Picasso and Modern British Art at Tate Britain

In these days of freely available information, of every day moments when we find a gap in our knowledge that can be immediately filled with a couple of minutes of online searching, of photographs, comments and video all available at the touch of a few buttons and a wifi connection, we can often forget that in the past information, innovation and influence travelled at the pace of a horse and cart or a train.

Today, we might not have seen a painting in its material form, but we can find an image of it on a website somewhere, we might not be able to see all the subtleties of line, colour and texture, but we will have formed some kind of impression of it.

How different that was at the turn of the 20th century, when new works by emerging artists in Europe could only be seen in Britain if either a patron bought one, or if someone arranged an exhibition.

The question in my mind, in my ignorance, before going to this exhibition at which has just opened at Tate Britain was whether or not Picasso had any particular relationship to British Modern Art.  This show answers that question in two ways.

Firstly, and to my eyes the more interesting, was the history of the works that had been either bought by British collectors or had enjoyed early exhibition in the UK.  And secondly it looked at the way a few specific British artists might have been influenced by Picasso at various times.

I suppose I liked the story aspects of British ownership of the works, as it appears that Picasso was not universally feted when first on display in London.  Taken up by the Bloomsbury Group, Roger Fry’s involvement with the arrangement of one of the first of those shows to include some of his work, interested me more than the Duncan Grant and Wyndham Lewis works which might have been influenced by Picasso’s.

The first Picasso purchased by Tate in the 1930s is an extraordinarily conventional still life with flowers, almost saying, ‘we’ve heard he’s something, but all that modern stuff is a bit de trop, so we’ll just stick with a nice vase full’.  It speaks to a very conservative art world in Britain in that period.

Not many of the British artists on display can withstand much of a comparison to Picasso, and what is clear is that there was no dialogue in influences.  All the flow was one way, from the Spaniard to the Brits; each one on display picking up on a particular Picasso style period, after the originator had, himself, moved on.

The one room in which I did get a sense that an artist had been influenced and had then used that influence to enrich his own work, was that devoted to Henry Moore.  I’ve never particularly cared for Picasso’s gargantuan women paintings, but when set alongside one of Moore’s curvaceous reclining figures, I could appreciate them anew.

Hockney, the man of the moment, also had an amusing, provocative response to Picasso.  A couple of sketches show a self portrait of Hockney, but a poor art student, approaching a bust of the great man, or of him sitting naked across the table from the Master.

It’s a huge exhibition, and one I found fascinating especially for its portrait of a British art world playing constant catch-up in the first half of the 20th century, as well as for the reminder of the vast range of styles in which Picasso  experimented throughout his career

And at the end of the show, playing the game of ‘if you had to take one piece home with you, what would it be?’ I’d have the Henry Moore of a person reaching up to the sky.  Please.

There's always a shopping opportunity......

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