When I first heard about an exhibition at the Tate Britain comparing British artists with Picasso I thought it was a strange idea. Of course Picasso had a great impact on many, yet why these artists in particular? The British seven – comprising of Francis Bacon, Duncan Grant, David Hockney, Wyndham Lewis, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson and Graham Sutherland – have been presented as if they were overwhelmingly influenced by their Spanish counterpart. While this may be true in some cases, and Picasso would have influenced them all in some way, it is not purely to Picasso that these artists owe their success and ideas. Indeed, when any of these British artists are mentioned, you are not immediately thinking of Picasso in comparison.
The exhibition shows Picasso’s influence on modern art, and being a gallery celebrating British art in particular, this focuses on the influence only on Britain. There are 60 works by Picasso on show spanning the whole of the artists career, as well as work of other artists, most of whom were contemporary at some point to one another. The spaniard first came to London in 1919 to design costumes for the Ballet Russes, and the drawings for these were for me, probably the most interesting part of the whole exhibition, yet these were presented in a room without art from the Brits on display. Inbetween each room comparing Picasso with a British artist, was a room dedicated to Picasso, which led to a somewhat uneasy flow to the experience.
What the Tate did succeed in was the bringing together of seven of the nine works of Francis Bacon which survived after the artist tried to destroy all of his paintings before 1944. Bacon, notably gave up occupation as an interior designer to try for a career as a painter after seeing a Picasso show and here real links between the artists were clear.
Whilst you cannot deny that the concept of comparing seven British artists with the Spanish master is interesting, at the end of the exhibition, my mind had not been changed – it still seems a little random. It is a no brainer that Picasso was influential and the other artists merely suffer under his shadow of work. It seems strange to me that a gallery dedicated to celebrating British art would dedicate more space to a Spaniard – whose art is undeniably great, yet it is a little strange. The rooms between each artist seemed only to fill gaps and made the whole experience more disjointed. A few years ago after seeing a Picasso exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery I was blown away, now I feel indifferent. Picasso would have influenced others too, not just the British. Some links seem a little far fetched or stretched at least to mould into a format to fit into this exhibition. It seems as though after all these years curators have run out of ideas on how to present the artist.
Picasso & Modern British Art is on display at the Tate Britain until July 15.