July 8, 2020

Exhibition review: Picasso at Tate Britain

Picasso and Modern British Art is at Tate Britain until 15th July 2012

Tate Britain’s latest exhibition looking at Picasso and British art, is not a blockbuster in the typical sense. Its aim is not solely to gather the most striking, the most exemplary nor the most complete collection of his work together. Rather it explores how an artist’s legacy is disseminated. It is for this reason the Picasso’s we see are predominantly from British collections and reproductions from books and magazines.

We should imagine this exhibition to be a story about the artist told by a series of British narrators. Some talk about their own meetings with Picasso, some talk about his art works once in their possession and others about their personal encounters with his work. Collectively these voices reveal an intriguing aspect to the post-war British psyche and its allusive relationship with European modernism. Taking us on a journey through the work of artists from Duncan Grant to David Hockney, we see Picasso quite distinctly through the eyes of others.

 The curious case of the British Picasso

The largest room is positioned in the centre of the exhibition, and for the first time brings together paintings bought by British collectors in the inter-war period. Intriguingly therefore, this sets up a dialogue that did not exist before between these images, revealing a curiously British take on Picasso.

Picasso appears in this room more as an artist working within the traditions of the English landscape, the society portrait and the still-life. Though Picasso challenged and subverted such traditions nonetheless British collectors, including magnates and mill owners, were drawn to the images in accordance with their own artistic landscape. Blue Roof (1901) is reminiscent of terraced houses on an English industrial town, Flowers (1901) a muted still life and Child with a Dove (1901) a strikingly iconic image, bearing close relationship to Whistler’s Girl in White.

The more cubist paintings such as Weeping Woman (1937) represent the first Picasso purchases for a public collection. Many of these including Tate’s own Three Dancers (1925) were gifts obtained through the artist himself. His importance then in this exhibition is not just as an artistic master but in the effects of his personal relationship with Britain.

Dissemination and translation

Figuring prominently throughout the show are books and magazines, including the French journal Cahiers d’art. What is hard to grasp, especially when placed amongst Picasso’s paintings, is the power these small black and white reproductions had on the artists who were influenced by Picasso. From these black and white images flower some of the most intriguing perspectives on the artists work. Ben Nicholson for example concentrates on the arrangement of form, translating Picasso’s cubist arrangements into geometric collages of immediacy.

A curatorial triumph is to bring together the most complete collection of Francis Bacon’s early paintings, most of which he destroyed himself. In the amorphous forms he painted we can see how formalistically they encircle his Crucifixion triptych. Yet it is his Interior of a Room that provides the most interesting conversation with Picasso’s work. A beguiling green textile pattern is taken directly from Picasso’s Head (1929), and made the centrepiece of Bacons painting, explored with a fascination with other formalistic elements in the picture plane.

Perhaps the surprise of the exhibition is Graham Sutherland, often cast in the shadow of his contemporary Francis Bacon. Sutherlands’ vibrant and yet traumatic paintings use Picasso to re-appraise religious imagery in a way now relevant to post-war psyche.

Approaching this exhibition hoping to catch a glimpse of works by the hand of Picasso and his followers is only half of the story.  The journeys artworks take through reproductions, collections, exhibitions and other artists work is explored in depth. In this way, what is the most fascinating aspect of this exhibition is that it uses artworks to interrogate the dynamics of artistic legacy.

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