February is over-saturated – more snow than London can cope with, hearts filling every shop window display (no matter how tenuous the connection) on every street and more blockbuster exhibitions than we have time to see. This week alone I have four major openings marked in my diary plus a smattering of smaller ones that may well have to wait for a later date.
Picasso & Modern British Art at Tate Britain explores Picasso’s lifelong connections with Britain through a series of dialogues with the heroes of Modern British Art, examining his critical reputation and acclaim as both a figure of controversy and celebrity.
Pablo Picasso, Nude Woman in a Red Armchair, 1932. Image via www.tate.org.uk.
The exhibition can be split into two – one strand that documents the exhibition and collecting of Picasso’s art in Britain which is interleaved with ‘conversation’ rooms showcasing the British Greats responding to Picasso’s work – Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland and David Hockney. This is a veritable treasure trove for any Modern British lover like me. Picasso’s own versatility, in part, explains the range of these responses but the exhibition also seeks to show how these artists were responding to Picasso well before he had been embraced by the British public.
Picasso first exhibited in Britain in 1910 in an exhibition organised by Roger Fry. After explaining this, the exhibition moves straight into a room looking at his influence on Duncan Grant who adopted African inspired figures and decorative patterns and later began to respond to Cubist collages. Grant’s work does little for me; Tate don’t even dedicate a whole room to him and he shares wall space with Wyndham Lewis. Although Lewis was a harsh critic of Picasso throughout his life, it’s not actually known if they ever met but his work suggests that he saw Les Demoiselles.
Wyndham Lewis room at the exhibition. Own photograph.
Throughout, the exhibition looks at Picasso’s trips to London with a stunning section on the scenery and costume designs he produced for Diaghilev and Ballet Russes in 1919 when he resided at the Savoy. During the first few weeks of this stay, Picasso sat in the corner of the Ballet Russes rehearsal rooms, drawing away while they danced. The Three Cornered Hat was the largest ballet that Picasso worked on and his designs were not just limited to costume and set – they even extended to the accessories and make-up, which, when possible, he applied himself.
Pablo Picasso, The Three Cornered Hat, 1919-20. Own photograph.
This is not an exhibition to be taken lightly; it includes some extraordinary works many of which are loaned from private collections. Most works have hefty wall labels – I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but this is not a show to flit through during your ten minute lunch break. It is altogether a more serious exhibition.
Obviously, there have been more responses to Picasso than the seven studied here but those included here illustrate variety and quality over a period of more than seventy years. It is rare to have the opportunity to view these alongside the original Picasso’s that may have influenced them.
Inside the exhibition. Own photograph.
Ben Nicholson first encountered Picasso in Paris in the 1920s and recalled a specific Picasso of 1915 which he saw as the benchmark for the qualities in his own work. In the following decade, he developed his own distinctive version of the Cubist composition where he adopted decorative patterning, intersecting forms and made use of materials such as sand to create a more physical presence.
Ben Nicholson, 1933 (coin and musical instruments), 1933. Own photograph.
Moving on, Sutherland acknowledges his debt to Guernica; he made several works where natural objects metamorphose into figurative presences – tortured anxious works reflecting the state of England at the time. Sketchbooks throughout the exhibition allow us to see some real gems and we are teased here with some fabulous Sutherland studies. I only wish Tate made more use of their technological ability, offering turning pages on a screen as they did in the Vorticism show last year.
Graham Sutherland, Thorn Head, 1946. Own photograph.
The exhibition includes some fabulous and intriguing early works by Bacon and Moore. The Bacon’s are particularly remarkable and, if you are a fan, this room if worth a visit in its own right, bringing together seven of only nine works that are known to have survived Bacon’s attempts to destroy all his pre-1944 works. Bacon said that ‘[Picasso’s work is closer] to what I feel about the psyche of our time [than any other artist]’; it was after he saw an exhibition of Picasso’s in the late 1920s that he abandoned interior design and began painting. It was seeing Picasso’s representations of the body as a biomorphic structure that inspired him with the possibilities this medium could offer. It would be a pleasure to write a whole piece on this one room looking at how Bacon’s works on the theme of crucifixion echo Picasso’s The Three Dancers (which Bacon may have seen a reproduction of in 1930 in Documents) or looking at his triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. As Bacon’s style developed and became more distinct, the debt to Picasso became more embedded. The two artists shared an approach that would forever tie them together.
Francis Bacon, Crucifixion/Figure, 1933 and Composition (Figure), 1933. Own photograph.
The curators decided to stop at Hockney, feeling that after this point Picasso’s influence just becomes too universal and never-ending. The exhibition finishes with Picasso’s The Three Dancers of 1925, taking us back to the Picasso we know and love and, in turn, slightly losing the dialogue which has been so excellently explored throughout.
Peering through to Pablo Picasso, The Three Dancers, 1925. Own photograph.
The sooner Tate finish their job-lot of grey paint the better; it’s a brilliant show often dulled by the monotonous, gloomy wall colour. The works are all so sensational that the exhibition comes together despite the somewhat tenuous nature of some of the links and comparisons.
Picasso’s climb to fame in the UK was not easy and he received much criticism along the way – in 1949, Churchill even said he would like to kick the artist up the backside. Yet when in 1960 Tate finally mounted its first Picasso retrospective, it attracted more than 460,000 visitors in two months. The exhibition made a profit and received positive reviews. It appeared we had at last embraced Picasso’s Cubist ways and we’ve never really let go.
Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman, 1924. Own photograph.
This exhibition is extensive but the works here are something to behold. Tate really shows off some Modern British masterpieces; somewhat ironically, it is these that stay with me most and they are what I recommend you go to see. Don’t get me wrong, the Picasso’s are brilliant but the Modern British story has an intoxicating edge aided by the influence of the Spaniard.
Walking through… Own photograph.
It’s easy to get lost in the academia of the exhibition. I wouldn’t advise reading all the wall text or you may never get out. Instead, admire the paintings and let the excellent catalogue tell the story in depth at a later date when you’re able to sit in the warm by a fire and not having to stand up.
This is an exhibition to allow time for; an hour and a half felt like I’d only scratched the surface. It doesn’t have the gloss or jazz of the RA’s Hockney or the NPG’s Freud (although Hockney is, of course included here). Instead, it is quietly brilliant.
Picasso & Modern British Art will be at Tate Britain from Wednesday until 15th July 2012, www.tate.org.uk.