Picasso & Modern British Art @ Tate Britain – REVIEW
It pays to be a little wary of the ‘[artist] and [category].’ exhibition format, whereby the name of a superstar artist (Rothko, Van Gogh, Warhol etc) is followed by a general category (‘Britain’, ‘the Modern Age’, ‘Modern Art’, etc). Too often it points to the gallery/curator’s failure to amass sufficient artworks by the desired artist, and a subsequent effort to compensate via inclusion of contextual items –sketchbooks, photographs, and, worst of all, works by other, lesser artists.
But the Tate Birtain’s Picasso and Modern British Art is different. Yes, it deploys all the above contextual material, including plethora of works most definitely not by Picasso. But it does so in support of a substantial collection of paintings by Picasso (that Shakespeare of Modern Art); and what a support (!), with the exhibition presenting the work of seven other major artists – including Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, and David Hockney – whose stature as canonical figures of Art History is surpassed by none but Picasso himself.
The exhibition presents us with interlocking stories: first, that of Picasso’s career in Britain, from his first and much-pooh-poohed showing at Roger Fry’s 1910 Manet and the Post-Impressionists exhibition, to his major and unprecedentedly popular retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1960, attracting a record-breaking 500,000 visitors; and second, the story of his influence on British artists, with the curators drawing out those moments when Picasso’s formal experimentation and creative energy opened up the way for major artistic leaps within the careers of others.
While not a retrospective per se, the exhibition has something of a retrospective’s sweep. In terms of Picasso’s career in Britain, we are transported right back to the beginning – to a time when British tastes weren’t quite ready for such a radical departure from traditional representation (see C.K. Chesterton’s description of the ‘piece of paper on which Mr Picasso has had the misfortune to upset the ink and tried to dry it with his boots’), and the artist was championed exclusively by avant-gardist sets such as the Bloomsbury Group, who would purchase, fete and preciously escort him about London during the 1910s and 20s.
And then onto his first foray into the collecting mainstream, with the first work purchased by @Tate in 1933 against the wishes of the Director, and the growing interest of private collectors in his work, eager to add the name to their collections, but tentatively buying those early works that departed least from the pieces already in their possession (see the relatively conservative A Child with a Dove bought by Samuel Courtauld, that great collector of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism). Ending the story with his 1960 retrospective, the trajectory of his UK career provides a compelling cross section for the gradual assimilation of Picasso’s avant-gardism into the artistic establishment; in doing this, it serves to remind us just how radical Picasso actually was, helping us (me) overcome our (my) inability to see Picasso freshly, at a time when his formal vocabulary has become ubiquitous.
The second strand of this exhibition – Picasso’s influence on British artists Duncan Grant, Wyndam Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland, and David Hockney – is no less engaging, with the curators successfully pinpointing those moments of Picasso inspired activity within the practices of soon-to-be-eminent others.
These were those with the ability not only to take on, but run with Picassoid innovations: from Wyndham Lewis declaring war against that ‘discouraged, sentimental and inactive personality of Picasso’, with the launch of his new Cubist-inspired movement Vorticism that embraced messy urban energy over the ‘cultivated and snobbish game’ of Picasso’s studio and elite acolytes; Henry Moore’s echoing of Picasso’s abstract allusions to human form, and dual indebtedness to ‘primitive’ and classical sources; Francis Bacon’s becoming an artist after having the ‘possibilities of painting’ revealed to him in Picasso’s Dinard paintings, and initially copycatting his figure distortions before transfiguring them into that now-iconic disturbing Bacon-ite vocab; to Hockney’s playful and deliberate gurufication of Picasso as Master, allegedly visiting the 1960 retrospective eight times, and thereafter pop-ily and boisterously ever-parodying the tropes of Picasso’s oeuvre. Words/Photo Thomas Keane © 2011 ArtLyst