Edinburgh Art Festival: Piecing together Picasso

AS the Edinburgh Art Festival gets under way, the headline attraction is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, where the story of Picasso is told using major works of his own and those he influenced, including Moore, Hockney and Bacon

AS the Edinburgh Art Festival gets under way, the headline attraction is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, where the story of Picasso is told using major works of his own and those he influenced, including Moore, Hockney and Bacon

IN 1949, Sir Alfred Munnings, outgoing president of the Royal Academy, addressed the organisation’s annual banquet. He recounted a conversation with Winston Churchill, where Churchill had asked: “Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join me in kicking his… something, something?” Munnings heartily agreed that, yes, he would.

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This was far from a private joke: the speech was being broadcast on BBC radio. But Munnings was expressing a widely held view. Even postwar, Britain remained solidly sceptical of Modernism, which thudded like a wrecking ball at the door of traditional art. Most agreed with GK Chesterton, who once described a Cubist painting 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”.

However, just 11 years after Munnings quipped about kicking Pablo Picasso’s backside, a major Picasso exhibition at the Tate became the first modern blockbuster. Film stars attended the opening, the Queen sought a private view. Queues formed daily, and opening hours had to be extended. Just under half a million people saw the 1960 show, unprecedented numbers for a living artist. Newspapers proclaimed the country awash with “Picasso-mania”.

The story of this dramatic shift is told in Picasso and Modern British Art, unveiled this week at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (SNGMA). By showing major works by Picasso next to those of his British contemporaries, the exhibition demonstrates how artists including Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and David Hockney were inspired by him. The show, created in partnership with the Tate, also tells the story of how we, as a nation, moved from open hostility into a love affair with modern art.

Patrick Elliott, senior curator at the SNGMA, says that we lagged behind mainland Europe by at least 20 years. “Quite quickly, particularly on the continent, Picasso became the standard bearer for Modernism. Everyone understood that he was the one making the headway. At the beginning, people in this country were branded lunatics if they were buying Picasso. You can laugh at that now, but it’s actually quite sad – there are so many great works which we missed out on. ”

In the early years of the 20th century, only artists were clued in to the arrival of the modern. Duncan Grant and Wyndham Lewis – both featured in this exhibition – sought out Picasso in Paris. Clive and Vanessa Bell, darlings of the Bloomsbury Group, picked up a painting there for £4 in 1911. Scottish colourist JD Fergusson was one of the first to reproduce a Picasso drawing in a British art magazine.

But selling Picasso in Britain was another matter. A solo show at the Leicester Galleries in London in 1921 was a commercial disaster. Paintings were priced as high as £780, but the show made only £92. Although paintings were included in group shows from time to time, no-one attempted another solo show for a decade.

In the 1930s, things slowly began to change. Thirty Years of Pablo Picasso, an exhibition mounted by Alex Reid & Lefevre in 1931, had a degree of success. New collectors were emerging, such as Roland Penrose, who befriended the painter, wrote the first biography in English, and masterminded the wider promotion of his work.

In 1938, a very unusual tour got underway. Picasso’s Guernica, with supporting drawings and paintings, toured to Britain, Scandinavia and the United States to raise awareness of the Spanish Civil War. It was shown in a car showroom in Manchester, and in the Whitechapel Gallery, where the entry fee was one shilling, or a pair of boots for the Republican cause. When David Hockney wrote to his father of his excitement at seeing Guernica in MoMA in New York, his father was able to say he had seen it in Whitechapel for the price of a pair of boots.

At the same time, two new graduates of Glasgow School of Art (GSA) were among those discovering the avant-garde for themselves. Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde wrote of their excitement at seeing Picasso’s ballet designs while on a travel scholarship to Paris in 1938. Their grasp of Modernist ideas was further cemented by a Polish emigre in Glasgow, Jankel Adler, and when they moved to London in 1941, quickly making themselves the heart of a circle of colourful bohemians, they began to paint in a style heavily influenced by Picasso’s Cubism.

