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> > > Picasso and Modern British Art

12 March 2012

painting in primary colours of the head of a woman

Weeping Woman (Femme en pleurs), 1937, Pablo Picasso 1881-1973, Tate © Succession Picasso/DACS 2002

Deborah Caulfield recently spent two glorious hours at Tate Britain’s Picasso & British Modern Art exhibition. She urges you to go, even if your passion for Modern Art is barely lukewarm.
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If you're bemused by Cubism, or puzzled by Picasso, this exhibition will help, but you’ll have to work at it. With my ticket came a free booklet, an excellent little guide. The problem was the lack of somewhere to sit and read it, since every seat was occupied by pencil and rubber wielding students.

Fortunately, I had splashed out on hiring a touchscreen multimedia head/handset (£3.50 concessionary rate) which was invaluable for directing me through the exhibition's highlights and key exhibits. Picasso & British Modern Art tells two stories. One is about Pablo Picasso’s impact on British Modernism; the other concerns his relationship with Britain, his collectors, collaborators and, to a lesser extent, his critics.

More than 150 works are displayed, including over 60 paintings by Picasso. Works by seven British greats are here, all of whom were substantially influenced by, or made reference, to Picasso in their work: Francis Bacon, Duncan Grant, David Hockney, Wyndham Lewis, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson and Graham Sutherland.

People sometimes complain that Picasso's Cubist portraits are distorted or ugly. 'Weeping Woman' 1937 is indeed a difficult painting to look at. Picasso became obsessed with this motif which symbolised the anguish and devastation of the Spanish Civil War. I looked longer at this picture than any other, trying to decode and understand it. It is full of pain; long pointed needles pull at the skin of the lower eyelids; there are thorns around the eyes; the woman has a deeply creased brow, and in her torpedo shaped fingers she holds a shroud like handkerchief.

Similarly, 'Head of a Man' 1912 is far from being a conventional portrait, or an easy one to behold. However, given time, the brain finds that everything is present, in a new kind of harmony. It is as much about believing, as seeing. Believing is seeing.

In the early years, while the British art establishment was making up its mind about Picasso - whether his work was revolutionary or revolting - private collectors were snapping him up, and his contemporaries were busy picking up on his ideas, integrating them into their own work.

In case of only thinking of Picasso in terms of Cubism, this exhibition is a reminder of how much more to him there is. Not one to confine himself to a particular style, he therefore defies categorisation. A consummate innovator, in constant state of production and reinvention, he was perhaps more machine than man.

The sharing and cross-pollination of ideas between artists of the same period, which we see in this exhibition, comes across clearly in Henry Moore’s sculptures. Moore’s exquisite 'Elmwood Reclining Figure' 1936, is juxtaposed with Picasso's painting 'The Source', 1921. This key curatorial decision makes the affinity betwen the two artists clear by helping to show the connection that both artists were making between the human form and landscape.

The exhibition reveals that there was more to Picasso than his art. He was also deeply and actively political. As a member of the communist party, Picasso was fervently pro-peace and anti-fascist. His vast and hugely influential masterpiece 'Guernica' - a protest against the bombing of the Basque town - was widely seen as it toured Britain in 1938. The Whitechapel Art Gallery alone drew 15,000 visitors in a fortnight.

Much is made, in this exhibition, of Picasso’s visits to Britain, notably in 1919 to work on scenery and costume designs for Diaghilev’s 'Three-Cornered Hat', to which a whole room is dedicated. There are details here, also, of Picasso’s involvement in the somewhat ill-fated second Peace Congress in Sheffield 1950.

A retrospective assessment of Picasso’s influence on British Modernism, this exhibition is necessarily backwards-facing. The only living artist featured is David Hockney, who continues to pay homage and make reference to Picasso, as his current exhibition A Bigger Picture testifies.

I left the exhibition wanting more, wishing that Picasso & British Modern Art had explored what impact Picasso has made on contemporary modernists. I continue to wonder.

The exhibition continues at Tate Britain until 15 July 2012, after which it tours to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, where I'm sure it will feel very much at home.

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