“I must catch his spontaneity,” David Hockney told himself when he first fell in love with the art of Pablo Picasso. Francis Bacon took up painting after seeing a Picasso exhibition in Paris, and later said that the Spaniard had captured “the psyche of our time”. It’s impossible to imagine 20th-century art without Picasso, but a new exhibition at the Tate Britain, which opened yesterday, helps to clarify just how far the ripples of his influence spread – from the undulating forms of Henry Moore’s sculptures to Wyndham Lewis’s dynamic Vorticism, which was deliberately conceived as a riposte to the “exquisite and accomplished, but discouraged, sentimental and inactive, personality of Picasso”.
In some ways, Picasso & Modern British Art is an arbitrary theme. Picasso visited Britain only twice – once as costume and set designer for the Russian Ballet in 1919, once for a peace conference that never happened in 1950 – and his impact was felt as strongly elsewhere. The curator Chris Stephens remarks that the artist’s father was a great anglophile, known locally as El Ingles, and that Picasso himself had an affinity for Oscar Wilde, Edward Burne-Jones and Aubrey Beardsley. He also recounts that when Picasso first left Barcelona in 1900, his plan was to go to London (he just happened to stop off in Paris and never looked back), but the fact remains that Picasso’s relationship with Britain was not a particularly special one.
What the exhibition does offer, though, with its 150 or so artworks, including 60 Picassos, is a picture in microcosm of how Picasso’s audacity, brain power and energy affected the rest of the world. The story of how seven British artists – Bacon, Lewis, Moore, Hockney, Ben Nicholson, Duncan Grant, Graham Sutherland – were changed by Picasso is interwoven with the story of how he was received by British critics and collectors. This, as you might imagine, involved some revulsion along with all the adoration.
“We’re in a huge state of excitement, having just bought a Picasso for £4,” Vanessa Bell wrote in 1911, the year after Picasso was first shown in Britain (the painting, Jars and Lemon, is in the exhibition), while the writer GK Chesterton described one of Picasso’s pieces, exhibited in 1910, 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”. Winston Churchill is another who is quoted as having a laugh at Picasso’s expense.
Chesterton and Churchill may not have clicked with his work, but to see how Picasso affected many great 20th-century artists, you just need to see his paintings side by side with theirs. There’s a shock to be had in seeing Moore’s sculptures of the human body deconstructed into primal curves next to Picasso’s almost identically shaped oils and bronzes. It seems impossible that Moore could have developed his mature style without Picasso. A glance at his sketch book reveals that he drew copies of Picasso’s drawings – one is even labelled with the older artist’s name.
The same goes for Bacon. Although the parallels are less striking, the tiny heads, deformed bodies and gnashing mouths of his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion look as though they owe a debt to the strange shapes of Picasso’s Bathers at the Beach Hut, as well as to the visceral force of his Guernica.
“This isn’t some passive process,” Stephens says of Picasso’s influence, and adds that he chose the seven British artists featured in the show because they were “good enough to not simply follow slavishly Picasso’s innovations, but to see the new languages that he is opening up, and draw from those in the enrichment of their own art”.
While this is certainly true of some of the artists – Nicholson’s haunting semi-abstracts, for instance, hold their own – the greatest pleasures are to be found in the rooms dedicated to Picasso’s work alone. The rooms devoted to telling Picasso’s own story are something of a jumble, grouped by collector rather than strictly chronologically, but are a delight to explore. Paintings that look like traditional works of Impressionism, such as The Race Course at Auteuil, are in the same room as muted brown cubist still lives and garish, bracingly experimental portraits from the 1930s, showing how just how inventive and varied he could be.
Finally, in an otherwise empty room, is The Three Dancers, a painting that Picasso ranked alongside Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon as one of his greatest. “Seeing it in this context,” Stephens said, “you can see so many echoes of what’s gone before: the early Bacon studies which have exactly this sort of composition; the decorative patterns that Nicholson so loved; the distortion of the figure that you can find in Moore’s work, and so on.” He explains that Picasso’s great stature had endured throughout the last century because he was “so continually reinventing himself that each generation will find something new”.
Picasso & Modern British Art is at the Tate Britain until July 15
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