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Richard Meaghan: A crisis of masculinity – Picasso and painting me

Pablo Picasso 'El Entierro Del Conde De Orgaz' (after El Greco) etching 3.12.66.I


“My aim is not to shock. I want to depict reality as powerfully as possible in order to highlight what it means to be a man confronted with a highly moralistic and repressed society.”


Pablo Picasso produced a series of etchings at a time of great change in his life. The one above was made in 1966 after a prostate operation and I believe it is important that it shows the artist flaccid. The work forms part of Picasso’s continual engagement with tradition and uses the painting El Entierro del Conde de Orgaz (1586) by El Greco as a starting point. In the painting, El Greco’s son holds a sceptre, as does Picasso in his etching; an important correlation as Picasso would have seen himself in art terms as El Greco’s rightful heir. Picasso positions himself centrally, holding his sceptre fully erect and spurting, whilst wearing minotaur horns and a kingly crown. The minotaur is all about sexual aggression and sexual appetite; I suspect the king’s crown refers to his position in the art world. The composition is pure theatre, played out for all to see – and for Picasso, it would have seemed like the world’s eyes were upon him. The naked woman – his muse, his Venus, maybe Jacqueline Roque – holds the crown of thorns in her hand to replace the king’s crown, like Jesus, to mock his claim to authority.

At this point in his life, Picasso must have felt like a fraud. His whole existence and work had been built on love, sex, passion and desire, and now, as an impotent man, he can no longer use his cock as a brush. He is lost, close to death, his greatness in question.

I have been working on a number of pastel and ink images since being diagnosed with prostate cancer, which I have gathered together under the umbrella heading of 'Make Love or Live' (a question I suspect Picasso must have given serious thought to). These new works are highly personal and lie somewhere between writing and painting.

“The Petri Dish is a place of growth, both good and bad. A place of examination where I am observed, measured and judged. Exposed, my emotions are played out for all to see”

My interest in the late work of Picasso was initially born not from my diagnosis (as I had no idea at the time that Picasso had prostate problems) but from their form; their overriding physicality and capacity to evoke emotion and a sexual leitmotif that connected at a deeply primal level.

Looking further into these works and the hundreds of etchings he made during this time, it transpires that Picasso had prostate problems, maybe cancer, that resulted in an operation in 1965. This new information and my own connection with the possibility of losing one’s virility provided me with a deeper understanding of why he created these masterpieces.

The late work of Picasso, so often dismissed as the daubs of a dirty old man, had new meaning and a significant context now that Picasso was faced with life and art as an impotent man. They take on a different stance to the stereotypical, sexually confident, aggressive male assessing and devouring his muse; his prey. His late work is all about a crisis of masculinity, the fear of the unknown and the pain of a covetous fate.

With the advent of a new, politically correct 1970s and the rise of the conceptual and feminist movements, Picasso and the ‘bravado’ painters of post-war Abstract Expressionism were deemed ‘barbarians’. This coincided with the ‘death’ of painting in the form of the grey monochrome, a painting devoid of any emotional content or signature style. This further resigned Picasso to the annals of history, his oeuvre made redundant.

The result of this is an art world where painting is cold, dissociated from emotion, detached from those base needs and feelings that Picasso painted about. This ‘death’ of emotional male painting is where I begin.

“My Bone Collector is my nemesis, my dark half, he hides in the shadows always with me, watching and waiting.”

I felt numb after being diagnosed with prostate cancer but I immediately found myself on the cancer pathway conveyor belt. I soon visited a well-respected surgeon, all glittering teeth and stripy socks, for the prostatectomy talk. He looked through my file and told me what was involved with the surgery, looking to convince me that as a relatively fit young man I should not worry about a 50% chance of incontinence and 92% chance of impotence (there’s other stuff that I won’t go into!).

‘I have options,’ I told him. He looked shocked, almost as if I had questioned his prowess. ‘You’ll be back,’ he repeated three times as I eventually got up to leave.

I did my research and at that time found nothing that would give me any hope. This was the start of a huge low period where I immersed myself in my work and spent long hours in the studio, feeling numb, painting away, not eating, not knowing, searching for something.

I now realise that these events have given me the meaning I was looking for in my work.

I have since asked for my pathology report to really understand my diagnosis and now truly believe that I will not be back any time soon!

“I wanted to portray my patient advocate stripped bare, exposed, asexual and ignorant to the effect that she was having on me.”

I was faced with the considerable emotional and mental processing that came with my diagnosis of prostate cancer; the fear that I was going to die if I didn’t do something straight away lay heavy on my mind. I had already been presented with the option of surgery but the thought of impotence terrified me more than the cancer itself. I was at the lowest point of my life and desperately needed more information and support. This should have come from the clinical nurse specialist as the patient advocate; the one person whose role it is to provide more information about treatment options and answer questions or concerns. Instead I was faced with a cold and unempathetic individual whose unequivocal medical rhetoric questioned why I needed to think about my options. “Well, you’re gonna be impotent anyway,” she quipped, metaphorically throwing my penis into the trash, without thought or feeling for me as a sexual being. This was one of several indifferent comments each time setting me back psychologically. We talked formally later where I expressed my concerns with what she had said. She is still my clinical nurse specialist.

“My Black Widow is my muse, whilst she metaphorically devours me, I draw her 'intimacy' as a symbol of femininity. I have a smile on my face. This is not conflict, we feed each other.”

Like the growth of bacteria in The Petri Dish, the subversive beliefs of a highly moralistic and repressed society have spread, resulting in a deep-rooted concern that we must carefully choose our words and actions for fear of insulting or offending people and consequently ridiculed and outcast by our peers. This, together with gender stereotypes that wrongly perpetuate a narrative that masculinity is problematic, has led me to question how my art will be received. Indeed, experience of backlash against my paintings without questioning the narrative behind them has already begun. However, just as it is no longer acceptable to restrict women, it is no longer acceptable to disregard the issues of men, in a world where gender equality is imperative.

For some time I knew these works needed to be made but my concerns superseded the possibilities of their making. Lockdown gave me the time to think and finally give myself the permission to paint me. sion to paint me.

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