Exhibiting the work of British artists beside Picasso shows that – apart from a few exceptions – there really is only one, inimitable master
Picasso & Modern British Art
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
PICASSO was a sorcerer, an alchemist. He could turn base metal into gold, or at least almost anything into art. He began, however, within the limits of convention. In Picasso and Modern British Art, a room is devoted to his early work. The Femme en Chemise or the Little Girl with a Dove are outstanding, magical even, but not startling. Everything changed around 1907, a moment marked here by a drawing of a nude woman with a face that’s an African mask.
Cubism followed. In Woman in Green, for example, or the severely deconstructed Bottle and Books from 1910, Picasso showed he could take the world to pieces and put it back again in a new order of his own devising, but one that still makes sense. He was, in Neitzsche’s term, a superman; by sheer force of will he broke through the constraints of convention to create a new order from within himself. Neitzsche was fashionable, and Picasso’s extraordinary creative freedom sprang in part from the liberation his ideas provided.
But the outside world will break in even on a superman. To the relief of his English admirers, in reaction to the First World War Picasso reverted briefly to the classicism of the Tate’s Seated Woman in a Chemise. He soon triumphantly reasserted his creative autonomy, however. He considered The Three Dancers of 1925, for instance, one of his two greatest paintings. “It was,” he said, “a picture in itself without outside considerations.” It is wholly autonomous, in other words.
How this masterpiece came to be in the Tate through Roland Penrose, Picasso’s principal English champion, is part of the sub-plot traced in the catalogue of Picasso’s relationship with Britain through admirers, collectors and occasional visits. In a photograph, arriving at Victoria Station in 1950 he is wearing a splendid Harris Tweed suit, a small Caledonian touch in an otherwise pretty anglocentric exhibition.
It was fashionable to see a link between the erotic and creative – witness D H Lawrence. Picasso lived it. The erotic became increasingly overt, too. Nude Woman in a Red Armchair is a splendid example. In his later work this relationship became even more explicit. Indeed the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art’s (SNGMA’s)own splendid Man and Woman of 1967 really is in your face. Nevertheless, Roger Fry, leading English champion of Picasso’s modernism, offered the magnificently fatuous opinion that “the preoccupation with the female nude in painting” has absolutely nothing to do with sexual feeling, “it is simply that the plasticity of the female figure is peculiarly adapted to pictorial design”. Nobody told Picasso.
English critical opinion struggled to make sense of Picasso, to normalise him. They never could. The superman is above all norms. As a result, for many people he came to personify everything they disliked about modern art.
Tearing apart his native land, the Spanish Civil War impinged even more directly on Picasso than the First World War. His response was Guernica, his masterpiece. Painted for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World Fair in 1937 in outrage at the bombing of an undefended Basque town, his rage and his creativity burned with a single brilliant flame. Guernica is represented here by a number of related pictures and studies including the gallery’s own magnificent etching Weeping Woman, which once belonged to Penrose, and the superb Minotauromachy made a couple of years earlier, but with a related iconography. Guernica was brought to London to raise funds for the Republicans. A photograph shows Clement Attlee opening the exhibition. Picasso was still highly controversial. How many contemporary politicians would have such courage?
This exhibition originated by Tate Britain follows Picasso’s career with many wonderful pictures. In counterpoint, however, it explores his influence on individual artists. The title is Picasso and Modern British Art, but as so often, “British” is vague. Among the seven artists in the original Tate show, Duncan Grant was born in Scotland, but as a member of the Bloomsbury Group was quintessentially an English artist. And if he can represent Scotland, can Francis Bacon also be British? He was born in Ireland, and the Irish don’t much like being called British. The other artists are Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland and David Hockney. The questionable Britishness of the original show has been redeemed by the SNGMA, which has added a room devoted to the two Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBryde, although they do not appear in the catalogue. The gallery has also added a wealth of archive material and photographs from the Penrose collection. Among the archive material, it is gratifying to see works by Picasso in catalogues of the Society of Scottish Artists and Royal Scottish Academy in 1913, including an enigmatically titled “Cubist painting”.
Picasso was hugely influential, certainly, but really he was inimitable. Putting his followers alongside him is a bit like embarrassing relations turning up to a glitzy party. Only another superman or woman could ever really take him on. Everything else is a reaction to bits of him, to things he himself had already left behind. Much of what is on show, however good it may be, is nevertheless revealed as essentially derivative. Putting Duncan Grant’s pictures alongside the kind of Picassos that they imitate, for instance, makes him look like a Sunday painter doing Cubism. No wonder Picasso thought English art was sweet and pretty.
Wyndham Lewis holds his own rather better. Like J D Fergusson, who is only mentioned patronisingly and in passing as “an associate of Gaudier-Brzeska” though in fact he was the only British artist who was actually part of the Modernist community that Picasso led, Lewis was to an extent responding independently to the same stimuli as Picasso himself. Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland are both well represented, but with them, and even with Francis Bacon, juxtaposed like this you cannot help thinking how much better Picasso really is. For all the fierceness of their imagery, Sutherland and Bacon look too much as though they had borrowed their angst along with the style.
With Ben Nicholson, although the link with Picasso is overt, in a magnificent picture like 1933 (St Rémy, Provence) you feel he has taken Picasso’s inspiration, but made from it something that is quite his own. The same is true of Robert Colquhoun, if less so of his companion, Robert MacBryde. Colquhoun’s Figures in a Farmyard is a powerful and uncompromising picture. MacBryde’s work remains essentially a gloss on stylised paintings by Picasso like Enamel Saucepan, a popular still life of a jug, candle and blue enamel saucepan which toured the UK in an exhibition in 1950.
Perhaps Hockney had an advantage. For him Picasso was already history. Nevertheless, of all those set alongside the master here, Hockney is the only one who can take him on and not seem like a follower. Although he made all sorts of variations on his work, he is the only one who was inspired ultimately, not by any of Picasso’s formal inventions, but by the autonomy of his creative drive, by who he was, not what he did; by the superman, not by the crumbs from his table; by his wit and humour, too, which Hockney shares abundantly.
In Artist and Model, Hockney sits himself down face to face with Picasso as his equal. It’s a challenge as well as a homage. In anybody else it would seem like hubris, but by his self-awareness and the lightness of his touch, Hockney pulls it off. The collage, Paint Trolley (LA 1985), is a witty pastiche of Cubism, but then on the table as part of his essential equipment as an artist Hockney places the complete catalogue of Picasso’s work, although in jokey, inside-out perspective. Picasso would have loved it, both for the compliment and the joke. There’s nobody else here for whom you could make such a claim.
• Until 4 November.
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