[See also: At MoMa, I saw an artwork that moved me – made by a machine]

And then there are the sad and occasionally tragic stories of his so-called muses: Olga Khokhlova, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot, Fernande Olivier, and more. As galleries around the world prepare for anniversary exhibitions, they are struggling to resolve their stories alongside his. Lesser artists would today be “cancelled” for the sort of swaggeringly macho sexism Picasso displayed. But he is too big to cancel, still too vast an industry for the art world to give up.

Curators at the heart of the global Picasso machine, the Paris Picasso museum, are, under the tutelage of the designer Paul Smith, trying to help people think about him anew. Bringing in black female artists allows the museum not just to assess Picasso’s allegedly brutal treatment of wives and lovers but also to look at his use of African art – something that at the time seemed radical, but now gets criticised for appropriation.

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In general, I’m not a fan of wrenching dead artists out of their time and place and frogmarching them in front of a tribunal of 21st-century liberalism. But Picasso’s treatment of the female form can display an extreme anger that any modern viewer will find disturbing. So, again: how do we think about this?

In praise of gentle giants

Right on cue, there is a book coming later this spring by the American feminist writer Claire Dederer. Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma digs deep into the Picasso problem as well as dealing with her enjoyment of artists such as Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. It’s a properly honest and passionate book that will help set this debate alive.

My only real problem is the underlying assumption that great cultural geniuses are likely to be monsters. I think we know enough to understand that very many men, surrounded by circles of flattery, have a tendency to turn bad. But Matisse managed not to be a monster. So did Monet. The ultimate tortured musical genius, Beethoven, seems to have behaved impeccably towards women. Perhaps the best answer to the fan’s dilemma is to simply choose gentler geniuses.

[See also: The magic of a Self Esteem concert]

Found in translation

The International Booker Prize longlist has just been announced, and for many of us this is a mildly humiliating moment. As fiction publishing becomes genuinely global, British readers struggle with the sheer mass of great writing now available. The longlist contains works originally written in Bulgarian, Catalan and Tamil, as well as three authors appearing in English for the first time and an 89-year-old who finds it hard to speak or see.

But we should push author biography aside. A good winner will be a writer whose book is picked up avidly everywhere. For my mind, the great Ukrainian satirist Andrey Kurkov, whose novel Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv makes the longlist, is such a writer. And not because he is Ukrainian. Indeed, he writes in Russian.

Alive with the sound of musicals

In London, this spring is proving a belter for lovers of the intelligent musical. Nick Hytner’s traditional, immaculately done version of Guys & Dolls at the Bridge is getting reviews that are little short of ecstatic. The stripped-down, modernised, version of Oklahoma! is giving the show new life in the West End, while Beverley Knight in Sylvia – a soul take on the story of the stroppiest of the Pankhursts – is almost impossible to get tickets for at the Old Vic. I think the great Joan Littlewood would have been pleased.

Yet another BBC controversy

But she would have been upset, I’m sure, by the BBC’s decision to close down BBC Singers, Britain’s only full-time professional chamber choir, which is almost a century old. The timing, as with everything else about this decision, has been terrible: the BBC Proms may now face a boycott by singers and musicians. And then there is the question of the coronation: among those most upset is the Master of the King’s Music, Judith Weir. I suppose at least she hasn’t tweeted about it. Yet…

[See also: The idiot rich are taking over our cities – and our culture]

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This article appears in the 22 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Banks on the brink