Rewriting Art History with Michelle Hartney

Contextualising the works of chauvinistic artists Picasso and Gaugin, amongst others, Michelle Hartney’s project Separate the Art From the Artist uses the activist writings of Hannah Gadsby and Roxanne Gay to highlight the artists’ misogyny. Hartney contextualises seminal works of Gaugin, Picasso and Balthus, and repositions them in the contexts of the abuse, misogyny and sexism in which they were produced by rewriting their museum labels. Hartney describes her work as a ‘call to action’; there is a potent and direct sense of progression towards a particular goal – to strip away the layer of protection and concealment that artistic (and other types of) success provides to those who abuse their position.

Paul Gaugin is celebrated as a pioneer of modern art, but knowledge of the context of his artworks often makes them difficult to admire. Following his work alongside Van Gogh in the late 1880s, Gaugin lived in Tahiti and Hiva Oa, where he married a 13-year-old girl, as well as two other 14-year-olds, and infected innumerable other underaged girls with syphilis. Gaugin claimed to have emigrated from Paris in order to pursue a ‘purer’ life away from Parisian decadence, living in a hut he referred to as ‘The House of Orgasm.’ The original museum description references these relationships, describing Gaugin’s admiration for the ‘Tahitian Eve’s naivety’ and capability of ‘walking around naked without shame.’ While Gaugin receives highly deserved criticism in today’s media, he remains a household name in the art community, a fact that Roxanne Gay attributes to a kind of critical ‘immunity,’ which Hartney desires to expel. The new label by Gay reads, ‘I think of those who gave up their dreams because some “genius” decided indulging his thirst for power and control mattered more than her ambition and dignity […] When I do that, it’s quite easy for me to think nothing of the supposedly great art of bad men.’

Hannah Gadsby’s comedy special Nanette featured substantial criticism of Picasso, whom she describes as ‘rotten in the face cavity.’ Hartney utilises Gasdby’s transcribed words to juxtapose the museum’s lack of engagement with the so-called ‘six-million-euro question’: Was Picasso a misogynist? Gadsby, however, handles the issue with directness and aggression. ‘Picasso fucked an underage girl. And that’s it for me […] Marie-Therese Walter was 17 when they met. Underage. Legally underage. Picasso was 42, married, at the height of his career. Does it matter? Yeah.’

In perhaps the most astounding disregard of contextual detail in any of Hartney’s chosen museum labels, the original description of Balthus’ Girl With Cat reads simply, ‘1937. Oil on board.’ Hartney’s modified label is entitled, ‘Correcting Art History: How Many Crotch Shots of a Little Girl Does it Take to Make a Painting?’ In the preliminary stages of the painting, Balthus took almost 2,000 Polaroids of 8-year-old Anna Wahli over eight years. The Polaroids captured her laid in sexualised positions, often wearing only her underwear. In 2013, 155 of Balthus’ Polaroids were sold for $20,000-$240,000 each.

Her work, in light of the ever-increasing prominence of feminism in the arts and in wider society (underscored by anti-abuse hashtags such as MeToo and #TimesUp) is imperative for the dismantling of the ‘immunity’ provided by success for concealing the behaviour of certain high-profile individuals. Hartney’s own hashtag #correctarthistory concludes many of her revised museum labels. Her use of the hashtag serves as a reminder that her work seeks to inspire the continuation of her project into the social spheres of her viewers. Following the artworks’ reconsidered descriptions on her website, Hartney instructs us, her audience,

You can download and print out these wall labels for your own use. I cannot tell you what to do with them, and I certainly will not suggest you put them up in a museum or gallery, but if you make your own personal decision to do so, use a light adhesive so you do not cause any damage

and calls into question the roles and responsibilities of the art institution, which she believes are to ‘turn the presentation of an artist’s work into a teaching moment.’

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Bea Prutton