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‘ART IS NOT TRUTH’: PABLO PICASSO

Kirsha Kaechele

Posted on Wednesday 10 July 2024

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… Art is a lie that makes us realise truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of [her] lies.

—Pablo Picasso

At this moment, three priceless works of art hang in the ladies toilets at Mona. How did we end up here?

Allow me to explain—I have no choice but to explain. From stage right a journalist beckons—she’s onto me! And from stage left, a letter has arrived—from the Picasso Administration. ‘Would you be so kind as to explain ...?’ The French are always so impeccably mannered.

I’ve waited patiently for this day. Three years and seven months to be exact. That many days ago I was sleepless, exhilarated … but prepared (with pictures). Now, I’m not so sure, at the mercy of the art.

I’m guessing you know about the Ladies Lounge by now. It’s gone a bit viral.

As an artist, the general trajectory of my work has taken me away from the two dimensional surface of the canvas, and into living installations and real life. In the case of the Ladies Lounge, it began with a physical room: a small lounge exclusively for women located inside the museum; and has since moved into the world in the form of a court case brought forward by a man who disputed being denied entry on the grounds of gender discrimination. This resulted in articles in 160 languages and spirited Reddit strands. As an artist who engages the real world as medium, I see the court case and resulting discourse as the chaotic, living expression of the artwork, its journey into the unknown.

Image: courtroom sketch by Natalie Holtsbaum, in the style of Picasso

At the tribunal hearing (read the ruling if you haven't, it’s really something), as twenty-five women moved in silent synchronicity, crossing and uncrossing their pantyhosed legs [pause], leaning forward in their navy suits [pause], peering over their tortoiseshell spectacles [pause], and applying lipstick [the finale, after two hours of durational performance], the judge asked, ‘If the room were empty, and there was nothing in there but white walls and some champagne—but the men believed it was full of precious objects, would the artwork still be relevant?1

‘Yes,’ I said. The idea is to drive men as crazy as possible.

And that is true. But it is equally true that the Ladies Lounge exists for the purpose of providing a beautiful space for women to enjoy themselves—we deserve it, the patriarchy has been rough on us—and revel in the pure company of women, away from the overwhelming domination of men. So when I began visualising the Ladies Lounge, I knew it had to be as opulent and sumptuous as possible. That meant handsome male butlers to wait on us, pour champagne and admire our beauty. Suck a toe or two. And if men were to feel as excluded as possible, the Lounge would need to display the most important artworks in the world—the very best.

So I filled the Lounge with ‘invaluable’ objects, framing each—physically (in gold) and metaphorically (with dubious stories centred around a fictional woman, a version of myself). Stories available only to those on the inside (women), each more absurd than the last. And each of those stories intended to raise questions around gender, freedom, power structures, authenticity, and value. All these illusions built the fantasy for those who are afforded the experience of the Lounge, and, importantly, those who are excluded.

There are New Guinean spears (brand new but presented as antiques collected by my grandfather on Pacific expeditions with Michael Rockefeller—you know, when he was ‘eaten by cannibals’), ‘precious’ pieces of jewellery (quite obviously new and in some cases plastic, purportedly belonging to my great-grandmother), and a ‘mink rug’ made by Princess Mary’s royal furrier (in fact a low-grade polyester).

Then there are the paintings. I knew they had to be ‘Picassos’. I am a tremendous fan of his work and hold it in the highest regard. He’s the great master, the pinnacle of modern art. And yes, his record with women is … intense. Women have been pulling him apart lately, questioning his supremacy. They question my selection of his art. And I like that. I liked that a misogynist would dominate the walls of the Ladies Lounge. Alongside a work by Sidney Nolan (another misogynist) depicting a rape scene, Leda and Swan.

I knew of a number of Picasso paintings I could borrow from friends, but none of them were green and I wished for the Lounge to be monochrome. I also had time working against me, not to mention the cost of insuring a Picasso—exorbitant!

A few days later I was having drinks with my friend Natalie.2 ‘Maybe I should just make the paintings myself,’ I said. We laughed—how absurd. But then, as with many absurd ideas, I decided it was a good one. So I made the artworks, quite painstakingly, with my own hands and the (perfectly shellacked) hands of my manicurist’s niece, who is far more competent in pen and ink and thus assisted with the etching. I chose the paintings for their colour palette and sensual depictions of the female form, exquisite against the green silk curtains of the Lounge.

I told no one. On opening day I received a frantic phone call. ‘One of the Picassos has been hung upside down!’

