An Open Letter to NGV – On Narratives

Content warning: This piece discusses violence against women.

Oh darling NGV, how often I have adored you so. I have spent many long days walking within your gallery walls, admiring pretty colours and taking photos in all the good spots for Instagram shots. I have loved viewing the stunning contemporary work of Yayoi Kusama and her array of dots. I have long appreciated the dazzling images and the work you house from all of history: you embody the way art really does serve as a lens to view our past.

Do you know who I don’t adore? Picasso.
I’m really not much of a fan of Pablo Picasso.
In fact, I kind of very much definitely think he was an abusive asshole.

Now, I know galleries have gotten very good at saying we should “separate the art from the artist” and NGV, when you posted a pic of Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’ on Instagram for the anniversary of his birthday, I promise I tried to do that. I tried to forget that Dora Maar, the woman Picasso was dating at the time of painting ‘Weeping Woman’, was frequently a victim of his violent outbursts. I tried to separate the art from the artist, just as many had told me to. And it had worked, that is, until now.

Today, while roaming between art pieces and stopping periodically to make it look like I’m having divine revelations about my role on earth as a writer, I stumbled across the reason I’m writing to you today. I was taking my pause in front of ‘Weeping Woman’ and read its description; a note on Picasso’s many “turbulent” relationships, the “complexity” of which are viewable in his work. But NGV, that’s breaking the golden rule! You unseparated Picasso’s work from his biography! So it’s about to get uncomfortable NGV – because we need to talk about you celebrating the work of an abusive man.

I must admit that there are many non-abusive people who make great art and can attribute some of their learning to the analysis of Picasso. I must also acknowledge that it would be not only difficult, but insane to suggest that we stop viewing or acknowledging his work completely and I definitely also know that there are many other artists who, as the amazing Hannah Gadsby puts it, paint “flesh vases for their dick flowers” and whose abuses I have not yet denounced. What the world seems to forget, however, is that context is integral to the study of art. For every person I have heard tell me to “separate the art from the artist”, I have heard three more declaring that “art imitates life” – and of course it does.

If we can view Picasso’s work in the context of domestic violence, we gain insight into a history many women have lived. So NGV, your mistake was never putting biography next to the art, it was dismissing the very information that makes the art richer (while more disgusting) in the name of saving a man’s reputation.

Show me a world where we acknowledge Picasso’s abusive nature as part of an analysis of his work.
Show me a world where we partner ‘Weeping Woman’ with a description of the violent man Picasso was.
Show me a world where we expose the abhorrent way women have and are being treated through the sheer tragedy in the Weeping Woman’s face.

Just as we watch old propaganda films and witness the lands that held atrocities upon them, we should view Picasso’s work as a documentation of the abuses and horrendous actions it represents. ‘Weeping Woman’ may be an image of the disturbed woman from Guernica but it’s still likely to be inspired by the image of Dora – even Picasso concedes that the women in his life greatly influenced how he painted.

Even if Picasso’s image is of Guernica, does it not interest you that he was so obsessed with the image of a woman in trauma? He was a known abuser, painting work after work of a woman in tears. How does that context not add depth to his work?

NGV, I have often adored viewing the works you house as a lens through which to view history. Add women into that image. Add women into Picasso’s narrative so I can view history through the trauma he so vividly exposes. Make the victim’s voice heard by placing her in the narrative of Picasso’s work. History will thank you for it.

Yours Truly,
Mia Boonen.


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