Picasso & Modern British Art have more in common than it first seems at Tate Britain

By Mark Sheerin | 13 February 2012
Cubist painting of still life with guitar
Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Mandolin (1924)© Succession Picasso / DACS 2011, Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Exhibition: Picasso & Modern British Art, Tate Britain, London, February 15 – July 15 2012

Picasso and Modern British Art might once have been thought of as a venn diagram with very little intersect. But the curatorial team behind this juggernaut of a show at Tate Britain have found more than 150 artworks which overlap, with a paragraph or two of annotations about each one. This exhibition is not only extensive, it is dense.

But the facts of the matter bear repeating: the giant of European art was brought up in an anglophile household. His father was nicknamed El Inglés. And when Picasso first left Barcelona he was en route for London. Paris was just meant to be a stop off. What might have been in a world of sliding doors if he had made it across the channel?

Then by a twist of irony he was soon to appeal to the most Francophile British artists. Ben Nicholson had a cubist epiphany while looking in a shop window in Dieppe. He incorporates the French name of the establishment in a characteristically muddy work 1932 (Au Chat Botté). Notes call this “a signal of allegiance” rather than a rip off.

A semi-abstract painting of three dancers
Pablo Picasso, The Three Dancers  1925, Tate© Succession Picasso / DACS 2011
Duncan Grant, Henry Moore, Wyndham Lewis and Graham Sutherland all signal their allegiance in turn. But if talent borrows and genius steals, it is Francis Bacon who perhaps is first to fully appropriate Picasso. Tate’s own Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion makes perfect, if nightmarish, sense in this context.

All these British artists may be seen as contemporaries of the Spaniard, which makes youngster David Hockney the odd man out in this role call of Picasso’s heirs. Such a fact allows the Yorkshire-born artist to be much more direct in his engagement, even making a work on the subject - for example, an etching subtitled Homage to Picasso.

But alongside the seven other artists featured, an unlikely group of alternative heroes emerges from the copious notes here. These are the collectors who first bought into the giant of European modernism for princely sums as low as £4. You may not have heard of Frank Stoop, Oswald Falk or Hugh Willoughby. But it is in part thanks to them - and critics Douglas Cooper, Roland Penrose and Roger Fry - that anyone on this island ever got to hear of Picasso.

As you can imagine there are plenty of stories which feed into the chronology of this ambitious and revelatory exhibition. But if anything was missing, it would have to be a display about British resistance to the often cruel and disfiguring work to flow from Picasso’s studio in Paris.

Winston Churchill and RA President Alfred Munnings once joked about beating him up, live on BBC radio. Sickert claimed Poulbert, Genty, Metivet, Falke, Arnac, Kern and Laborde, all now largely forgotten, were much better. Evelyn Waugh took to the letters page of The Times to denounce him. These salient facts are relegated to a quote sheet with the press pack.

So the show largely glosses over a much less popular side of Picasso in the UK. Its only residue is a Daily Mail cartoon in the Exhibition Guide, in which two punters to a 1960 Tate Retrospective appear as cubist caricatures. Admittedly, it is quite funny.

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