Picasso’s influence in Britain

By Christine Lindey in Britain:

Picasso And Modern British Art
Tate Britain, London SW1

Friday 02 March 2012

It is rare nowadays to see Picasso‘s influence on young artists. But for the first half of the 20th century and beyond he towered over contemporaries across the “developed” world, Britain included.

Restless inventor, curious observer, a man of passionate engagement with the turbulent technological, social and political changes of his times, the content of Picasso‘s works opened up so many possibilities and controversies that contemporary artists loved or hated him.

But they ignored him at their peril. For artists and public Picasso came to symbolise modern art itself.

The Tate’s exhibition presents a fascinating picture of Britain’s changing attitudes to modernist art by intertwining the two themes of Picasso’s influence on seven British modernist artists and the reception of his work by British collectors, critics and institutions.

The exhibition of his cubist work in London in 1910 met with fierce controversy and suspicion and in the inter-war years his work elicited polarised debates ranging from enthusiasm to bafflement to condemnation – attitudes which survived from 1945 onwards.

Museum curators heeded the dominant conservatism of public taste and it was not until 1933 that the Tate gallery became the first British public collection to buy a Picasso and that was a tame 1901 flower piece.

By 1960 responses to the Tate’s Picasso exhibition were predominantly favourable yet five years later the House of Lords still queried the Tate’s purchase of The Three Dancers with public money.

Organised broadly chronologically the British artists selected in this show reflect aspects of Picasso’s own changing preoccupations. Inspired by African art his and Braque’s invention of cubism between 1908 and 1910 shattered traditional ways of representing the seen world.

By 1914 Wyndham Lewis had appropriated cubist forms for his aggressive Vorticist works while Duncan Grant was experimenting with African-inspired simplifications of form and cubist collage.

After the first world war Picasso’s more tranquil and colourful 1920s compositions inspired Ben Nicholson’s thoughtful, balanced still lives in which flat geometric shapes in muted greys and pastels teetered on the edge of abstraction.

Hung alongside Picasso’s 1924 Guitar, Compote Dish And Grapes Nicholson’s paintings hold their ground.

Unwilling to be typecast Picasso baffled and intrigued by occasionally veering to more traditional ways of working. His 1919 drawing of the dancer Lydia Lopokova has the anatomically correct proportions and purity of line of an Ingres.

His 1920s heavy-limbed, statuesque neoclassical nudes recall Roman sculptures. But later that decade he produced frighteningly distorted and threatening female figures with flaying limbs and brainless pin heads.

Henry Moore looked to both the latter sources in his 1930s sculptures of reclining women.

Francis Bacon’s rare surviving early works also owe a debt to Picasso’s distended figures as do his depictions of demonic heads with shark-like teeth in mouths more likely to bite than to kiss.

Franco’s insurrection politicised Picasso. He threw himself into supporting the Spanish republic, including painting Guernica for his country’s pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Fair.

Related prints and drawings, including the wonderfully expressive Weeping Woman, are displayed in a small section devoted to the 1938-9 British touring exhibition of Guernica in aid of Spain.

Predictably the role of British communists in organising this goes unmentioned in the exhibition pamphlet and wall plaques.

Graham Sutherland’s Deposition from 1946 pays tribute to Picasso – and Goya – but does so with such intelligence, sincerity and feeling that these sources are transformed to create a powerful metaphor for the recent sufferings of WWII. This is one of the great British works here.

The exhibition, which ends with humble homages to Picasso by David Hockney, is one in which rather too much is made of Picasso‘s two brief visits to Britain – a few weeks in 1919 to work on sets and costumes for the ballet The Three Cornered Hat and a few days in 1950 as the only one of 52 communist delegates from Paris to be granted entry to Britain for the aborted 1950 Sheffield Peace Congress.

The exhibition pamphlet merely attributes its cancellation to “government intervention” but the catalogue does explain the cold war context.

The crucial role played by Picasso’s commitment to communism in the celebratory humanist content of much of his post-WWII works is not featured. Indeed the focus is on his works before 1939.

Cuts in public funding cause museums to save costs by increasingly basing exhibitions around works mostly borrowed from British collections. The design and curating must be strong, focused and elucidating to warrant asking the public – most of whom is also short of cash – to fork out to see many works which are normally in free permanent displays.

This exhibition pulls this off brilliantly.

Some sections are devoted to Picasso alone while the British artists are each exhibited alongside a few Picassos which influenced them. There is much to discover, learn and enjoy.

Inspired and intelligent curating allows us to see Picasso’s work and that of those he influenced in a new light.

Runs until July 15. Box office: (020) 7887-8888.

Picasso exhibition in Australia: here.

A glass Picasso piece was found in storage at the Indiana Museum! Here.

Picasso’s Child With A Dove in temporary export bar: here.

Picasso Double Painting Cleaned: Restoration Reveals Hidden Painting Behind ‘Woman Ironing’: here.

It may come as a surprise, but Basel is home to more major works by Picasso than almost anywhere in the world. “In terms of quality and quantity, the Picassos in Basel are probably on a par with those in Paris, and are only exceeded by those in New York,” says Nina Zimmer, a curator at the Kunstmuseum Basel: here.

Picasso’s sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York: here.

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