Picasso and Modern British Art, Tate Britain, review

imageRichard Dorment wavers between exultance and despair at the Tate Britain’s exhibition about Picasso’s influence on British art.

When Tate Britain announced plans for an exhibition about Picasso’s influence on British artists such as Duncan Grant and Graham Sutherland, my snorts of disbelief could be heard in Sidcup. Recent exhibitions have pitted him against Titian, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Goya, Delacroix, and Matisse. To hang important works by him in a show full of his British imitators would be an act of cruelty.

I wasn’t wrong, but neither is the show the disaster I imagined. The perverse brilliance of Picasso And Modern British Art is to take a non-subject (Picasso’s impact here was limited to a handful of artists) and turn it into a gripping indictment of British culture in the first half of the 20th century.

First, a brief look at the context in which the exhibition is set. In the last decades of the 19th century the British public tended to confuse innovation in the visual arts with political anarchy. As late as 1905, when the French dealer Paul Durand-Ruel held an exhibition in London of works by Monet, Degas, Manet and Renoir, he sold fewer than 10 pictures. Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist shows at the Grafton Gallery in 1910 and 1912 suffered a similar fate, and an indication of a deeper malaise in British culture is that, at no stage in Picasso’s career, did Britain’s most progressive art critics, Roger Fry or Clive Bell, fully understand what he was doing.

Without critical guidance and with few opportunities to see his work, collectors of progressive painting in this country could be counted on the fingers of one hand – Samuel Courtauld, Sir Michael Sadler and a few figures connected with the Bloomsbury Group. Compared with what was happening in the US, Germany and France, it makes you want to sit down and weep.

Not until the Thirties did collectors like Hugh Willoughby and Douglas Cooper acquire major Picassos. They had no competition from the Tate, which only made its first Picasso purchase in 1933, when it acquired a banal 1901 still life entitled Flowers.

In the words of John Golding, Cubism was ‘the greatest artistic revolution since the Italian Renaissance’. How heartbreaking to learn that the Tate purchased its first Cubist Picasso only in 1949, the same year the BBC broadcast stupid opinions about Picasso’s work expressed by an inebriated President of the Royal Academy.

In this climate, no wonder British visual culture stagnated. The public could not appreciate new art if public galleries did not show it. Ironically, when the Tate finally did mount its legendary Picasso retrospective in 1960, it attracted more than 460,000 visitors across two months.

It is in this context that Picasso And Modern British Art looks at how his art was understood and absorbed by British artists who saw it either on visits to Paris or in shows at the Grafton, Mayor and Leicester Galleries in London. What they took from him inevitably depended on the style Picasso was working in when they discovered him, so that Duncan Grant’s Picasso is a Cubist while Francis Bacon’s was a Surrealist.

Of the six artists the show looks at in depth, only Ben Nicholson and Henry Moore emerge from their encounters with Picasso as greater artists than they were before. The others divide into those who retained their artistic identity (Wyndham Lewis, Bacon) and those who didn’t (Grant, Sutherland). As always, David Hockney fits into neither category.

I won’t waste space ridiculing Grant’s brainless imitations of Picasso, except to say that, like all the Bloomsbury painters, he was a glorified decorator. Sutherland is the hollow man of British art whose artistic integrity was subsumed in Picasso’s powerful personality. In this show, his 1946 Deposition is a pastiche Picasso manufactured out of passages from The Three Dancers (pictured) and Guernica, but altogether missing the frenzied anguish of the originals.

Wyndham Lewis is an artist of much greater stature, but his work has little to do with Picasso except by way of Italian Futurism.

For me Francis Bacon is the artist who suffers most in the show from comparison with Picasso, but also the one I learned the most about. The grossly distorted limbless torsos and gaping mouths are close to the similarly distorted figures in Guernica. The difference is that Bacon moves into the realms of abstraction to express horror and disgust, whereas Picasso never strays from the here, the now, and the specific.

Picasso’s importance for Ben Nicholson lasted only a few years, but such was the British painter’s intelligence that he was able to take what he needed and turn what he learned into something uniquely his own.

For example, look at Picasso’s 1921 still life, Guitar, Compote Dish and Grapes for a few minutes and you will see the picture miraculously change before your eyes. The guitar’s sound hole becomes an eye, its neck a tail, a crisscross pattern on the body of the instrument fish scales – and you are looking at a fish on a platter with a figure sitting down to dine at one end of the table.

It is this playful, chimeric aspect of Picasso’s art that Nicholson explores in Au Chat Botté, where a view through a glass shop front blurs distinctions between what is real and what is reflected,.

What Henry Moore learnt from Picasso was monumentality. The great neoclassical female nudes Picasso painted in the Twenties inspired Moore’s reclining figures in the following decade, while the purity of Picasso’s line reappears in some of Moore’s most beautiful drawings. Perhaps because Moore was a stone and wood carver, his contacts with Picasso are the most straightforward in the show, amounting to a rare case of influence without anxiety.

David Hockney’s self-confidence is so absolute that he can admire and imitate Picasso to the point of idolatry and yet surrender not one iota of his artistic identity. I love the costume and stage designs, but wish he had not spent so much time attempting to replicate with photographs the unfathomable space in Picasso’s Cubist works. He’s the odd man out in this show – the one who cheerfully strolled into the dragon’s open mouth, was happy to be swallowed whole, and carried on painting pictures that somehow manage to owe everything to Picasso and yet look nothing like him.

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