Review: Picasso and Modern British Art (Tate Britain)

Pablo Picasso - The Three Dancers (1925)

Influence is a complicated affair. Impossible to measure with any great sense of accuracy or meaning yet it is as ubiquitous as oxygen. We spend our lives being influenced, often without noticing that it is even happening.

The exhibition currently showing at the Tate has been carefully hung from the idea of influence, specifically, how Picasso influenced seven British artists throughout the twentieth century, and, more broadly, the effect he had on the British art scene.

Work by British artists Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland and David Hockney (interestingly all men) is juxtaposed with selected works by Picasso to illustrate the impact he had on Modern art in the UK.

I have to say though, I’m not sure that a compare-and-contrast approach has done anything for my national pride.

In the first instance, the works of Grant, Lewis and Nicholson are at best ‘influenced’ by Picasso’s influencer, Cézanne. At worst, what they offer are poor imitations of the great Spaniard’s work, appearing seemingly outmoded and somewhat regressive when juxtaposed with the works of Picasso.

The problem is that these British artists simply didn’t understand the work of Picasso to be influenced by it. As is quoted in the exhibition itself, Wyndham Lewis pompously dismissed Picasso as repressing the modern movement, saying: ‘the exquisite and accomplished, but discouraged, sentimental and inactive, personality of Picasso.’

Picasso had an additional influence that fed into his work and goes some way to explaining why the work of the three Brits in question blanches when placed alongside that of the Spanish master.

In 1903, a book entitled: Elementary Treatise on the Geometry of Four Dimensions, was written, by French mathematician, Esprit Jouffret. The work was introduced to Picasso by friend and mathematician, Maurice Princet, a man who would affectionately become known as ‘the father of cubism’.

It was this work, and further discussion around it, along with other developments within the science world, such as the breakthrough of Einstein’s special theory of relativity, that would lead Picasso to reach somewhat higher and transcend anything else being created at that time, and in that vein.

Euclidean geometry was to be abandoned for the now much talked of non-Euclidean forms, breaking from basic geometric figures, demonstrable within other works in the exhibition, and shifting the balance towards his Cubist activity, arguably commencing with, the sadly absent, Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, in 1907.

This is the missing link, where influence became lost in translation for Grant, Lewis and Nicholson.

Pablo Picasso - Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (1932)

Interspersed between the earlier rooms, relief comes in the form of those devoted purely to Picasso’s work, which include the vivid and sensual Nude Woman in a Red Armchair and the enigmatic Man with a Clarinet, amongst others.

These spaces (six in total), serve to tell the story of Picasso’s influence, more broadly, on the British art scene. Whilst informative and interesting, it is somewhat disappointing to read how poorly judged he was by British critics and collectors alike.

It would seem that it wasn’t until Guernica was exhibited in the UK, in October 1938, alongside some related studies, that Picasso made an indelible mark. This landmark is observed by its own space in the exhibition but sadly only offers a half-size photograph of the original work.

What is interesting is seeing first-hand the speed at which Guernica had been created, with very little difference being shown between the smaller studies of the painting’s various scenes and the final work.

Graham Sutherland - Crucifixion (1946)

Following on from this comes a room looking at the work of Graham Sutherland, as influenced by Picasso’s later works such as Guernica. Whilst there is a good deal of expression in paintings such as Crucifixion, when up against a titan like Guernica, sadly it’s another case of simply being outclassed for the Brits on display.

The case for Henry Moore and Francis Bacon is somewhat more cheerful, however.

The room devoted to Moore and Picasso is well put together. Coming through the arch, instantly one is presented with the former’s Reclining Figure and the latter’s The Source, side by side. It was great to see a Brit holding his own against the Spaniard.

Picasso’s ‘African’ period had a huge impact on the adoption of ‘primitive’ form prevalent in the work of Moore. Despite Picasso’s work being mainly paintings, one felt as though the substantially sensual curves could be grabbed right from the canvas, which sat well in a room of eroticised, sculpted figures. The comparison worked, for the first, and in my view only, time to enhance the work of the two artists.

Francis Bacon - Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (c.1944)

In the case of Francis Bacon, as he had destroyed most of his early work, having felt that he had ‘arrived’ when Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion had been completed, we have less history to compare.

Interestingly, his journey to get there was one that had heavily drawn on the influence of Picasso, demonstrable in the few paintings on display that survived his pre-1944, artistic cleansing.

The effect of influence, for both Moore and Bacon, is clear and enhances the viewing experience in the context of the exhibition.

In the case of Moore, it is the complementary nature in which the two artists’ work shares the space, the symbiotic relationship.

For Bacon, his journey is clear, in reference to Picasso’s work, and, more than that, he has evolved his work to become something else altogether, but always with a nod to what he saw when first viewing Picasso’s Dinard paintings at the Paul Rosenberg gallery in Paris, during the late Twenties.

Gertrude Stein was once quoted as saying: ‘Picasso once remarked I do not care who it is that has or does influence me as long as it is not myself.’

So, my final thought is that you could do much worse than go to see this exhibition, even if it’s just to let a little of the Picasso magic rub off on you.

Picasso & Modern British Art, Tate Britain, SW1 (020 7887 8888) until July 15.

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3 Responses to Review: Picasso and Modern British Art (Tate Britain)

  1. Great analysis! Unfortunately, I live across the pond so I’ll have to miss this show. I heard an interesting tale that Picasso was initially headed to London instead of Paris only to be discouraged by the London scene, his early work being described as “a piece of paper on which Mr. Picasso has had the misfortune to upset the ink and tried to dry it with his boots.”

  2. Alyson Mowat says:

    What a great read and written with such authority. Strange how ‘Guernica’, such a pivotal piece, was not present. Looking forward to visiting the exhibition though and having a little Picasso magic rub off on me.

  3. Peter Hay says:

    – Michael, thank you for your kind words, really appreciate them and your taking the time to read my blog. I had, indeed, heard that quote before. I believe it was the writer G.K. Chesterton and was mentioned somewhere in the exhibition notes, I think. Another case of feeling embarrassed by the fact that the Brits just didn’t understand Picasso.

    – Alyson, a true shame that ‘Guernica’ wasn’t there in its ‘real’ form and at full scale. One would imagine that the Museo del Prado might rely on that particular show-piece as part of the main collection. Thank you for your kind words!

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