Monsters and Phantoms

This post was contributed by Oyedepo Olukotun a student on Birkbeck’s MA History Of Art with Photography.

In Professor T.J. Clark’s talk Was Picasso a Woman? : Reflections on Nude, Green Leaves and Bust hosted by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities on Friday June 7 to accompany the launch of his book Picasso And Truth: From Cubism To Guernica, it soon became clear that Picasso was not gender swapping but was casting himself as a woman artistically. Speaking even artistically, in light of statements Clark attributes to Picasso, the notion of the artist as a woman seemed far-fetched. “I would love to paint like a blind man who pictures an arse by the way it feels” or “Like any artist, I am primarily the painter of woman, and for me, woman is essentially a machine for suffering” did not lend credence to Picasso’s case.

Monsters and Phantoms

In light of the above statements Picasso’s terse “I am a woman” is soon sidelined. However, what proceeded to catch my attention in Professor Clark’s talk, which focused on Picasso’s Nude, Green leaves and Bust (1932) and Nude on a Black Sofa (1932), was Clark’s periodical refrain of “monsters and phantoms”. In Lecture 4 of his book, Clark embarks on an analysis of Picasso’s The Painter and His Model (1927) to explore the artist’s fixation with monsters. At a basic level Clark, in his capacity as a social art historian, aims to divorce Picasso’s art, one painting at a time, from a connoisseurial or biographical interpretation.

The transcendental truth that Clark reveals in Picasso’s paintings is the long tradition of art with the objectification of women. That Western art depicts women the way it does is a practice Picasso inherited from a deep-rooted tradition as the British Museum’s Ice Age art: Arrival of the modern mind exhibition has shown us. That this depiction is because he is artistically a woman and Picasso’s sexualised reasons for his stance made for fascinating and revelatory observation in Clark’s talk. Further on Picasso’s stance aligned with his depiction of women as monsters makes for an interesting juxtaposition in Clark’s book and talk.

Women as Monsters

The practice of depicting women as monsters may or may not have began with Picasso however it is not unique to him. In her article The MoMA’s Hot Mamas Carol Duncan points us in the direction of artists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Willem de Kooning and Robert Heinecken who, among many, depict women as monstrous, grotesque, menacing and castrating. Duncan uses Picasso’s paintings as a prime example of this genre of women deprecating art; this would have met with the approval of the artist who, according to Clark, was concerned with posterity.

Clark, fascinatingly, traces for us the genealogy and journey of Picasso’s monstrous women and sets us up for the excitement of discovering the truth that transcends autobiography in art which would explain the root of the emotion that has led artists to depict women as monsters.


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