5 March 2012

Picasso at Tate Britain

Anyone with an interest in 20th Century British art will want to see Picasso & Modern British Art at Tate Britain. In November 1910, Roger Fry in his exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists introduced Picasso’s work to Britain having encountered it through Leo and Gertrude Stein in Paris. The Tate show traces Picasso’s subsequent influence in two ways. Firstly, his personal presence in the form of visits to Britain in 1919 and 1950 and also the showings here of his major works, particularly Guernica in late 1938/early 1939. Secondly, by revealing the responses of seven British artists whose work, if only at some stage, was affected by Picasso: Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland and David Hockney. About 90 works by these artists appear alongside more than 60 of Picasso’s, including some of his major works.

My post about the Lucien Freud exhibition at the NPG remarked that “So much is available about Freud and his work that it needs little description here” and that applies again. However, it is worth pointing out that Graham Sutherland’s landscapes can be further explored currently at Modern Art Oxford. Also, nearby in London there is an opportunity at the Courtauld Gallery to explore the influence on Ben Nicholson of Piet Mondrian. Nicholson was a sophisticated and cosmopolitan painter, eclectic in his sources which extended to the Cornish naïve painter Alfred Wallis.

The Tate show concludes with The Three Dancers (1925), purchased by the Tate in 1964 for £80,000 (about £M1.4 now). Elizabeth Cowling’s Visiting Picasso describes the diplomacy required of Roland Penrose to persuade Picasso to sell the work to the Tate direct from his studio. British admirers of Picasso should be eternally grateful to Penrose for securing for the nation a painting whose auction price now one can only guess at, but could well be in the $M150 - £M100 region. Penrose recounts the conversation he had in 1965 about the picture:
I said,'One can see the beginnings of "Guernica" in "3 Dancers".’
P[icasso].'Peut-être mais des deux tableaux je préfère de beaucoup les "3 D". C'est peint comme un tableau sans arrière-pensée.’*
Penrose had first met Picasso in 1936 and later had a key role in arranging Guernica’s UK tour. He resumed contact after the war, wrote a biography of Picasso in 1958, Picasso, His Life and Work and organised the Picasso retrospective at the Tate in London two years later. He introduced Picasso to a wider audience in 1960 than ever before with the following:
It is largely due to Pablo Picasso that the conception of art as a powerful emotional medium, rather than a search for the perfection of ideal forms of beauty, has become accepted among the artists of the twentieth century.
The turning-point in Picasso’s early career came when he was 25. The struggle in which the young artist found himself involved is forcibly illustrated in the great picture, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, painted in Paris in the spring of 1907. It came as a shock to his friends that he should abandon a style that they had grown to love and produce instead a form of art that they could no longer understand. No one, not even Matisse, Braque and Derain, nor his devoted patrons, nor even his close friend and admirer Guillaume Apollinaire could stomach this work, which at first sight seemed to them outrageous. It took many months to digest this insult to their sensibility, but gradually they came not only to accept it but to find that it was exerting a profound influence on them.
Although since that time the work of Picasso has not always been cubist in style, the discoveries made between 1909 and the outbreak of the 1914 war (which ended his close association with Braque), have led to innumerable developments in his work and have spread their influence more widely than any other single movement in the arts.
The enveloping tenderness of maternity, the wonder of the human head, the dilemma of the artist in relation to his model, the sacrificial drama of the bullfight, the heroism of classical myths, the metamorphosis of living beings and inanimate objects, the mystery of landscape or the familiar domesticity of a still life: these themes have always absorbed him.
Although painting is his major art, the universality of his genius extends to sculpture, drawing, etching and ceramics, murals and designs for the theatre, poetry, the writing of plays and the cinema.
Picasso looks at the world with new vision, and by his art he enables us to do likewise.
In the summer of 1960 nearly half a million people queued at the Tate Gallery on London’s Millbank for the Picasso exhibition – I was one of them and a teenager (only just). In fact, it was the first major show that I had been to. I can clearly remember how crowded it was and I have wondered subsequently how much of it must have passed over me. However, the unexpected feeling of déjà vu visiting Tate Britain over 50 years later for Picasso & Modern British Art goes to show that not much in life gets totally forgotten.

Picasso & Modern British Art continues at Tate Britain until 15 July 2012 and then will be at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh from 4 August to 4 November. As well as providing a record of the exhibition, the Tate’s catalogue includes some informative essays and a fascinating interview with John Richardson, another biographer of Picasso, about the malevolent ‘capers’ of the Anglophobic collector Douglas Cooper.

*literally: 'Perhaps, but of the two pictures I much prefer the "3 D". It is painted without a second thought’; but the catalogue offers: ‘a painting in itself without outside consideration’ (page 212).

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