'Picasso and Modern British Art'

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'Picasso and Modern British Art'

Tate Britain 15 February-15 July

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, 4 August-4 November

Despite its generally cool critical reception, you would have had to go out of your way not to enjoy this exhibition. It was an opportunity to see work not only by Picasso but several major British artists of the 20th century. Even on an academic level the thesis that Picasso had an influence on modern British art is undeniable. The question is whether the curators are guilty of exaggerating that influence, and whether the absence of a wider critical context is misleading.

The exhibition began by showing the early recognition of Picasso by British artists and critics, most notably those associated with the Bloomsbury Group. It was not a big bang opening, with Picasso represented by a series of drawings and prints, and original articles from newspapers such as The New Age. But this was appropriate, as Picasso did not enter the collective artistic consciousness of Britain in a blaze of glory. It was a low-key start, made largely through prints, including Salome Dancing, shown by Roger Fry tit the 1910 Post-Impressionist exhibition at London's Grafton Galleries, and The Frugal Meal, included by Frank Rutter at the Post Impressionist and Futurist exhibition at the Dore Galleries in 1913. In some ways Picasso must have seemed underwhelming to radical British artists at the time, particularly when set against work by figures like Wassily Kandinsky whose wholly abstract paintings were already known in Britain by 1913. In that context even Picasso's cubist painting, Bottle and Books, included in Fry's Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in 1912, must have seemed tame.

In the Tate exhibition this created a dilemma in that there was a strong desire to show Picasso's influence on the British, but any visual impact of Picasso before the First World War was at best slight. It could be said it was almost non-existent. Duncan Grant might have copied Picasso directly to create a design for an Omega Workship firescreen in 1912, but Wyndham Lewis's proto-Vorticist works bypassed Picasso completely in favour of emulating Italian Futurism.

A case can be made that these early rooms were concerned with scene-setting, and that the curators were well aware that Picasso had a minor impact on early modernist British art. But such over-egging of the cake was more difficult to justify later on with British artists who were fully aware of Picasso. …