If he happened to meet Picasso walking down the road, Winston Churchill once disclosed, he planned to give him a kick in the rear.
This encounter never occurred. Churchill’s attitude, though, was representative of one British response to the great Spanish artist. He was the modernist conservatives loved to hate: The novelist Evelyn Waugh was in the habit of ending letters with the declaration, “Death to Picasso!”
On the other hand, as a new exhibition, “Picasso and Modern British Art,” at Tate Britain in London, makes clear, the fury of reactionaries was only one part of the story. The other was the idolization of Picasso by the local British avant-garde. Consequently, a good deal of the exhibition is devoted to documenting attempts, more or less successful, to imitate some aspect of Picasso’s mighty oeuvre.
The result is nicely executed, and contains plenty of fine Picassos. It isn’t kind to his U.K. followers. As you walk around, it becomes clear that Picasso’s work was a banquet of diverse idioms and moods, from which most of his local admirers each selected a portion that suited their own sensibility.
Some made better use of this inspiration than others. Francis Bacon got close to the sheer ferocity of his chosen type of Picasso from the late 1920s and 1930s. Picasso, Bacon said, was “nearer to what I feel about the psyche of our time” than any other artist. On the other hand, Ben Nicholson took Picasso’s late Cubist still lifes, and turned them into something tranquil, charming and not at all ferocious.
Henry Moore’s point of departure was the monumental classicism of Picasso’s women from the early 1920s and the strange nudes, like primitive sea creatures, that he produced a little later. Moore, however, characteristically transformed these into something calmer and duller.
Poor Duncan Grant, the favored painter of the Bloomsbury Group, was hopeless in his efforts to follow the Picasso of the pre-1914 era, except when it came to interior decoration. His Cubist-inspired “Design for a Firescreen” (c.1912) would do quite well for that purpose. Grant’s contemporary the Vorticist Wyndham Lewis looks far better in this selection.
The relationship between Britain and Picasso was asymmetrical. Picasso was important to British modernists, though Britain can’t have been all that important to him. He came to the country just twice.
Picasso spent the summer of 1919 in London, working on Diaghilev’s production of a ballet, “The Three-Cornered Hat.” Drawings, designs and some (recreated) costumes make up a nice section in the exhibition. Picasso didn’t return until 1950, when he arrived as a delegate to a Soviet-inspired World Peace Congress in Sheffield.
The main fruit of this brief visit was a drawing, included in the exhibition, which Picasso made directly on the living-room wall of a scientist and communist, J.D. Bernal, during a party. Though not a great work, it supports a claim once made by a friend of mine that Picasso could get further in an afternoon than Moore did in his entire career.
There were loyal friends of Picasso in Britain, such as Roland Penrose, thanks to whom the Tate owns “The Three Dancers” (1925), which the artist considered one of his two greatest works (the other being “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”).
When Penrose collected the picture from his studio in 1965, Picasso expressed admiration for Churchill who had recently died. “He saved England … and more than that he saved us all.” Presumably, he had never heard of Churchill’s little plan.
“Picasso and Modern British Art” is at Tate Britain, London, through July 15. Information: http://www.tate.org.uk.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)