I went to see the Picasso exhibition at Tate Britain a few weekends ago and I’ve delayed writing about it because after seeing it I came outside onto Millbank feeling somewhat depressed. I didn’t really know how to put this into writing because it’s not often that you see the work of the greatest artist of the 20th Century and feel downhearted. It’s easier to document other negative emotions like frustration, anger and hatred; they tend to come out in a flurry, but depression is trickier.
Covering the vast seven-decade spectrum of his work, it’s not like the Picassos on display are insubstantial. Far from it: Girl in a Chemise, The Three Dancers, Cubism, the Blue Period, the Neo-Classical painting as well as his stage and costume designs; you really witness some of the best of Picasso. But, as the title of the show suggests, this show is about two things: Firstly, Picasso and secondly, Modern British Art. And it was the second part of the title that gave me cause for grief. You head on an apologetic journey of the works of three generations of British artists that appear so trivial in the company of the Spanish master.
I’ve attempted to summarise my thoughts below:
1. Picasso influenced British art
This is obviously the main point that the exhibition is trying to put forward. And in response to this we might say very simply: No shit.
It wasn’t until Picasso was in his late seventies, with Tate’s retrospective show in 1960, that Britain recognised his achievements on a large scale. Anachronistic British critics and art institutions refused to acknowledge him as a legitimate artist long after the rest of Europe had conceded to his genius. Yet, such was his innovative approach across different disciplines and his world renown that even in a country as conservative as Britain he was a pivotal influence on its artistic output. Half a million viewers attended the 1960 exhibition, showing that it was long overdue.
2. Why is Tate trying to belittle its own artists?
This was my biggest question. Tate Britain is home to the greatest collection of British Art from the last 500 years, its inhabitants are testament to the achievements of our favourite artistic national sons and daughters. So why this smattering, that gives the impression that pioneers like Lewis, Moore, Bacon and Hockney were mere copycats? And then the fact that the British works on display (with some exception) are so lightweight, only serves to reinforce this notion.
3. Who is Duncan Grant?
4. The Lewis – Picasso comparison is wide of the mark
The exhibition attempts to show Picasso’s influence on Wyndham Lewis, Britain’s most avant-garde artist of the early twentieth century, who frequently showed open disregard for Picasso. Lewis went so far as to describe Picasso’s personality as ‘inactive’.
Here, the comparison between the two surely misses the point, for Lewis’s interest lay in the fragmentation, force and movement of Futurism in Italy, which led him to found Vorticism in Britain.
5. What’s the point of Graham Sutherland and Ben Nicholson?
With artists like Grant, Sutherland and Nicholson, I suppose the exhibition most visibly illustrates point 1: Picasso influenced British art. It’s just quite depressing in these particular instances. I feel indifferent when I see their work – there were far better artists in Britain at the time: Spencer, Nash and Hepworth, for example. It’s a bit like going to car show and looking at a gorgeous foreign sports car, then next to it, viewing far worse, cheaper imitations made in your own country, whilst knowing that different brands in your own country are producing far more noteworthy models. The exhibition should have been titled: Picasso and Worse, Cheaper Imitations. Or something.
6. Picasso and Bacon. Again, what is this comparison achieving?
So now we have the Ferrari and the Aston Martin together.
Well, now what?
Oh, I’m supposed to compare them.
Ah look, they both have a steering wheel.
We know Bacon was profoundly influenced by Picasso. He said so himself, that seeing Picasso’s work in Paris in his teens made him give-up interior design in favour of painting. Tate has put together some rare pictures from Bacon’s twenties, most of which he tried to destroy, which do indeed show, like any young artist seeking direction, the influence of a past master. But I feel that the comparison can end there – Bacon’s mature work takes an independent direction, depicting the tortured human soul in ways unseen. You would never know if this exhibition were anything to go by.
Similar could be said for Henry Moore.
David Hockney, as has been true throughout his career, does not conform, and having become obsessed by Picasso at a mature point in his career, emerges relatively unscathed.
7. The Three Dancers
The final room of the show features the magnificent Les Trois Danseuses – despite its implicit themes of reverie, broken love and death, it’s a strangely uplifting note to end on after what has gone before. Just Picasso on his own.
Dare we mention Andre Breton’s Surrealist influence?
By Edward Lines
Picasso & Modern British Art is at Tate Britain until 15th July