Picasso and modern British art

Posted on: 06 March 2012 by Anthony Page

A major new exhibition at Tate Britain, Picasso and Modern British Art explores his extensive legacy and influence on the nation's art.

Nude Woman in Armchair (detail)I’ll say it here and now – I have never been a great fan of Picasso or his work! So, when I was asked to go along to Tate Britain for the press viewing of the ‘Picasso & Modern British Art’ it did not fill me with pleasurable anticipation

A couple of years ago I had been to a private viewing at the National Gallery of another Picasso exhibition and grudgingly have to admit I did enjoy it. It brought together the canvases of some of the great masters and demonstrated how they had influenced Picasso. The nastier amongst you might say how Picasso had mimicked them with his own distinctive art form!

This new show pleasantly surprised me, as it was a travel through the art world Picasso lived in from 1910 right up to the time of his death in 1973 – and a little beyond. The exhibition is chronologically set out and demonstrates the direct link between Picasso’s work and that of British artists and artists working in the UK through the first seven decades of the 20th century. 

One strand brings together works by Picasso that were shown and collected in Britain: from the few works seen before the First World War, through his only sustained period of work in Britain in 1919. The result of his labour is shown through his designs for Serge Diaghilev’s ballet ‘The Three Cornered Hat’, which the Russian Ballet performed at the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square (long ago demolished to make way for the Odeon Leicester Square). 

The work of seven artists, contemporaneous with Picasso, is included in the exhibition: Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland and David Hockney. It is fascinating to see all the canvases together – it is only then that you realise what an impact Picasso had on British artists at that time. Each of these derived inspiration from Picasso but none of them slavishly mimicked or copied his work – they added to the visual platform he had inspired 

The Three Dancers by Pablo Picasso

It’s amusing to read of the comment made GK Chesterton on encountering some of Picasso’s work: ‘It seems like a piece of paper on which Mr Picasso has had the misfortune to upset the ink and tried to dry it with his boot!’.  Others were not so cynical and gradually collected his work - a fact their progeny no doubt appreciated!

The most monumental work in the exhibition is that entitled: ‘Guernica’, which was commissioned for the Spanish pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition in July 1937. This vast painting, completed between May and June of that year, evokes outrage at the Nazi bombing of the Basque town. This painting was a watershed in the passionate debate between modernists and the advocates of realism as the true art of political protest. When finally shown in London in 1938, over 15000 visitors viewed it in a fortnight.

David Hockney has always acknowledged Picasso as one of his great inspirations. Following his death, Hockney made two prints as a tribute and, in 1980, the Metropolitan Opera, New York commissioned Parade, based on the designs by Picasso for the ballet’s 1917 premiere. While in New York, he saw a retrospective of Picasso, which reenergised him to appreciate Cubism as a key turning point in pictorial representation. This led him to start a collection of photographic collages that replaced his painting for two years.

Anyone taking the time to visit this outstanding exhibition will not only appreciate the impact of Picasso’s work but will also get a fascinating insight into the development of modern art in Britain demonstrated by some of our leading artists.

 The name of the exhibition should have been ‘Artists walking with Picasso!’ 

Picasso and Modern British Art runs from 15 February to 15 July 2012 at Tate Britain in London.

To see images from this show visit our Picasso and Modern British Art Group.

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