Picasso and Modern British Art at Tate Britain until 15 July is an extensive and scholarly study of Picasso and his influence on modern British artists. It explores the rather chilly reception Picasso received in Britain, while looking at seven key British artists for whom he was an important stimulus, among them David Hockney, Henry Moore and Francis Bacon.
Picasso defied labels. The only consistent theme through his work was power and vitality, but seeing the sweeping range of his art is almost like seeing a group exhibition. It was “life from a constantly changing viewpoint” as one of the 1930s magazines put it. His work may be rooted in tradition and history, but above all, he was a radical artist searching out new experiences.
There is some irony in the fact that Hockney remembers queuing for the Tate’s great 1960 Picasso exhibition, which half a million people attended. Today, the long lines in London have been at the Royal Academy for Hockney’s own exhibition, rather than this Spanish artist whose infinitely varied responses to life inspired Hockney to constantly open himself to fresh ideas.
The fact that the exhibition isn’t drawing the hordes simply means a much more pleasant opportunity to assess this giant of the twentieth century. At the same time it is the history of British collectors and collections, charting how Picasso’s work came to these shores, from early advocates such as Roger Fry to the Tate’s own purchase of The Three Dancers in 1965 from the artist himself, a work he considered one of his two greatest (the other being MOMA’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon).
It is not an exhibition that blows you away at the outset. Instead, it takes you through the myriad stages of Picasso’s development, with some pairings that are perhaps tenuous, but others that jolt you into a new appreciation of both artists. There is a wonderful symmetry in Hockney’s reprise of Picasso’s costume designs, Henry Moore’s large reclining nudes and Picasso’s monumental classical women, Francis Bacon’s distorted and anguished figures and Picasso’s darker images of the human body. The range of Picasso’s work is impressive: early waif-like figures, signature Cubist constructions and paintings, loving portraits of Marie-Therese, drawings of Guernica, the Weeping Woman series and two Cubist interpretations of old masters. Alongside that are seldom seen British works, such as early Bacons, Moore maquettes and stunning Ben Nicholson oils.
This is an exhibition which demands intense viewing, but rewards you with a new insight into the unfolding history of British art and collecting.
For exhibition details, click here.