Elliott says their inclusion in this show is well deserved. “They were classy artists, and they engaged with Picasso head-on. But they couldn’t quite evolve. If you’re doing paintings influenced by Cubism in the 1950s, you’re spot-on. If you doing the same thing in the 1960s you’re a bit old-hat.” Picasso, meanwhile, was evolving constantly, as ever leaving his followers behind.

In 1946, an exhibition of work by Picasso and Matisse, sent by the French government as a post-war thank you gift, arrived at Kelvingrove – 90,892 people saw it in less than three weeks. A lecture offered by the museum director, TJ Honeyman, on understanding Picasso was full to capacity (500 people) an hour before it was due to begin.

“Modern art was something completely new to most of the Glasgow public, and many turned up out of curiosity – perhaps even to mock,” notes a history of the gallery records. The letters page of The Scotsman bristled with diatribes about modern art. Picasso’s work, in particular, clearly unsettled people. His wartime pictures – according to a Scotsman writer – “glower, wail and smash at you from the walls”.

But some offered a more thoughtful response. Hugh Adam Cooper, head of drawing and painting at GSA, told the paper: “In Picasso’s work you see all the horror of the German concentration camps…His is a statement of brutal truth. He is the Frankenstein of art and no one can deny his power.”

Among artists, the hunger to embrace modernity had intensified, but there were few opportunities to see it, particularly in Scotland. Patrick Elliott says: “People who studied art in the 1930s, like Paolozzi and Alan Davie, were then grounded for six to seven years because of the war. All they had seen was black-and-white pictures in magazines. By the time they’re let off the leash, they all go to Paris, and they’ve really got the appetite to see what was new. It was almost like an earthquake, with the pressure building up. They were desperate to get out there.”

In 1954, for a brief moment, the modern arrived in Edinburgh. Dance critic Richard Buckle organised Tribute to Diaghilev at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) during the Edinburgh Festival, a major show of designs created for the Ballets Russes by artists including Picasso, Henri Matisse, Paul Derain, Léon Bakst and Georges Braque.

Former gallerist Richard Demarco remembers it vividly: “I was still on National Service, but I found myself on leave deliberately going back to Edinburgh for the festival to see that exhibition – I couldn’t keep away. The whole of the interior of ECA was turned into the world of Diaghilev, it was as if the real art world had entered into the closed world of Scottish art. I know anybody who saw that exhibition has never been able to forget what it looked like.”

By the time Picasso’s work arrived at the Tate in 1960, it was not just artists who were itching to see it. By then, as Elizabeth Cowling, professor emeritus in history of art at Edinburgh University says, he had become a celebrity. “In the 1950s there is absolutely enormous press coverage of Picasso in magazines like Paris Match and Vogue, fashion magazines. He becomes a celebrity the way Beckham is now, all over the gossip pages.”

The interest was at least as much to do with his colourful private life as his art. “He would be photographed on the beach with Françoise Gilot and the children. He courted that publicity. He always had a colourful private life which he wasn’t afraid of showing off. He wasn’t in the least camera shy, he was a very public figure. He wanted to be a man of the people, to engage with people.”

In terms of art, Patrick Elliott says that by then the British public were ready to embrace the new. “There was quite a turnabout after the war. Traditional classical art very much became associated with Hitler, Mussolini, an old order, and people were ready for something new. In Europe, quite a lot of artists had been dragged out and accused of collaborating with the Nazis, they tended to be traditional, the Munnings of their day. A lot of American artists sold on the idea that abstraction was to do with freedom, a new mentality, and Picasso was making the rules up as he went along, it was part of the same sort of mindset.”

Meantime, Britain was shaking off its postwar austerity. In the next decade, London would establish itself as the city which lead the world in music, fashion and popular culture.

Elizabeth Cowling says: “I remember living through that, it felt dangerous, exciting; The Beatles, Carnaby Street, there was a big revolution taking place. Contemporary art started becoming very, very fashionable. People like David Hockney came to prominence very young, he was hugely successful as a student, a bit like Damien Hirst. It has continued, it has gone on to what we have now.”

• Picasso and Modern British Art is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art from today until 4 November, www.edinburghartfestival.com.