Picasso & Modern British Art was the first exhibition to explore Pablo Picasso’s lifelong connections with Britain, examining his crititical reputation here, and the response of British artist’s to his work.
Amongst these artists for whom Picasso provided an important stimulus were Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore and Francis Bacon. Their work was included in this show, alongside over 60 works by Picasso.
Highlights include masterpieces from all periods of Picasso’s career, such as his great 1925 painting, The Three Dancers, which the Tate acquired from the artist following his 1960 exhibition, and major cubist paintings from the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Supported by Dunard Fund.
The exhibition was organized by Tate Britain.
In the period immediately before the First World War, Picasso proved a more stimulating example to Duncan Grant than to any other British artist. Grant was introduced to Picasso and his work by Gertrude and Leo Stein who were the most avid of Picasso’s early collectors. When Grant met the couple, the Steins’ had an unrivalled collection of Picasso’s work, including his celebrated portrait of Gertrude and the masterpiece, Nude with Drapery.
Looking at the Steins’ collection, Grant could see the evolution of Picasso’s art from the Blue and Rose periods to cubism. Although sometimes hasty in his incorporation of different styles, Grant was more particular in the methods and styles he took from Picasso. There were three paintings by Picasso which proved to be especially valuable to Grant’s work: Jars and Lemon (1907) provided a formal basis; Nude with Drapery (1907) encouraged Grant to use the cross-hatching technique; and Head of a Man(1913) and Picasso’s papiers collés (collage made from paper) inspired Grant’s experiments with collage and his production of some of the earliest abstract work in Britain. Most importantly, the work of Picasso encouraged Grant to experiment in different, but parallel, styles and media.
Throughout his career, Wyndham Lewis was a highly knowledgeable though critical admirer of Picasso, and Picasso’s art provided a touchstone, both positive and negative. While travelling in Europe from 1902 to 1908, Lewis encountered the work of Picasso, and perhaps the man himself. The Theatre Manager (1909) by Lewis is thought to be the first work by a British artist to show the influence of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).
When Lewis returned to London in 1908, he began his career as a painter and writer, creating grotesque drawings with a literary character. These works reflected themes of identity and power that Lewis had explored in his short stories about actors and other marginal figures, types that had been dominant characters in Picasso’s art since the turn of the century.
By 1911 Lewis’ art reflected a deep interest in cubist paintings and Lewis created images characterised by a sharp geometrical quality and distortions of perspective that demonstrate his response to Picasso’s recent work. Although he saw himself as in many respects a ‘pure’ artists, concerned with the formal qualities of painting, Lewis believed narrative was at least implicit in all the greatest art, animating it in subtle and powerful ways. What Lewis shared with Picasso is a tragic sense of the human existence though Lewis’ response was almost always expressed with humour and satire.
Ben Nicholson always acknowledged his debt to Picasso. In December 1933, in his statement for the modernist group publication Unit-One, he listed Picasso, as one who had a made ‘a vital contribution’ in ‘the last epoch’. Nicholson also recalled to his biographer John Summerson the experience of seeing a cubist Picasso in a Paris gallery as setting a standard ‘by which I judge any realty in my own work’.
Nicholson was able to meet Picasso only a few times, the first in March and April 1933, and his relationship with Picasso was not with the man himself but with the work encountered during his visits to Paris. Before 1934 opportunities to see works by Picasso in London were rare and in 1930 Nicholson encouraged the director of the Lefevre Galleries to hold an exhibition, but the gallery director doubted whether the London public was ‘ready for a Picasso exhibition yet’.
Picasso’s collage-like paintings and his later cubist works provided the starting point for Nicholson’s first abstract works which featured overlapping flat planes and rectilinear patterns. These pictures relate to aspects of Picasso’s work from the late 1910s and 1920s, such as repeated forms, decorative arrangements and the use of still-life objects.
Henry Moore met Picasso in 1927 when he was invited, along with Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, Alberto Giacometti and Roland Penrose, to a performance by Picasso at work in his studio on Guernica.
In an interview marking Picasso’s death in 1973, Moore acknowledged Picasso’s influence on him since his student days, ‘because one knew about Cubism.’ Adding, ‘He has dominated... even sculpture as well as painting – since Cubism’. As Moore’s work from the 1930s makes clear, a major factor in the artist’s move towards more abstracted work was Picasso’s work of the late 1920s. Moore encountered these works through reproductions in the leading Parisian avant-garde periodicals, Cahiers d’Art, Documents and Minotaure.
When Moore looked back at the influence of Picasso on his work, it was both the idea that Picasso as a ‘sculptor-painter’ and that both artists placed drawing at the centre of their practice that were significant points. It was in Picasso’s drawings and paintings, and only rarely in his sculptures, that Moore found his imagination stimulated and his ideas about sculpture develop. Crucial for both Picasso and Moore was their academic background of drawing from a living model, and both artists continued to develop ideas based on their knowledge of the human form however far they moved from straight representation.