‘Shit!’ I picked up my phone to call art management, but then thought better of it. ‘Perfect.’

I waited for weeks. Nothing happened. I was sure it would blow up. But it didn’t.

Women continued to luxuriate on the large, emerald velvet snake—a ‘sofa’ that is really more of a tethered, rearing, restrained-by-golden-chains-and-then-ultimately-defeated cock. They drank absinthe and sipped champagne poured by butlers. Every now and then a woman would approach to say she’d read the stories, and give me a little wink.

Four months later I went to Paris, and visited the Picasso museum (of course, what's a trip to Paris without it?) And here's where it gets interesting. On the wall, claiming centre stage in the exhibition, was the same painting hanging in the Ladies Lounge (theirs was the original, of course). I darted my gaze around the room. Are they fucking with me? I couldn't be sure ... but of the 50,000 Picasso works, this particular one?! It's part of a series of 63! Picasso was obsessed with Edouard Manet's painting Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, and investigated it again and again. Of all the variations they've chosen this very painting?! They had to be 'collaborating' with me. I was awed and deeply flattered.3

Back in Tasmania, it was a real Picasso period. Miraculously, my obsession manifested itself into reality. Do you believe in fetishes, or totems? I didn’t, but I might now. It’s either that or Elon Musk is right and we live in VR 2035.4 By divine intervention (a long story) I was afforded the opportunity to amass a genuine collection of Picasso ceramics. Now they live at Mona! In fact, all of my acquisitions for Mona to date have been (real) Picassos. Which presents a problem. How does one justify simultaneously showing real and faux Picassos? It’s one thing to have fabricated objects in a room as part of a conceptual artwork where everything is fake. But to then display real ones in another part of the museum … It's complicated.

That’s life art for you. Complex. And understanding is elusive …

Name it and it disappears.

—Some Zen proverb

I lost the court case and moved the ‘Picassos’ to the toilets. This afforded uninterrupted viewing (by women) while the Ladies Lounge underwent its court-mandated ‘reform’. You are allowed to discriminate in the toilet. The news headline ‘Picassos Displayed in Ladies Toilets’ was translated into 160 languages. They’re reading it in Saudi Arabia.

This mad and magical saga has changed me. I’m awed by the transformative power of art. It has deepened my connection to women and made a feminist of me. My love for women burns brighter. I started as a conceptual artist and ended up an activist. And it’s made me reflect more profoundly on gender imbalance. I always hated hardcore feminism, but voila! Everything I hate I become.

Three years ago I fantasised there would be a scandal: ‘Fake Picassos Exposed: Art Fraud!’ I imagined that a Picasso scholar, or maybe just a Picasso fan, or maybe just someone who googles things, would visit the Ladies Lounge and see that the painting was upside down and expose me on social media.5 But instead:

 

Among artworks illuminated on the walls [in the Ladies Lounge is an] immediately recognisable Picasso.
delicious.
Across the lounge I spy Picasso’s Luncheon on the Grass, After Manet (1961)—one of the cubist’s many subversive, fractured retellings of Manet’s scandalous Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe (1863).
Traveller
The velvet-clad lounge … contains some of the museum's most-acclaimed works, from Picasso to Sidney Nolan …
BBC News
... plush green curtains, lavish surroundings, original works by Picasso …
New York Times
… a silk-curtain-partitioned private space in the gallery, with special artworks exhibited inside, including several priceless Picasso’s passed down to Kaechele from her great-grandmother.
Women’s Agenda

I’m flattered that people believed my great-grandmother summered with Picasso at her Swiss chateau where he and my grandmother were lovers when she threw a plate at him for indiscretions (of a kind) that bounced off his head and resulted in the crack you see inching through the gold ceramic plate in the Ladies Lounge. The real plate would have killed him—it was made of solid gold. Well, it would have dented his forehead because the real plate is actually a coin.

I am relieved I have told you because now we can revel together in this madness. Assuming you still want to speak to me. (I hope you can forgive me.)

To the Picasso Administration: Je suis très très désolé de vous avoir causé ce problème. Avec un grand respect pour le plus grand artiste …

Xoxox,

Kirsha

1. I'm adlibbing, but that’s pretty close.

2. The one who did the courtroom etching.

3. They weren't (collaborating), as far as l know.

4. When Elon Musk talks about the concept of living in a virtual reality or a simulation, he often references the ideas of philosopher Nick Bostrom. Bostrom is well-known for his simulation hypothesis, which describes the scenario that we are living in an artificial simulation created by a more advanced civilisation.

5. That just happened, good work @jake_walker_art.