Jack Watkins deciphers the enduring appeal of Pablo Picasso, as a new exhibition – Picasso and Modern British Art – opens at Tate Britain
Nearly forty years after his death, Pablo Picasso remains the giant of modern art. No-one has ever come remotely close to toppling him. He wasn’t always held in such esteem, of course – and certainly not in Britain, where Members of the Bloomsbury Set were among the few of the native intelligentsia who maintained a firm belief in the artist’s genius. “We are in a huge state of excitement – having just brought a Picasso for £4,” wrote Vanessa Bell triumphantly to her sister Virginia Woolf in 1907, when Clive Bell picked up one of the artist’s small paintings in Paris. (The Bells’ acquisition – Jars and Lemons – hangs in the first gallery room of Tate Britain’s new show.)
More typical was the view of GK Chesterton. When he saw a reproduction of one of Picasso’s Cubist efforts in the magazine New Age, he dismissed it as ‘a piece of paper on which Mr Picasso has had the misfortune to upset the ink and tried to dry it with his boots’.
It’s been claimed that Picasso’s intention on deciding to leave Barcelona as an eighteen year-old in 1899 was actually to take up residence in London, before he fell for the attractions of Paris en route. As an artist who was as much in thrall to the past as he was to notions of creating progressive new approaches to art, though, there were British practitioners whom he admired, including the mystical Edward Burne-Jones and the decadent master of fin de siècle Art Nouveau, Aubrey Beardsley. Luke Fildes, today too easily dismissed as an exemplar of stuffy Victorian academic painting, was another favourite.
Evidence of Picasso’s regard for Britain itself is scant, though when he did finally visit, in 1919, Clive Bell had to take him to a Savile Row tailor, after which he was photographed outside the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square, immaculately attired in an English gentleman’s three-piece suit, complete with bowler hat and walking cane. Certainly any affection he felt for us was slow in being reciprocated. Sales of his work were often poor, and as late as 1945, an odour of arch contrarianism and snobbery could be detected in the attitudes of such as Evelyn Waugh, who wrote: ‘Señor Picasso’s painting cannot be intelligently discussed in terms of the civilised masters… He can only be treated as crooners are treated by their devotees’.
Waugh, of course, bore his crusty fogeyism like a badge of honour. Less forgivable was the jibe of Sir Alfred Munnings, noted horse painter and president of the Royal Academy, at a banquet broadcast on the BBC in 1949, in which he gleefully recounted Sir Winston Churchill saying to him: “Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join me in kicking his… something, something?” After much laughter and applause from the audience, the enlightened Munnings continued, “And I said ‘Yes Sir! I would!’.”
Even today, the work of painters like Picasso remains a mystery for many, as if every piece of art, like an Agatha Christie crime novel, demands its own solution. As I wandered around the Tate exhibition, I heard one baffled old dear remarking: “Where’s the head? I can’t see the head,” as she tried to puzzle out the complexities of Head of a Man. The idea that a painting must be ‘about’ or ‘of’ something is a long time a-dying. It’s understandable in many ways, perhaps, since whether a painting appears to convey an accurate impression of a landscape, event or person, or of a felt emotion, is the chief means by which we – average, untrained gallery goers – judge whether it’s ‘any good’.
Until the turn of the 20th century, painting, in broad terms, had always been about using one’s skills to depict something, rather than being about painting itself. Crude as the techniques of the Post-Impressionists like Cézanne might have seemed, at least you could see what they were getting at. However, with Picasso – and Braque and Kandinsky, among others of the new wave – the notion of concealing the fact that painting is not actually a three-dimensional medium and disguising the flatness of the canvas surface, was increasingly being abandoned. The Cubist idea of the ‘multiple viewpoint’, the lack of discernible representation or resolved subject matter opened up entirely new possibilities in painting.
Picasso represents a good entry point for those still confused by this strange new world, since he qualifies on many levels as a classical artist, being a fine draughtsman, and a master of the handling of colour and composition. The Tate’s show, though, is not merely Picasso by numbers, and examines his relationship with British art, bringing together works that were shown and collected in this country from before the First World War up to 1960, by which time a Tate Gallery retrospective drew almost half a million visitors.
Interspersed with these pictures are rooms dedicated to seven important British artists spanning three generations: Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and David Hockney, each of whom either knew Picasso personally or were in some way influenced by him. Have fun deciding which you like best – and avoid, if you can, falling into the trap which has caught out many of our sheep-like hacks, that of comparing these home-bred greats unfavourably with the Spaniard.
None of these men was slavishly in thrall to Picasso, and certainly not Wyndham Lewis, the champion of the short-lived English Vorticists, and whose fierce angularity contrasts with softer curves of Picasso. Lewis voiced the pertinent criticism that Cubist art, with its introspective obsession over method – art for artists if you like – failed to address the concerns of the age in the way in which Vorticism and Italian Futurism was so bravely grappling with them. Ben Nicholson, with his flowing lines and neutral subject matter, and Henry Moore, with his beautifully sculpted, Africanised distortions of the human figure, seem more aptly regarded as disciples.
What of the man himself? The selection here is generous, packed with quality. What astounds is Picasso’s versatility and continuing inventiveness, his ability to create work of the highest order across a range of styles. There are the muted browns and greys of the early years (Man with a Clarinet), the Impressionistic homages of the blue period (Blue Roofs, Paris and The Race Course at Auteuil), Cubist primitivism (Bust of a Woman), classical themes and portraiture (The Source and Seated Woman in a Chemise) and expressionist distortion (Woman Dressing Her Hair and Bathers at the Beach Hut). Works like Weeping Woman, Women of Algiers and The Three Dancers are of such freedom and imagination that it is hard to believe they came from the same brush as the producer of the careful, introspective Head of a Man. Some of us will never quite get to grips with modern art, clearly, but looking at the best of what is on offer here is like inspecting the work of an Old Master.
Picasso and Modern British Art continues at
Tate Britain until 15 July.
See www.tate.org.uk for times and ticket prices.