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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

‘We could paint a better world’: Gadsby’s Nanette ‘repaints’ Picasso’s misogyny

Nearly two months after the debut of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette on Netflix, I’m thrilled, but unsurprised, to report that the universal acknowledgment of its brilliance, importance, and power continues unabated.
In my first post about Nanette,, I concluded with some speculations about Gadsby’s enigmatic title:

‘It occurred to me…that there was one more clue hidden in plain sight by Gadsby, begging an answer to the question – ‘Who was Nanette, really?’ I ask that, because there is something quite fishy about Gadsby beginning Nanette as follows:   ‘My show is called Nanette, and the reason my show is called Nanette is because I named it before I wrote it. I named it at around the time I’d met a woman called Nanette who I thought was very interesting, So interesting, that I reckon I can squeeze a good hour of laughs out of you, Nanette. But, it turns out...nah….I met her in a small town cafĂ©…’
Gadsby then segued to the topic of growing up in a small town, and she never mentioned Nanette again.

I’ve read enough Austen to be suspicious of a writer with such a compelling message as Gadsby’s, who gives the prominence of her opening words –in an article, it would be called the all important ”opening lead”-- to a subject, the origin of the title Nanette, which she promptly abandoned without any real answer, and never returned to it.  To borrow from Chekhov’s famous comment, if Gadsby hung the name ‘Nanette’ on the wall in her ‘first act’, then where is the part when her choice of the name is explained? I could not open Google fast enough to Google “Picasso Nanette” – and look at what blew my mind when I read it:  Picasso’s World of Children (1996), p. 65, a reminiscence by Picasso’s granddaughter, Maya:  “The adorable Paloma, even though more interested in the tadpoles than in posing for the greatest painter in the world, is already completely absorbed in her work. With me it’s exactly the same; he’s shown me hugging my doll. I was delighted to see that it was the one I liked the best (I still remember her-she was called Nanette—you see, I’m telling you everything!), but even more surprised to see myself….”  

So, can it possibly be a random coincidence that Gadsby (an art history major so wonky that she knew Van Gogh took digitalis for epilepsy, thereby making him experience the color yellow more intensely; and also knew that Picasso had justified having sex with a 17 year old while he was married and a quarter century older than her) just happened to title her breakout performance, the culmination of a decade of her life’s work, with the name of the favorite doll of the girl child born of that sexual relationship between Picasso and his too-young mistress? Before you answer, consider also the tragic additional fact that Marie-Therese committed suicide in 1977 at age 69, three years after Picasso died. Her suicide seems like strong evidence that, in Gadsby’s terms, Picasso, from the grave, “burned and destroyed” Marie-Therese, when viewed with “hindsight” provided by Gadsby. Marie-Therese seemed to be fulfilling Picasso’s mandate that she die, because she could have no life of her own beyond his, and so Marie-Therese never had a “prime”.

And armed with that anecdote, I went back to Google, and was astounded once again:
“Paris, Feb. 28 [2007]—Two important paintings by Picasso estimated by the police to be worth a total of about $66 million have been stolen from the Left Bank home of his granddaughter Diana Widmaier-Picasso…Paris police officials said the two oils, Maya with Doll from 1938 and Portrait of Jacqueline from 1961, were taken sometime overnight…Ms. Widmaier-Picasso and her mother, Maya, the daughter of Picasso’s longtime mistress Marie-Therese Walter, were asleep in the house when the theft occurred ….Maya with Doll is a colorful Cubist portrait of Picasso’s daughter as a child clutching a doll…Maya Widmaier-Picasso is often called on to verify questionable works attributed to Picasso, while her daughter, an art historian, recently published an illustrated book of Picasso’s erotic works called ‘Art Can Only Be Erotic.’ “

What I take away from that, is that Gadsby surely knew that factoid as well, and thought it fitting that, in her Robin-Hood-like “stealing” Picasso’s true story for recycling in Nanette, she named her show for the favorite doll of the little girl “created” by the tragically abusive relationship of Picasso and his victim Marie-Therese. So, I believe Gadsby is giving Nanette. as a kind of healing “doll”, to all the women of the world -- especially the “non-normal” ones -- to inspire each of them on the journey to her “prime”. So I’d say that Gadsby’s “art history degree” came in very handy, indeed! “

I revisit this topic today, to expand on the shadowy presence of “Maya with Doll” I perceive in the subtext of Nanette. At first glance, Picasso’s painting appears to be a cubist rendering of his young daughter Maya holding her favorite doll Nanette, and no more. However, when I take my cues (and clues) from Gadsby, and look at “Maya with Doll” through the lens of Gadsby’s fiercely feminist critique of Picasso’s personal misogyny reflected in his art, I see an alternative, disturbing reality concealed behind that neutral surface:

When I shed the blinders of “cubist aesthetics”, and simply see the images on the canvas, I note the poignant paradox of a ‘lifeless’ doll who appears uncannily alive and human, cradled by a ‘living’ girl who seems broken, unreal, dead. But might we also interpret the doll as that broken girl reborn and rebuilt? I believe Gadsby intentionally hinted at that outside-the-frame notion, via what are among her most powerful, climactic words in Nanette:  

“Picasso’s mistake was his arrogance. He assumed he could represent all of the perspectives. And our mistake was to invalidate the perspective of a 17-year-old girl, because we believed her potential… was never going to equal his. Hindsight is a gift. Can you stop. wasting my time? A 17-year-old girl is just never, ever, ever in her prime! Ever! I am in my prime! Would you test your strength out on me? [audience applauds] There is no way anyone would dare… test their strength out on me, because you all know… there is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.”

