Monday, 20 February 2012

Picasso and Modern British Art, Tate Britain

To walk around Tate Britain's exhibition, placing various works of Picasso's alongside his British contemporaries or acolytes, is to really absorb just how comprehensively important Picasso was to the art of this country throughout the 20th century. This is a carefully curated exhibition which pinpoints not just the themes but precise works that have come directly from the master (a title which must be inevitably conferred).

Perhaps the most clear example is that of the fourth room in which Ben Nicholson and Picasso are coupled. Two canvases of 1933 (both titled after the year) could have been by either artist. In the event they turn out to be works done in France by Nicholson, etching the profile of his new lover Barbara Hepworth into the dark-toned paint in the style of the late 1920s double-profile overlaps that Picasso had pioneered for his own pictures of lover Marie-Therese Walter. Picasso's own Head Of A Woman (1926) on display in the same room is a lovingly simple portrait of that woman. (Incidentally this means that there are now two concurrent exhibitions showing the work of Ben Nicholson alongside more celebrated contemporaries, the second being that in conjunction with Piet Monderian at the Courtuald.

The two artists that I hadn't really expected to be quite so bound to Picasso but whom this exhibition would have you believed virtually plagiraised his work are Henry Moore and Francis Bacon. Room six has a number of sculptures by Moore which are lit up by a strange, bright biomorphic canvas by Picasso - Standing Nude (1928, not dissimilar to this one owned by the Met).

Most striking is the Moore sculpture Three Points (1939-40, left) which is an uncanny echo of the horse's mouth in Guernica (1937, right). Picasso made a number of studies for this character in the finished freize. There are a number of examples in Room eight, (complete with a scale facsimilie of the celebrated painting).

With the biomorphic abstracts of Room six in mind, we can see the influence on Bacon in Room seven. Furthermore, editions of the Cahiers d'Art produced during the 1930s show these figures in a number of guises, often with polyp heads and dancing poses that Bacon took across for his crucifixtion studies. Most remarkably there is a geometric study of a head with a grotesque vertical mouth full of teeth - this opposite one of Bacon's many familiar canvases focusing on the bestial, screaming mouth of a figure.

And so it goes on. I liked the distance that Wyndham Lewis managed to create between himself and Picasso. Their aesthetic style is different althought the wit - the satire - that both brought to their canvases showed them to be of the same mind. For example The Reading Of Ovid (1920-21, left) shows shady figures at a table digesting the savory delights of the author. No doubt the figures of Picasso's etching The Frugal Meal (1912, right) could be found in the less expensive corner of the same slumhouse. In the same way, Georg Grosz's rasping satirical impressions of Weimar might well have borrowed from the observation of a Wyndham Lewis picture like The Theatre Manager (1909).Once again, following the Vorticists exhibition Tate Britain hosted earlier in the year it is clear to see the triangular relationships between Cubism, the dynamism of (Italian) Futurism and the kinetic perspectives of Vorticism - Wyndham Lewis' Smiling Woman Ascending  A Staircase (1911) seems like a sketch for Tamara de Lempicka's dynamic glamour, and the cubist-flattened pleats of the figure's skirts seem to oscialltae between the foreground and background.

I also really liked the smattering of works by Graham Sutherland towards the end of the exhibition, showing them to be of a part with Bacon's canon. I was less interested in David Hockney's homage room (though Christopher Without His Glasses On (1984), a portrait of Isherwood in the Dora Maar-period style of Picasso is adroit). The best reason to go to the exhibiton though is the sheer volume and range of original works by Picasso on show. A two-visit exhibition.

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