|Pablo Picasso, The Three Dancers, 1925|
My friend James vetoed the Damien Hirst exhibition at the Tate Modern, and though I was disappointed not to see the latest shark in formaldehyde, I was happy to forego the crowds obstructing my view at the Tate Modern. We ended up at the Tate Britain which, despite its filial connections to the Tate Modern, is a completely different museum that offers a whole other experience. There were no crowds, no merchandise dominating the museum visit, and neither was there any sense of being seen in the right place on a Saturday afternoon. On entering the museum, in the main hall, we spent time engrossed with the Patrick Keiller commission curated The Robinson Institute. The installation which focused on the economic and cultural status of Britain as it is written on the contemporary landscape probably made more sense to those who had already seen Keiller’s Robinson films: Robinson in Space, 1997, and Robinson in Ruins, 2010. Like Keiller’s anti-aesthetic documentary films, the installation is not about the image, but about the conceptual and historical significance of images spanning three hundred years, most of which were from the Tate’s collection. The result was a not altogether convincing collection of images whose relevance was not always clear, and an exhibition that lacked coherence.
Pablo Picasso, Man with a Clarinet, 1911
In contrast to the display of a few minor Turner paintings in Robinson in Space were the outstanding Picasso’s included in the Picasso and Modern British Art exhibition. However, this exhibition is not about Picasso’s art, but rather, it is about the influence of the decisions and preferences of collectors and dealers who either exhibited or bought Picasso paintings in Britain in the early to middle twentieth century. So while I was excited to see some rare and prominent Picasso paintings, I had difficulty with the exhibition’s impetus to detract from the aesthetic value and the aesthetic attributes of Picasso’s art. Especially because the distraction was motivated by a focus on the decisions of the art market and the not always impressive British art that was apparently influenced by these great Picassos.
As James pointed out – because he is a Cocteau scholar and Cocteau was convinced - the most interesting of Picasso's work for the performing arts was done before the end of World War I. And I am tempted to extend this judgment to the pre-World War I paintings. I also am most familiar and most interested in the analytical cubist works, because they reflect that moment when Picasso most radically challenged the flatness of the canvas, and the rationale of painting as it had been known up to this point. However, even the later works where he becomes interested in his own status and place within art history, shine in comparison to British pieces that were supposedly influenced by them. If Cocteau's claim can be extended to painting, and it holds that there is a conservatism to post World War I Picasso, the opportunity to assess the claim is lost here because we are discouraged from looking at these great paintings for their aesthetic value.
|Pablo Picasso, The Source, 1921|
Instead we are guided to observe how Picasso influenced painters such as Duncan Grant, Ben Nicholson, and Graham Sutherland, none of whom look too good next to Picasso. Not only are their works of much less aesthetic interest, but conceptually, these painters are so far behind the radical challenge to painting and representation being dealt by Picasso. So, for example, as Picasso moves into the bright colours and an interrogation of identity, the body, the relationship between artist and sitter and so on in the post World War I period, the British are still painting in grey, and doing nothing with the form and fracture of the canvas. That is, they never challenge the relationships between figure and ground or painting and the world as Picasso was doing years earlier. It is true that as the century wears on and British art picks up, there is more meaning to the juxtaposition with Picasso. Henry Moore’s erotic and sumptuously curved sculptures not only make a more convincing pairings, but they also meet the challenges posed by Picasso, even pushing them into the new creative territory of a different medium.
|Henry Moore, Reclining Figure, 1936|
There are also some great Bacon works, such as his Crucifixion, 1933 which took my eye in particular. Nevertheless, once again, all meaning of such works other than the fact that they are somehow influenced by a collector or curator who brought a corresponding Picasso painting to Britain is drained out of them. In the case of Crucifixion, for example, the discourses and sensations surrounding a carcass strung up to dry, evoking the torture and misuse of the body as an object, all of it is emptied out of an image whenwe are told it is important because it has a relationship to a contorted body by Picasso as it was reproduced opposite a “recent Picasso painting” in Herbert Read’s Art Now (1933). The grey, ghost like brutality of Crucifixion is haunting as much as it is revolting, and yet, that’s not the point when it is exhibited here.
|Fancis Bacon, Crucifixion, 1933|
Perhaps I missed the point of Picasso and Modern British Art, but I came away with many questions. The most pressing being: what do we learn from these juxtapositions that we didn’t already know? I understand that Picasso had a big influence on British art and this was enabled by a handful of collectors and curators. But then what? The exhibition sheds no new light on either Picasso’s work or that of the artists who were supposedly influenced by him. This is, indeed, a whole new way of using great artworks: namely to detract from their aesthetic attributes in the interests of narrating a history of modern British art. Perhaps that’s the price to pay for avoiding the crowds at the Tate Modern?