Put another way, I believe Gadsby, in Nanette, has ‘sampled’ Picasso’s art the way a rap artist samples other music genres, appropriating it in order to convert Picasso’s misogyny into truthful, healing story telling. And in this worthy, magical artistic ‘hostile takeover’, there’s sharp irony, as the following scholarly article excerpts (which I half-suspect Gadsby had already read!) reflect Picasso himself as an artistic magpie:

Timothy Anglin Burgard (1991) “Picasso and Appropriation” in The Art Bulletin 73:3, 479-494
…For Picasso, appropriation was not merely an artistic exercise in which he critiqued the Modernist reverence for originality and explored his relationship to great art and artists. Indeed, the artist perceived appropriation as a magical transference of power that could be applied to both historical and contemporary art and to objects and people…Picasso borrowed the vivid colors and broad brushstrokes of The Dead Casagemas from the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. His appropriation of Van Gogh's work, and its inevitable associations with the Dutch artist's life and death, enabled him to glorify Casagemas's own brief and tragic life. … Picasso's belief that possessing an object meant possessing the properties of the former owner. Gilot also noted Picasso's superstition "that one person can assume control over another through the possession of his fingernails or hair trimmings," and added: ... There are other fetishistic addictions which Pablo has followed in the most systematic manner…It was a metaphorical way of appropriating someone else's substance, and in that way, I believe, he hoped to prolong his own life. Picasso gave form to these beliefs in Maya in a Sailor Suit of 1938, in which he depicted his daughter Maya wearing a sailor suit with "Picasso" inscribed on the hat band. In an interview of 1945, Jerome Seckler, believing the portrait to be of Picasso himself, asked why the artist had depicted himself as a sailor. " 'Because,' he answered, 'I always wear a sailor shirt. See?' He opened up his shirt and pulled at his underwear-it was white with blue stripes!" No doubt Picasso did not contradict Seckler on his identification of the portrait because it depicted both Maya and Picasso, who thus appropriated his daughter's identity in order to project himself in an eternally youthful state.
…Picasso's belief that one artist could acquire a second artist's power by appropriating his models or work was manifested in several exchanges with Henri Matisse. In 1946, when Picasso took Francoise Gilot to meet Matisse for the first time, the older artist observed that if he were to paint Gilot's portrait, he would depict her with green hair. Picasso was troubled by this potential artistic violation of his model by an outsider…when Matisse wrote in 1947 that his initial sketches for the Virgin and Child for the Chapel of the Rosary at Venice resembled Francoise and her son Claude, Picasso exclaimed, "I feel negated-that's it, negated, obliterated from A to Z, not only as an artist but even as a father." Picasso seems to have believed that Matisse's depiction of his mistress and muse would give the older artist power over one of the sources of Picasso's creative drive and art. Picasso nearly carried this proprietary belief to its ultimate extreme when he told Gilot: "You should wear a black dress with a kerchief over your head so that no one will see your face. In that way you'll belong even less to the others. They won't even have you with their eyes."   END QUOTE FROM BURGARD ARTICLE

I can’t help but wonder if Gadsby, in weaving Picasso into Nanette, has striven to magically acquire, while at the same time pulling the plug on, Picasso’s power! And so, via her enigmatic title, she first invites an e-scavenger hunt to locate “Maya with Doll”; and then proceeds to teach us, in code, how to reinterpret Picasso’s art subversively. Instead of just taking “Maya with Doll” at face value, Gadsby ‘reframes’ Picasso’s painting as an unwitting confession of his misogynist crimes – confessing that, in service of his “art”, he heartlessly shattered the ‘face’ (i.e., the soul) of his mistress -- a vulnerable 17 year old girl ill-equipped to defend herself –and shattered her so permanently that, a half century later, she took her own life as soon as he died, as if she were a “doll” programmed to self-discard when no longer needed by her ‘owner’.

And I only just realized that Gadsby slid another sly bit of wordplay into her explanation of her title:
“I named it at around the time I’d met a woman called Nanette who I thought was very interesting, So interesting, that I reckon I can squeeze a good hour of laughs out of you, Nanette. But, it turns out, nah”.
Since “Nanette” is the name of the doll which Maya (in her own adult words) “hugged’, Gadsby seems to have her tongue firmly in cheek when she tells us, again in code, that she found the story of Marie-Therese, Maya, and Nanette very interesting, and initially reckoned she could “squeeze” a good hour of laughs out of their story. She seems to deliberately echo the way Maya squeezed her beloved doll, in describing how she had for so long milked laughs about high art during her career; but now she no longer is willing to submerge the third, painful part of their story, for the sake of a laugh.