Bacon’s landmark work Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was influenced, he said, ‘by those Picasso things which were done at the end of the twenties’. Bacon’s recollections of Picasso’s work is inconsistent but, from the concrete evidence of his work, it appears that it was only around 1933 that Bacon started to produce art that showed the influence of Picasso. By that stage, he could have seen a range of paintings without leaving London, most importantly in the exhibition Thirty Years of Pablo Picasso held in 1931. Before that, works such had been reproduced in the journal Cahiers d’Art, available in London. This would fit with Bacon’s preference to take in imagery through photographic reproduction rather than from direct encounter.
From the late 1950s Bacon developed his signature style of the human figure which he distorted to create character and movement but also to express psychological elements. The most obvious model for this new form of figurative painting was Picasso, whom Bacon saw as nearer ‘to what I feel about the psyche of our time’ than any other artist. In the work of Picasso, Bacon perceived what he called ‘the brutality of fact’, a phrase that came commonly to be used to describe his own art.
Graham Sutherland met Picasso in November 1947 and became a fairly regular visitor and acquaintance, if not a friend. Although this encounter came late in the year, it was also in 1947 that Sutherland painted his Homage to Picasso based on Picasso’s La joie de vivre that Sutherland had seen that same year.
Traditionally, the turning point in Sutherland’s career has been identified as his discovery of the landscape of south-west Wales in 1934, which led to his paintings of stylised natural forms. However, he himself noted that after he had started work in Pembrokeshire, some of the forms started to look like works he had seen as reproductions in Cahiers d’Art. If Sutherland’s art tended towards the contemporary art of Paris, the largest impact in the late 1930s and 1940s was Picasso’s Guernica and its related studies.
In these works, Picasso offered an example of an artist engaging in a modern method with the shocking events of the time, as well as presenting a model for using distortion as a means of expression. As Sutherland put it: ‘The forms I saw in this series pointed to a passionate involvement in the character of the subject, whereby the feeling for it was trapped and made concrete.’
David Hockney has taken inspiration from Picasso throughout his career. Cubism and cubist theory have formed a significant foundation for his art, in both painting and photography, since around 1980. The influence of Picasso emerges in Hockney’s artistic development so repeatedly and consistently that it almost provides a narrative to the younger artist’s career,
Hockney engaged directly with the idea of Picasso as master in two etchings made following the artist’s death in 1973. He went on to produce a suite of twenty etchings inspired by Wallace Stevens’ 1937 poem The Man with the Blue Guitar, which was itself inspired by Picasso’s The Old Guitarist (1903). Using various Picasso motifs, these and a few related paintings explored a realm of imagination as opposed to rational observation.
While these etchings anticipated a major turning point in Hockney’s art, it was in 1980 that Picasso seemed to offer Hockney an escape from realism. A commission to design a production of Erik Satie’s ballet Parade, famously designed by Picasso in 1917, and a major Picasso retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, encouraged Hockney to take a new course. After a summer of intense activity in London, he returned to Los Angeles and began the monumental Mulholland Drive(1980), which launched a new direction in his work at the centre of which were the aesthetics and ideas of cubism.
Although his analysis and use of cubist values were most marked in the early 1980s, Hockney has continued referring to them. He has lectured and published on the subject, they have affected the way Hockney uses photography and even his most recent experiments with video are based on a cubist conception of time and space.
Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde
‘The Two Roberts’, as they were known, were the most important Scottish artists to draw inspiration from Picasso. Robert Colquhoun (1914-62) was born in Kilmarnock. He studied at Glasgow School of Art where he met Robert MacBryde (1913-66), who was from Maybole in Ayrshire. The two young artists immediately formed a close friendship. They travelled to Paris in 1938 and were impressed by Picasso’s stage designs, which they saw in an exhibition. In Glasgow, they were friendly with the Polish émigré artist Jankel Adler, who knew Picasso well and whose work influenced their own. In 1941 they moved to London where they stayed in the flat of Peter Watson, a collector who owned work by Picasso.
In London, Colquhoun and MacBryde abandoned the Impressionist style of their early work and adopted a style that owed much to Picasso’s Cubism. They became major figures in the post-war art world, exhibiting regularly at the Lefèvre and Redfern Galleries, and forming friendships with artists such as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Their work was much sought-after, with museums including Tate and the Museum of Modern Art in New York buying the work by both artists. Colquhoun held a major retrospective exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1958. However, Colquhoun in particular could be highly-strung and volatile, and his famously boisterous lifestyle earned him a reputation which threatened to eclipse his art.
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