London Art Reviews

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The importance of Picasso for the Modern British Art at the Tate Britain.

The Three Dancers, 1925, © Tate

The importance of Picasso for the Modern British Art at the Tate Britain.

David Franchi – Saturday, 26th May 2012

“many British artists have responded to Picasso’s influence”

The focus of “Picasso & Modern British Art” is the effect of the presence of the Spanish artist in the UK, the major exhibition ongoing at the Tate Britain.

What is the impact of Picasso on British art? This is the basic question of the exhibition “Picasso & Modern British Art”. The Spanish artist, in fact, both lived and exhibited in England during his life and his presence was of inspiration for many local artists. Picasso made a significant contribution to the English art environment, despite being highly criticised but accepted only late.

The exhibition explores Picasso’s rise in Britain as a figure of both controversy and celebrity, tracing the ways in which his work was exhibited and collected during his lifetime. It demonstrates that the British engagement with Picasso and his art was much deeper and more varied than generally has been appreciated.

Picasso & Modern British Art” comprises over 150 works from major public and private collections around the world, including over 60 paintings by Picasso.

The Tate Britain exhibition is organised in a chronological order, starting from the period 1910-14. Before the First World War, Picasso first exhibited in the UK in “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” organised by critic Roger Fry at the Grafton Galleries, London, in November 1910. Initially, the work of Picasso was utterly knocked down by many critics, including GK Chesterton.

However, other public exhibition followed and Picasso became the source of inspiration for artist, such as Duncan Grant and Wyndham Lewis. The first was totally revitalized by Picasso’s example than any other artist. Grant also met Picasso in 1912 while he was working in Paris. Wyndham Lewis was the leader of the British avant-garde and he was working in Paris as well from 1902 to 1908. Lewis absorbed many elements of the radical changes ongoing in that period in France.

Nude woman in a red armchair, 1932, © Tate

The exhibition “Picasso & Modern British Art” displays the period he spent in Britain in summer 1919 when he came to London with Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballet Russes. Picasso had worked with Diaghilev before and he had married one of his dancers, Olga Khokhlova. Picasso was in London to work on ‘The Three Cornered Hat’ that premiered on July 1919 at the Alhambra Theatre, in Leicester Square.

Another artist influenced by Picasso was Ben Nicholson who met the work of the Spaniard in Paris during the 1920s. The exhibition “Picasso & Modern British Art” highlights that Nicholson developed a personal Cubist style in the 1930s. In 1932 he and Barbara Hepworth visited Picasso in Paris.

Without warning, “Picasso and Modern British Art” displays in London at the same time as  “Mondrian || Nicholson: In Parallel” – at The Courtauld Gallery. Both the exhibitions showed developments of the British art under the inspirational presence of the more complete continental artists, highlighting how they reacted to the influence of major artist.

From 1920 until 1939 the reputation of Picasso in Britain was slow in recover, despite the fact that many British artists were considering him a master. One of them was Henry Moore who started to drew inspiration from Picasso’s work in the early 1920s, sharing inspiration from African and other non-Western traditions.

Francis Bacon declared that he decided to abandon interior design and take up painting after seeing an exhibition of Picasso work in the 1920s.

However, even with his reputation Picasso was exhibited in Britain. In 1938, ‘Guernica’ was showed at the New Burlington Galleries, Mayfair, London. It attracted attention and it was the object of a great public debate. The British Surrealist Roland Penrose – a lifetime friend of Picasso – planned the show that was a part of a campaign to raise funds for the rebels fighting against Franco in the Spanish civil war. Guernica showed in Oxford, Leeds and Manchester following a tour that disdained the common cultural hot places. Its last display was at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, where the price of admission for those unable to pay the ticket, was a pair of boots. After decades when David Hockney was lecturing on Picasso in New York, he sent a postcard with Guernica on the front to his father who revealed to him to have visited the Whitechapel exhibition paying with its booths.

Graham Sutherland acknowledges his debt to Guernica from which he much has learnt. He brought together the tradition of English landscape and modern innovations. In the 1940s Sutherland bought a house in the South of France and became friend with Picasso himself.

In 1950, Picasso made his second and final visit to Britain as a delegate of the Communist- sponsored peace conference in Sheffield and when the conference was abandoned because of the government intervention Picasso repaired in London and in Sussex.

Finally Picasso was totally accepted in Britain in 1960, when Tate organised a major exhibition of his work.

Still Life with Mandolin, 1924, © Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Another artist who has been influenced by Picasso is David Hockney. He visited Picasso’s major Tate Gallery 1960 exhibition eight times, starting a life-long obsession with the artist. Hockney learnt the versatility of the style and adopted it in his following works. A selection of various Hockney homage to Picasso are on show.

In 1965, Roland Penrose could negotiate with Picasso the sale of ‘The Three Dancers’ to the Tate Gallery. Unexpectedly, Picasso accepted. It was the first time he sold directly to a public museum.

From the 1960 exhibition Picasso’s influence is unstopped in Britain until today and after all, he originated many of the most significant developments of twentieth-century art.

“Picasso & Modern British Art” examines Picasso’s evolving critical reputation and British artists’ responses to his work. While many British artists have responded to Picasso’s influence, those represented in this exhibition have been selected to illustrate both the variety and vitality of these responses over a period of more than seventy years. This is a rare opportunity to see such works alongside those by Picasso that, often, are documented as having made a particular impact on the artist concerned; in other cases, they have been chosen as excellent examples of a stylistic affinity between Picasso and the relevant British artist.

However this is a weak point of the show that in some cases puts extraordinary Picassos together with other not so brilliant artists or pieces of work. Also the choice on pieces to juxtapose to Picasso’s ones seems to be fable, even considering major artist such as Bacon, Moore or Nicholson, not mentioning minor ones such as Grant.

After Tate Britain, the exhibition will tour to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. Picasso & Modern British Art is devised by James Beechey with other contributions from Professor Christopher Green (Courtauld) and Richard Humphreys. It is curated at Tate Britain by Chris Stephens, Curator (Modern British Art) & Head of Displays, Tate Britain, assisted by Helen Little, Assistant Curator, Tate Britain. Special thanks go to Fundacion Almine and Bernard Ruiz-Picasso. The exhibition is accompanied by a major new catalogue edited by James Beechey and Chris Stephens.

From 15th February until 15th July 2012.

At the Tate Britain, Pimlico, London.

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