Tyson vs. Picasso


Jonathan Richman sang, "No one ever called Pablo Picasso an asshole." This probably wasn't entirely true. In any case, the talented and witty painter Nicola Tyson weighs in on Picasso, whose Guitars are now on view at MoMA.


Dear Picasso,

A journalist recently asked me if as a female figurative painter -- as opposed to just a figurative painter -- I’d been influenced by you, which I thought is a bit like asking if my diet had been influenced by Monsanto. Unavoidable.

However, I confessed to said journalist that I have not engaged with your work to any degree since I was an art student, back in the ghastly '80s -- the decade when the audience invaded the stage, as I like to characterize it. As a young, frantic feminist in suit, tie, and ten coats of mascara, and trying to make up for lost time, being somewhat older than my student peers, and having already squandered some of my formative years embroiled in suitably superficial research within London's gay demimonde (instead of sketching in The National Gallery), I took offense to "Des Mademoiselles d’Avignon," depicting as it does (in perpetuity) a dismal group of prostitutes, with innovatively sub-Saharan Art style features, yet maintaining the blank stares of the human motif. Amazingly disconcerting and destabilizing to be sure. Then.

Then. When such primitive art was the new talking point in Euro-intellectual circles…like before the world became one big samey shopping mall to Google earth, and you could still go, "My god, how differently they do things down there!" or "over there" or even "up there," from the vantage point of the drawing room hearth, at the center of one’s mental map of The World, at that early/late stage in our civilization. Back then.

Thank God we've still got "back then" to go to for something strange, should anyone care to! Like "back then during the Holocaust," "back then in Ancient Rome," or "Tudor England" or "The Dark Ages"; pick a dungeon, any dungeon. Mayan Calendar. Giza Power Plant. Stonehenge. Dinosaur. Atlantis/Acropolis. Plato's Cave. You name it. Attila the Hun's coat was made of hundreds of field mouse skins crudely stitched together. True or False? Hey, Project Runway contestants (or "catwalk" as we say in Great Britain, which would have worked punningly here), you've got five minutes to work that up into a Collection! Yes, at least now, from this desert of distractions and dwindling diversity, we can still pick a Picasso, any Picasso, and know we are in safe hands. Not.

Unfortunately, by the time I was getting stuck in myself, tackling the Big Questions at art school (in the hideous '80s, at the risk of repeating myself) your revolutionary innovations were a bit tired and familiar looking, and probably a wee bit oxidized and not looking quite as fresh anymore (which might account for the dead seeming color decisions…I don’t know, not being an international pro-expert expert on your palette). So instead I chose to engage with you from "the feminist perspective" i.e., as a woman artist -- if you can get your head around that concept -- and the thorny issue of content. Yes…I redid it….that is "Des Mademoiselles," life-size, featuring "men" with giant penises, etc...in fact I did a couple of versions, and some collages gummed together using gay porn mags I'd bought at lunch time around the corner in Soho.

It was that or else knuckle under and plunge head-long with student fervor and vicarious ambition, unquestioningly, into simply sucking up the bio pic, nail-biting biography of your early years of serial "discovery." Like your work was waiting somewhere to be discovered and it was YOU who discovered it first, as it were, in those overheated first couple of decades of The Big Olde 20th Century.

You and all the other "art scientists" in your labs in Montmartre. God, you must have felt SO alive, so on the cutting edge, with it ALL waiting to be found out; unlike us poor suckers today, staring down mass extinction and complete environmental collapse, etc. But of course, in truth, the only credible, undeluded and appropriate identification for me, in reading about you and your painter buds, would be with the blanko model, or someone's long-suffering girlfriend (muse)…or that dancer or that waitress, blah-blah-blah. No thanks. It's both a stretch and a compromise we girls are used to making with "our imaginations"; one of the remaining under-exploited resources on this lonely blue planet.

Oh well, onward and upward. However, you know what? I actually wish at least a third of your work would just go away at this point. It's an overbearing buzz kill, embodying as it does those very outmoded (wish), worn out (not quite) concepts of conquest, exploitation, control, branding, exponential growth, and world domination, with resulting deadening ubiquity.

Let's face it, yes, you had virtuosic draftsman skills and more ideas (other people's). More angles on The Big Problems in Art than is perhaps necessary for one person, but boy did you milk them for all they were literally worth. Acres and acres of ugly painting in ugly colors, and ugly bug sculpture, all mostly exhibiting zero sensitivity, other than to your viewers' willingness to acquiesce with sycophantic applause at your endless repetitions of your once shocking fuck with the "trad" figure. Eyes in the forehead, etc.

Christ, all those clunky female (what else?) nudes with as much interiority as a concrete park bench. Weren't you bored painting or fashioning them with those priceless hands that nightly fondled real breasts, no doubt, with a real head hovering above them, with real eyes in it, looking down on the shining bald pate of your fucking genius? Guess not cuz there's a million of them -- I can count a million of them just from where I'm sitting right now:







On average, I think it's safe to guesstimate that there's more information, more feelings, in say one snot rag-sized piece of Matisse -- your big "rival" in real time, right? Made you nervous right? Girlie-man-painter, right? -- than in a couple of car tarp's worth of   P  i  c  a  s  s  o.

Anyway, I’m suddenly tired now…. Gotta go.

See ya,


- Bradley Rubenstein

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.