IN 1960, the Surrealist artist, jazz musician and great British character, George Melly received an invitation to a royal reception at the Tate Gallery to mark the opening of its major Picasso retrospective.
The guest of honour was the Duke of Edinburgh, the dress code formal: “Tails are expected… medals will be worn.”
Melly, to put it simply, went ballistic. He wrote in protest to Roland Penrose, the Tate Trustee and great British champion of Picasso’s art who had organised the exhibition. Melly signed off “yours disgustedly” after raging at what he called a “shabby and opportunistic little marriage of art and establishment”.
You can read the original typewritten letter in one of the final cases of Picasso And Modern British Art, the summer blockbuster that charts Picasso’s impact on the artists of these isles. “I do hope you will enjoy the little jokes HRH will presumably make in front of the pictures,” Melly thunders. “Perhaps he will suggest that Prince Charles could do better.”
The show achieved 460,000 visitors and Picassomania gripped the nation. Five years of hard work later, Penrose finally achieved a lifelong ambition to acquire a really good Picasso for the gallery. The Three Dancers, a 1925 painting that Picasso treasured and regarded as one of his two most important works, was bought for £60,000.
It is hanging in Edinburgh till November and it’s a hell of a work – three anguished figures trapped in a macabre dance of death, the central figure almost crucified. There are voids where there should be flesh and what flesh there is flattened against the oppressive patterned walls.
Picasso thought this painting better than Guernica, second only to Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, the work that blew 20th century painting apart. Did Penrose get thanked for it? Well hardly. In the same room as the painting you can read the press reports of the furious criticism in the House of Lords.
Picasso And Modern British Art is a brilliant historical exhibition, charting Picasso’s reception in Britain from 1910 to 1960, but it’s a bit of a sorry story. And the sorry bit is really our own.
Last week, for example, a poster advertising this summer’s exhibition, an image of the painting Nude Woman In A Red Armchair (1932), was covered up by lily-livered management at Edinburgh Airport, only to be subsequently reinstated.
You could fill a vast tome with this kind of thing, including the famous after dinner ramblings of Sir Alfred Munnings, president of the Royal Academy, who claimed in 1949 that Winston Churchill had suggested kicking Picasso’s “something, something”, presumably his backside.
But of course the boot was always on the other foot. The mainstream British art world was slow to understand the monumental kick up the bahookie that art had received, taking decades to acquire decent works for public collections.
Figures like Melly represented a counter-culture that held Picasso dear, but couldn’t seem to expand on or capitalise on his revolutionary capacities. But most galling of all were the difficulties that most British artists experienced in doing anything other than swoon or swear in front of the master.
This show is a partnership between the Scottish National Galleries and The Tate, where it hung earlier this year. In Edinburgh it benefits from additional material from the galleries’ holdings of Penrose’s archive as well as a small section devoted to the Scottish painters Colquhoun and MacBryde.
The exhibition that most haunts Picasso And Modern British Art is another from the Tate stable: Matisse Picasso from a decade ago. That was the spellbinding tale of two artists, radically different in interest and temperament, measuring themselves against each other’s achievements, suspicious, envious, circling each other in a mutual dance.
This show, and the excellent, thoroughly researched catalogue, makes utterly explicit that there were never such authoritative figures in Britain. Instead the artists it focuses on – Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicolson, Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore and David Hockney – are variously dazzled or daunted. Picasso had friendships with some of these artists, but they were never real peers or rivals.
Thus the big plot of the exhibition is the long slow curve by which the nation came to love Picasso, indeed made him synonymous with the word modern, and not just in art. Its subplots are the dizzying little chicanes that individual artists navigated in his slipstream.
The scene is set with some early works acquired by British private collectors – the lovely Child With A Dove from 1901, the waif-like Girl In A Chemise of 1905, who stands gloomily on the threshold between the artist’s Blue and Rose period.
Many of those who first encountered Picasso were members of the Bloomsbury Group. There has been much art historical hand-wringing that it was this gang who got hold of him first. Clive and Vanessa Bell bought a small still life from 1907, Jars And Lemon, in October 1911; concealed beneath its rhythmic structure are some studies for Les Demoiselles.
Duncan Grant would first have seen important Picasso works in Gertrude Stein’s Paris apartment in 1909. He met Picasso in 1912. He knew the important 1913 painting, Head Of A Man, in which Picasso emulates, in paint, his radical experiments in assemblage and collage.
Grant’s own works echo Picasso’s without ever seeming to understand them. While Picasso was dismantling our understanding of what a picture might be and recalibrating its relationship with the real world, Grant subsumed all of this back into pretty picture making and design. Head of A Man, now in New York, is an odd, abrasive little painting. Grant’s response within a year or two was to use its lessons in an anodyne textile design.
One of the great benefits of this show is the opportunity it provides to reappraise works and artists you are long acquainted with. Like old friends, you often don’t see your national collections for what they are. Suddenly windows are thrown open in familiar rooms and the outside world is let in.
Wyndham Lewis’s satirical Tyro paintings seem even more like tiresome posturing when you consider them in context, but his small drawings and watercolours stand up well. Lewis was suspicious about what he saw as Picasso’s leisurely inertia and closed subject matter, but he was shouting too hard to listen.
Graham Sutherland is drowned in a pool of lachrymose sentiment. Francis Bacon seems noisy but dissembling, notoriously vague about both sources and process in his work, it’s easy to read Picasso as a source in his Three Studies For Figures At The Base Of A Crucifixion. But Bacon’s angst can seem an affectation at times. Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson stand up in very different ways.
Moore, in particular, makes you look more clearly at the evidence, that is everywhere in this show, that Picasso was a monochrome figure for much of the century in Britain. Drawings were easy to reproduce, paintings very difficult. Art books were tiny in format, uniformly black and white.
You can understand why painters were dazzled when they first saw Picasso’s art in his studio or in private homes. But Moore responded to Picasso in black and white, to the labour that underpinned Picasso’s radicalism, to the big lessons about modelling and form. He found a way to repress his awe and soldier through.
Oddly, in the final section David Hockney comes out of this show rather well. Not because he could ever match Picasso, but because the cool distance he applies to his work is possibly the only way to deal with such a dominant personality. Hockney feminises the macho monster, invokes him as both past master and friendly ghost. He also suggests a brittleness and irony in Picasso’s plundering of art history.
Invited to design a production of Erik Satie’s Parade, Hockney reverted to Picasso’s 1917 designs. The 1980 painting Harlequin, possibly intended as a poster for the production, sees a clown in Picasso-designed outfit cartwheeling through a stage set which is a post-modern set of allusions to the nature of illusion. As so often, Picasso is a trickster figure in British art, a figure of superhuman talents often hiding behind the curtain, always threatening to take centre stage.
And he still does, the strongest recommendation for this important show, is of course the opportunity to see countless important works by the man himself, not his imitators.
Picasso And Modern British Art, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, until 4 November. www.edinburghartfestival.com