“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.” – John Berger
Last weekend I took my Dad to the current exhibition at London’s Tate Modern, Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy. I had planned for us to go to a talk about the role of the “gaze” in art — how we look at art, how we are looked at — but it was the first time I’d seen my Dad one-on-one for nearly a year, so I figured we’d be better off doing something that gave us the chance to talk.
In the first room, the introductory text gave us background to the exhibition, and to Picasso’s primary muse throughout these works: Marie-Thérèse Walter, a young French woman with whom Picasso had an affair while married to Olga Khoklova. The majority of the paintings depicting, or inspired by, Marie-Thérèse were highly sexualized. One room contained a body of work deemed unfit for exhibition at the time, on account of the number of “arseholes,” another housed surrealist depictions of Walter that reduced her to limbs and breasts, and La Reve (among others) overlaid phallic symbols onto her re-imagined body.
These images raised questions for me about Picasso’s attitudes towards women and gender. Questions, no doubt, that many have already answered, as some quick Google research confirmed accounts of violence and abuse towards women, serial infidelity, and suspect quotes, most famously (apparently) this one: “women are machines of suffering.” So I stood in the Tate Modern scoffing at the fact that this exhibition opened on International Women’s Day, and that it makes no mention of Picasso’s treatment of women; yet my Dad and I were both completely absorbed in each and every painting. What had engineered this paradox?
In his article, “Art and Nature,” John-Paul Stonard writes of how art is an attempt to reconcile a sense of separation between subject and painter — he talks about this in relation to nature, how it’s an appealing subject on account of the fact that we can neither control nor fully understand it. Art, he says, is the process of trying to reconcile that which we don’t understand with our understanding of it.
I had noticed something similar, a sense of separation, in the art of men who paint women; first at the Tate’s Modigliani exhibition earlier this year, and again in Degas’ paintings in the National Gallery. These two artists painted women almost as if they were conducting scientific experiments in a lab, observing animals from behind a two-way mirror. What do ballet dancers do when you’re not looking? Are prostitutes attractive when you paint them? The paintings felt distant from their subjects, perhaps because they reflected something egotistical – the discovery made by the painter, rather than the person being painted.
Picasso’s paintings, on the other hand, convey the very tension that John-Paul Stonard articulates — the attempt of Picasso to reconcile his view of his subject as a force that he could neither control nor understand with the way he understood her. Picasso’s re-imaginings and re-workings of her form are not quiet bids for beauty, intrigue, or aesthetics, painted from behind the two-way mirror, but confessionals of a struggle between his understanding of this woman as a sexual object he could control and understand, and his awareness that she was neither. We weren’t just viewing his choice of subject, but his entire process. In his grand-daughter’s words: “he submitted [women] to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them, and crushed them onto his canvas”.
The fact that Picasso’s art engages with his relationship with his subject is what makes it so alluring — challenging us not just to appraise that which is being depicted, but also who is doing the depicting; the paintings ask us to think about his relationship to them, which in turn makes us question our own. This wasn’t just relevant to those women that Picasso had sexual relationships with. One of Picasso’s relatives curated an exhibition that focused on the daughter he had with Walter and observed: “you see in the portraits that he is projecting himself and Marie-Thérèse onto her. I find it fascinating to see the exploration of the mirror of yourself within a daughter.” Picasso was not just painting his subjects, but grappling with how he viewed them: how he viewed his daughter, and how he viewed himself in relation to her.
And so, in the midst of untangling the relationships between Picasso’s gaze and those women he gazed upon, I found myself wondering about how I have been perceived, and in particular, how my Dad has viewed me. His doting gaze has always caused me problems; it made me desperate to impress him as a child, heartbroken to see him leave when I was a teenager, and now, as an adult, confused. Had the affectionate look in his eyes always been for the reflection of himself in me? Or worse, was I merely a woman that he didn’t understand?
Until that day in the Tate Modern, I had felt as if he had been viewing me from behind the two-way mirror — like the women depicted by Degas and Modigliani. I thought he had been celebrating me from afar, or when I hadn’t been looking. It had always felt as though any of his depictions of me–telling his friends about where I was, what I was doing — were stolen snapshots of my life for which he would take the credit. Yet, there we were on Saturday, spending the whole day together. It no longer felt like a Modigliani, as he was no longer separate, observing me from a distance, and it didn’t feel like a Picasso; he wasn’t trying to reconcile his understanding of me with reality.
Perhaps my anguish over my perception of how my Dad views me, about that particular male gaze, makes me complicit in perpetuating it. For John Berger, women who look at themselves through men’s eyes add value to the male interpretation; who they are becomes inextricably linked with how they think they are perceived, and thus, they cement themselves as the observed, and the men, the observers. Certainly in the past, I think this has been the case when I’ve considered my relationship with my Dad: I believed he saw me on a pedestal, and as such, I saw myself up there, with no comprehension of what I had done to deserve to be placed on higher ground. I saw myself how I thought he saw me, as being indisputably superior, but with no understanding of why or how, and although I perceived it as flattering, the pain of feeling separate, put apart, has always been palpable.
Yet, on this Saturday, I was not interested in viewing myself through my Dad’s eyes, no longer watching myself being looked at, as I had been trying to do before. On this day, I just spent the day with my Dad; we sat, talked uninterrupted for hours, and finally, in the wake of Picasso, I felt as though I understood something. I had been so preoccupied with what had separated me from him, what I had done to warrant this separation, that I hadn’t realized that in order to view me that way, he would have been the one who separated himself from me. I had considered him the painter, and myself, an image in something already painted. John Berger was right, again.
So how would I paint my Dad? It would be a work of art along the John-Paul Stonard theory, as there are many things about my Dad that I don’t understand, cannot control, and cannot reconcile. I suppose I’m still hoping that one day that will change, that one day, we will both have reconciled our understandings of each other with who we actually are in reality. Perhaps that Saturday was a snapshot of that, but I’m not there yet. For while the romanticism of separation painted by Modigliani, Degas, and Picasso is dealt with differently by each artist, it’s always either irresistible or painful to look at, and I don’t want that for any of my relationships. Lessening the distance — between me and my Dad, between men and women — is a job for both parties, and I hope that we all start soon.
Emma Yapp is a researcher at the Section for Women’s Mental Health at King’s College London. The Section for Women’s Mental Health conducts research into well-being during and after pregnancy, gendered violence, and other life events related to women’s mental health. Emma is interested in definitions of mental health and the ways that men and women relate to each other. Her past research has investigated attitudes associated with sexual violence, and her current project aims to improve responses to domestic violence within mental health services.