To Tate Britain to see Picasso and Modern British Art before it closes (15 July). The exhibition comprises a few rooms of works Picasso exhibited in England before and after the Great War, before dedicating a room each to British artists he strongly influenced and/or met and knew – Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, David Hockney. Lots to enjoy and have opinions about.
My son wasn’t impressed by Picasso. I agree: there’s very little of Picasso’s work that excites me. His scope and variety seem to me insidious, too farflung and overstretched. I don’t like the sentimentalism of the Blue period. I don’t like the hundreds of muddy brown cubist works. (I like fabrics and bits of everyday life stuck onto canvas, but done better by lots of others.) I don’t like the small-headed fat women running along beaches of his 1920s neo-classical period.
Picasso, through all his mutations of style, remains wedded to figurative art, to representation. This strikes me as immensely limiting, constraining. Compare and contrast him with the real revolutionaries, the spearheads of abstraction – Kandinsky, Malevich or Klee or Mondrian – who, to my mind, discovered and invented an abstract art suitable for the 20th century. (1)
In those early years around the Great War, Wyndham Lewis criticised Picasso for his passivity, for being so studio-bound, especially in the mud-brown cubist pictures. In his notorious avant-garde magazine, Blast, published on the eve of the Great War, Lewis lambasted Picasso for his limited subject matter and lack of formal energy. Does Picasso ever paint the city, trains and cars and planes, factories, crowds? No. Lewis attacks
‘… the exquisite and accomplished, but discouraged, sentimental and inactive personality of Picasso.’
I agree. Whereas everything Wyndham Lewis ever did lights my candle! I am excited by the fierce angularity, the satirical bite of his Vorticist paintings (and writings). It may be less ambitious and he didn’t keep reinventing his style – but what he did do he did vividly and excitingly.
In contrast to this European avant-garde stuff, Graham Sutherland has always seemed to me to be dull. His religious works, various altarpieces from after the second war (he converted to Roman Catholicism in the 1920s) are sub-Francis Bacon. His twisted landscapes, well, are an acquired taste maybe. (2)
Henry Moore is an undoubted genius but I’m not the only one who wonders whether he didn’t produce too much and take too many public commissions with the result that his sculpture is too ubiquitous, making them strangely invisible (I wrote that before googling the idea and finding this Guardian article).
David Hockney (apparently) took from Picasso the imperative to paint, paint, paint, not to worry whether things were finished or perfect or whether he had a consistent ‘style’. Which explains Hockney’s huge output as captured in the recent Royal Academy exhibition, and his fearlessness in technical experiments, from his cubist montages of Polaroid photos to the latest ipad art. The colour and vibrancy and scope of Hockney’s work is so refreshing after the dingy pessimism of someone like Sutherland or the Home Counties tupperware-and-modernism of Ben Nicholson.
A few rooms were dedicated to Picasso’s reception in Britain. Suffice to say he was embraced by a tiny élite of Bloomsburyites and ridiculed by everyone else, including the so-called Art Establishment. Until well into the 1960s Picasso was being lampooned in newspapers and beyond. The British just don’t really get modern art. It’s not a modern country. It is dominated by people educated in private schools themselves designed to train people to run a Victorian Empire, with a bluff, no-nonsense, philistine attitude to anything which doesn’t involve hitting a ball. A superficial enthusiasm for the Young British Artists doesn’t mask the brute philistinism of the great mass of the population.
Every other country’s twentieth century involved revolution, invasion and devastation. Modernism in art and music expressed real, actual experiences of extremity, desolation, and the burning need to create new forms and new ways of thinking after the old ones were burned to the ground. Only England wasn’t invaded in either of the World Wars, allowing our elites and their subjects to go on thinking the old ways were best. The Germans had Mahler or Schoenberg; the French Debussy and Ravel; we had Elgar and Vaughan Williams. The continentals had Kandinsky and Malevich and Braques and Mondrian. We had Duncan Bell.
- Picasso and Modern British Art continues at Tate Britain until 15 July 2012
- London Review of Books review by TJ Clark
- Telegraph review by Richard Dorment emphasising the pitiful response of British critics and collectors to Modernism.
- Independent review by Charles Darwent
- Guardian review by Alex Needham
- Time out review by Martin Coomer
(1) Picasso reminds me of Stravinsky (who he worked with and who dedicated his shortest piece to him). Stravinsky is the dominating figure of 20th music, as Picasso to art, and yet he, also, didn’t really break away from the western tradition and returned to it in his neo-classical period in the 20s and 30s exactly as Picasso did in art. Throughout all his stylistic twists and turns Stravinsky is at heart a conservative unlike the real revolutionaries Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and all who followed them. Schoenberg famously caricatured Igor as ‘Little Modernski’ and I think that nails him.
(2) “Sutherland is the hollow man of British art whose artistic integrity was subsumed in Picasso’s powerful personality.” – Richard Dorment
Other reviews of Tate exhibitions
- Painting with Light @ Tate Britain (August 2016)
- Performing for the camera @ Tate Modern (March 2016)
- Frank Auerbach @ Tate Britain (February 2016)
- Every Room in Tate Modern (January 2016)
- Every room in Tate Britain (part one) (January 2016)
- Every room in Tate Britain (part two) (January 2016)
- Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past @ Tate Britain (January 2016)
- Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture @ Tate Modern (December 2015)
- The EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop @ Tate Modern (November 2015)
- Agnes Martin @ Tate Modern (September 2015)
- Fighting History @ Tate Britain (August 2015)
- Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World @ Tate Britain (August 2015)
- Sonia Delaunay @ Tate Modern (May 2015)
- Salt and Silver @ Tate Britain (April 2015)
- Sculpture Victorious @ Tate Britain (April 2015)
- Conflict, Time, Photography @ Tate Modern (March 2015)
- Late Turner @ Tate Britain (January 2015)
- Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian art @ Tate Modern (August 2014)
- British Folk Art @ Tate Britain (June 2014)
- Ruin Lust @ Tate Britain (March 2014)
- Richard Deacon @ Tate Britain (February 2014)
- Paul Klee – Making Visible @ Tate Modern (January 2014)
- Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm @ Tate Britain (December 2013)
- Lowry and the painting of modern life @ Tate Britain (September 2013)
- Lichtenstein: A Restrospective @ Tate Modern (March 2013)
- Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian avant-garde @ Tate Britain (September 2012)
- Damien Hirst @ Tate Modern (September 2012)
- Picasso and Modern British Art @ Tate Britain (July 2012)
- John Martin exhibition @ Tate Britain (December 2011)