The Tate in London certainly seems to be playing some big name cards in 2012, with the first major Damien Hirst UK exhibition on at the Tate Modern, and a Picasso-centric exhibition on at the Tate Britain.
The latter has an unusual twist on it – at least, unfamiliar to me: rather than an exhibition about or consisting exclusively of Picasso’s work, it uses the Spanish Cubist artist as a spring board into a much wider and more varied selection of art, by examining the time that the painter spent in Britain, the effect his work has had on British artists, and the spread of his works through public and private collections in the UK over the course of the 20th century.
This allows the exhibition to consist of maybe only a quarter of its total exhibits from Picasso itself, while other works range from pre-World War I British artists such as Duncan Grant and Wyndham Lewis, and then Ben Nicholson in the 1920s. More recently Picasso’s influence has been particularly apparent in the work of Francis Bacon and Graham Sutherland, and there is also a room of sculptural work by Henry Moore that takes its cues from Picasso’s forms.
The overall result was an interesting, different sort of exhibition from the usual retrospective of a single artist or movement; but also, perhaps inevitably in the circumstances, rather uneven. Some of the rooms are really interesting and opened up a whole new view for me on Picasso, such as the time he spent in Britain working on set and costume designs for ballet productions at the Alhambra.
Overall, though, I’m not totally convinced that the Tate itself fully followed through on the excellent conceptual basis for the exhibition as well as it might: the descriptions on the British artists’ works tended toward lists of where and how they had been influenced by Picasso, and the overall effect of the repetition of these facts was to have the artists come across as thieving magpies stealing all their best ideas from the Spaniard and not nearly so capable of original thought, which was a most unfortunate (and unintended and inaccurate) misimpression.
Other rooms tended to drop into listing the slow spread of Picasso’s works into British collections, both private and public. I found this administrative cataloguing of buying and selling frankly uninvolving and lacking intrinsic interest, although some accompanying comments about the reception of these works at exhibitions of the day and the consequent purchases was rather better and could have been more interesting still had there been a wider perspective to the notes. Was the lack of early interest in Picasso’s work representative of the general European reaction to Picasso’s revolutionary ideas, or a case of Britain’s snooty and parochial attitude proving resistant to new ideas? The latter is hinted at by notes explaining how Wyndham Lewis, who – while himself was daringly innovative for the day and undoubtedly picked up cues from Picasso – found the Spanish painter in danger of dragging art into an air-headed, facile slump.
But perhaps my biggest problem in fully warming to this ambitious Tate exhibition is that I’m not really a big fan of Picasso’s work itself. The legend and reputation of the man is such that there is undoubtedly a frisson of excitement to be actually face to face with any genuine work by the master, but in terms of actually liking the end result I find that there’s only a very slender window of opportunity where I truly like and admire his output.
His earliest Edwardian-era pre-Cubist works of Impressionistic paintings are pretty enough but are undistinguished from the true masters of the style. The collages that he goes on to produce and which are an undoubted crucial stepping stone into Cubism have not aged well and look to my unskilled eye little different from the sort of output you’d get from a second year school art class assigned to paste down lots of bits of paper (the media used is also fading and ageing badly, which doesn’t help.) The best collage of all in the exhibition was actually a much later photographic homage by David Hockney, whose photographic reconstruction of an artist’s studio is both playful and beautifully visually executed at the same time.
Picasso’s later works are also so familiar and much-copied now that the originals themselves end up coming across as the ultimate in pastiche parodies, robbing them of the power that they surely had in their day. Experts will doubtless explain that the rapid simplification of his styles into crude geometric shapes and iconographic representations – many of them conveyed with a thick, hurried black brush outline – is to do with Picasso attempting to move fast in order to capture the energy and spontaneity of the moment, to get the idea on canvas in its rawest state and then move quickly on to capture the next, and the next, and the next. I’m sure there is also a strong argument that Picasso was intentionally making his work as aggressively degenerate, shocking and provocative to the established order of the day as possible in order to make waves and break through with his new vision of art.
But this long after their production, to my more modern but far less trained eyes, the overwhelming impression I get is of a painter who hits on a style that proves popular and then churns out more and more of them, faster and faster, while caring less and less about them. The later works where he does clearly care a great deal – such as his masterwork Guernica, not present in person in this exhibition which instead uses a reduced-size photographic stunt double – are immediately apparent.
I also find it very difficult to like Picasso’s abstractions of the female form, which still have such a powerfully vicious, brutal force that it’s hard for me not to see them as anything other than aggressively misogynistic pieces. By contrast, the work of Henry Moore – while clearly drawing upon Picasso’s painted abstractions of the female form – delivers such a beautiful, flowing, sensuous result in sculpture as to be unmistakably loving and caring about its subject matter, and consequently far more appealing.
That leaves for me his best and most appealing work to be in the very early days of his abstractionist output, where he produced incredibly detailed and intricate works such as 1910′s Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and similar portraits and studies, which are amazingly lush and endlessly fascinating pieces. This exhibition has far too few of these for my personal preference before his work rapidly simplified – perhaps as a response to the appalling horrors of the outbreak of war.
All in all it was a bit of a patchy exhibition for me, and I’d have preferred more information on the art itself rather than surrounding social and art history. But I certainly learned a lot of unexpected information and it broadened my appreciation of a number of contemporary British artists that I hadn’t known well if at all going in. I have to admit, then, that I probably got more out of it than I would have done from the ‘normal’ type of exhibition I’m used to, so full marks to the Tate for continuing to push the bounds of what it does every year, and how it goes about it.