Genius: Picasso interrogates how gender has defined our understanding of genius

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Genius draws attention to how the patriarchal expectations imposed on Francoise Gilot, by both Picasso and society in general, limit her success as an artist; just a few short weeks after Picasso left Francoise “alone, sick and pregnant to care for a baby for almost a month” while he was in Poland, he objects to her going to Paris, asking “Who’s going to look after the children?” The parallels aren’t subtle – he refuses to look after the children because he “wouldn’t get any work done”, when just a few lines earlier Francoise told an art dealer “I’m afraid I don’t have anything new to show you. I’ve been too busy with the children”. Another moment, reminiscent of many recent #MeToo stories, sees the same art dealer tell Francoise he can no longer represent her, for fear of Picasso’s anger – even after their relationship has ended, Picasso’s influence continues to stymy her art.

Genius: Picasso does some genuinely interesting work in terms of its depiction of female artists; its interrogation of how gender has defined, and restricted, our understanding of genius isn’t so much subtext as it is openly, emphatically… text. The National Geographic drama isn’t just about great men of history, but about the genius left unacknowledged, the genius that wasn’t allowed to thrive, because of such a traditionally myopic understanding of what is or isn’t genius. Time and time again, Genius: Picasso asks why you’re not instead watching Genius: Maar or Genius: Gilot instead, and the indisputable answer it offers is a suffocating, gendered understanding of genius.

I was left in a bit of an odd place with this piece.

My plan, from around the fifth episode of Genius: Picasso, was to write an article about how the show depicts creativity, and the struggle to define your creativity – as well as perhaps also touching on how it grapples with the myth of apolitical art, and the need to use your platform responsibly when you have one. I might still write about that a bit, actually, I’m not sure.

Anyway, though, as I came to write it, I found it difficult to get to grips with that piece, in part because my plan to do it as a sort of personal essay seemed more than a little pretentious and arrogant (convinced though I am that we’ll eventually reach Genius: Moreland). Plus, I was increasingly fixated on another angle I’d thought of for Genius – how it engaged with gender. At first I was planning on writing it for the Mary Shelley series (giving me time to catch up on the Einstein series, which had apparently also done some interesting things vis a vis its depiction of women), or maybe the fourth series if it were also about a woman (I’ve kinda plotted out a 5+ series arc for Genius in my head where it’s this really interesting, feminist sotry).

But! I couldn’t get the creativity piece to work, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the gender angle, so this is the piece I wrote. I was quite pleased with it in the end; it’s a little longer than my Yahoo columns tend to be, though I had a lot of ideas I wanted to cover, and even then didn’t quite manage to get all of them in. I must say, I really did quite enjoy Genius.

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