That “nah’ (as in Nah-Nette) speaks volumes-it is Gadsby’s renunciation of the false face of ‘comedy’ in favor of the searing truth of trauma and shame which she so brilliantly enacts for the world in Nanette. And as a final act of parodic disrespect, Gadsby’s riff about the color “blue” implicitly points to Picasso’s “blue period”, an echo which Gadsby subtly amplifies by wearing a blue outfit, and even having her stage backdrop consist of an array of blue panels which (unlike the “busy” six-color LGBT pride flag) reminds the eye of Picasso’s key cubist splintering. Like a mythological fury, Gadsby has exacted karmic justice by taking what was most precious to Picasso- his reputation!

But it’s not just about Picasso. Gadsby repeatedly draws attention during Nanette to her own traumatic childhood, as well as to babies, all with repeated subliminal echoes of “Maya with Doll”:

“I have been learning the art of tension diffusion since I was a child…Might’ve peaked a bit early, but…
I love Tasmania. I loved growing up there. I felt right at home, I did. But I had to leave as soon as I found out I was a little bit lesbian….I took a long time to come to terms with my sexuality. There’s a few reasons for that. A lot of it has to do with bad press. Yeah, they didn’t get a good rap when I was growing up, the homosexuals. We didn’t have social media like we do now, but… “Letters to the Editor,” let me tell you. Slow Twitter. Brutal”

You know what’s weird? Pink headbands on bald babies! That’s weird. I mean, seriously, would you put a bangle on a potato?...I don’t assume bald babies are boys. I assume they’re angry feminists, and I treat them with respect. How about this? How about we stop separating the children into opposing teams from day dot? How about we give them, I dunno, seven to ten years to consider themselves… on the same side?”

“I’ve always been judged by what I am. Always been a fat, ugly dyke. I’m dead inside. I can cope. But you fellas…And what I had done, with that comedy show about coming out, was I froze an incredibly formative experience at its trauma point and I sealed it off into jokes.”

Can you hear the subtle refrain of being frozen and dead? And then, as she explains her own traumatic childhood, she also can be heard as narrating the story of that sad fragmented face of Maya (masking Marie-Therese) hugging her doll:

Nobody is born ahead of their time. It’s impossible! Nobody’s born ahead of their time! Maybe premmie babies, but they catch up!....By the time I identified as being gay, it was too late. I was already homophobic, and you do not get to just flick a switch on that. No, what you do is you internalize that homophobia and you learn to hate yourself. Hate yourself to the core. I sat soaking in shame… in the closet, for ten years. Because the closet can only stop you from being seen. It is not shame-proof. When you soak a child in shame, they cannot develop the neurological pathways that carry thought… you know, carry thoughts of self-worth. They can’t do that. Self-hatred is only ever a seed planted from outside in. But when you do that to a child, it becomes a weed so thick, and it grows so fast, the child doesn’t know any different. It becomes… as natural as gravity.”

And so that is why I am even more convinced of the aptness of the title “Nanette”. Gadsby has illuminated how her own story paralleled that of Marie-Therese, but whereas Gadsby survived, Marie-Therese did not; and Gadsby hopes that with Nanette, she will avert future tragedies, by giving hope and inspiration to others suffering in some similar way:  “My story has value. I tell you this ’cause I want you to know, I need you to know, what I know. To be rendered powerless does not destroy your humanity. Your resilience is your humanity.”

Did you catch that final pun on “render another human being powerless’? ‘Render’ ordinarily means ‘cause to be’ in that sentence, but it also can mean ‘depict’, as in an artistic ‘rendering’ of a model’s image, as in  “Maya with Doll’. Gadsby has worked very hard to hide in plain sight the poignant fact that Marie-Therese Walter was rendered powerless by Picasso in life and in that painting of a sad little girl hugging her beloved “Nanette”.

[Added 08/16/18:
I believe it is far more likely that Gadsby was intentionally hinting at Nanette the doll in Picasso's "Maya with Doll" than that (i) she did so unconsciously, or (ii) it was a random quadruple coincidence. Nanette is a work in which, I believe it is clear, every single word spoken was carefully chosen -- there are so many interwoven echoes that unify the entire 70-minute script, that it is clear, to me, that the choice of her title -- perhaps the most significant word spoken by her during the show-- was also intentional. And I just realized while writing this comment that my claim that the name points to the doll in Picasso's painting is also supported by Gadsby’s discussion of how a joke has 2 parts, but a story has 3. What I am claiming is that taking the title as really being about a passing encounter by Gadsby with a woman named Nanette is like hearing a joke with 2 parts, whereas pointing out that Nanette was Maya's doll's name is like hearing the full story with 3 parts!]

Cheers, ARNIE
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