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Davila, Juan - 1994.23

Juan Davila

Picasso Theft 1991
oil and collage on canvas, wood
66.5 x 56.5 cm
Donated by Professor Graeme Smith 1994

In 1986, a group calling itself the Australian Cultural Terrorists stole Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman 1937 from the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). Outraged at the disequilibrium between funding for international art acquisitions and for local contemporary artists, the thieves demanded an increase in state arts funding, a prize for young local artists and an investigation into the distribution of state arts funding.[1] Such was the zeitgeist, and the apparent support for the thieves’ demands, that while the search for the painting was frantically underway, artists around Australia impulsively set to work creating replicas of Weeping Woman.[2] One of these was Juan Davila’s Picasso Theft. Testing the gallery’s insistence that ‘the value of the original painting was purely aesthetic and not because it was by Picasso’,[3] Davila offered ‘a copy of equal merit’[4] and argued that his version should suffice as a replacement. He suggested that by accepting Picasso Theft,the then director, Patrick McCaughey, would be able to turn his attention to the plight of local contemporary artists, ‘for so long ignored’ by the NGV.[5] Known for his uberty, Davila made the work, and then transported it to and exhibited it at the newly reopened Avago Gallery in Sydney within days of the theft.[6] However, not long after it was unveiled, it too was stolen. The thieves smashed the glass of the window-box gallery and left a note, signing it ‘ACT’ –not the Australian Cultural Terrorists but, this time, Artists Confronting Terrorism.[7] According to the artist, the theft was never investigated by police and the painting never recovered.[8] And, unsurprisingly, Davila received a rejection letter from the NGV many months later.

Picasso Theft, in the Monash University Collection, was painted some years later, in 1991, as a replacement of Davila’s 1986 painting of the same name. Upon first glance, it may appear a precise quote of both Picasso’s Weeping Woman and Davila’s 1986 Picasso Theft. Using oil on canvas, Davila quotes the palette, the composition and the subject matter of Picasso’s original painting, with garish greens, magenta pinks and a shallow pictorial depth, the figure with handkerchief tightly enclosed by the walls of a grey room. Upon closer inspection, however, a few exceptional differences emerge that render Davila’s weeping woman as more complex, distressed and multifaceted than Picasso’s. Like many of Davila’s subjects, his weeping woman is a composite character, a complex identity, fragments copied and pasted from a lifelong collection of artistic, political and cultural references: pink feathers are collaged into the corners of the subject’s weeping eyes; in places her skin takes on a jaundiced complexion; stubble appears on her chin and lip; a gleaming earring dangles from her ear lobe; and red contours her eyes. Her open mouth not only lets out the cry of ‘universal suffering’ that Picasso intended, but also reveals a mouth full of broken and gold­capped teeth.[9] Davila’s trademark pastiche of gender attributes, of ethnicity and of contemporary and historical references emerges here as ‘another version of “cultural theft”’.[10]

Over his decades-long practice, the Chilean-Australian artist has been known for his acerbic commentary on cultural issues, fusing contemporary politics, Latin American folklore and art historical references with libidinous brutality. While Picasso Theft appears mild in comparison to many of his large-scale explorations, it still delivers a pointed provocation. A painted frame sits inside the wooden frame, upon which a painted plaque reads ‘PUTO’. This insult, referring to a male prostitute, reflects the artist’s opinion of both Picasso and the NGV director at the time. ‘Both in my opinion’, he says, ‘were social climbers’.[11]

The painting is signed ‘Juanito Davila’, one of many noms de pinceau that Davila employed. The artist samples this name from the figure of Juanito Laguna, a poor boy of the slums of industrialised Buenos Aires, from a series of paintings by Argentinian artist Antonio Berni.[12] Perhaps in this painting of overlapping quotations, Juanito, the poor Latin American boy from the slums, has grown up.

Gabrielle de Vietri is an artist and activist based in Naarm (Melbourne).


[1] Michael Shmith, ‘Anguish in green replaced by faces of red’, The Age, 5 August 1986.

[2] Catherine Dyson and Colin Cairns, The Picasso Ransom, Ransom Films, 2006.

[3] Olga Tsara, ‘Juan Davila collection of sketchbooks’, The La Trobe Journal, no. 100, September 2017, pp.102–03.

[4] Juan Davila, personal communication, 17 October 2018.

[5] Robyn Dixon, ‘... As well as a three-day old replica’, The Age, 7 August 1986, p.3.

[6] ‘Avago Gallery re­opened’, The University of Sydney News, vol. 18, no. 23, University of Sydney, Sydney, 19 August 1986.

[7] ibid.

[8] Davila, op. cit.

[9] ‘Pablo Picasso – Weeping Woman’ (n.d.), National Gallery of Victoria website, accessed 23 September 2018, www.ngv.vic.gov.au/school_resource/art-start/image-bank/pablo-picasso.

[10] Davila, op. cit.

[11] ibid.

[12] Guy Brett, ‘Nothing has been settled’, Juan Davila, Guy Brett and Roger Benjamin (eds), Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2006, p.9.