Byline: Brian Sewell
PICASSO & MODERN BRITISH ART Tate Britain, SW1 IT IS perhaps useful to remind visitors to Tate Britain's new exhibition, Picasso and Modern British Art, just how long ago Picasso was and how, in this particular context, the term Modern British is stretched to embrace the full century from Duncan Grant, whose first tame and tentative Picassian experiment was made in 1912, to David Hockney, who is still occasionally Picassian now.
Picasso was born in 1881 when Victoria had two more decades on the throne ahead of her, British forces were withdrawn from Afghanistan, Gilbert and Sullivan presented Patience, and Lord Leighton was president of the Royal Academy. He died in 1973, all but 40 years ago, when the Cold War was an ever-present threat, Britain joined the European Economic Community, our economy was wrecked by a cartel of Arab oil-producing countries, Hockney was into his first maturity and the infinitely forgettable Tom Monnington was PRA.
In his 90-odd years Picasso had been fin-de-siecle, had worked his way through the enchantments of periods Blue, Pink and Iberian-Negro (a term coined by Christian Zervos, his apologist), through Cubism Analytical and Synthetic, Classicism and Surrealism and into the violent distortions that succeeded Guernica (though never matching its sincerity), on and on through an astonishing range of whimsical diversions in every medium and visual quips at the expense of Velazquez, Rembrandt, Delacroix and Ingres, declining into a final phase so crude, genital and urinophilous in imagery that his friend Douglas Cooper dubbed him an old fool in the ante-chamber of death. Early admirers in England, slavish, seeing him take himself so seriously, took him seriously too; others, including Winston Churchill, Evelyn Waugh and a posse of Royal Academicians, would have kicked his arse; and between these lay what inexorably became a vast majority -- all those incapable of thinking for themselves and anxious not to be wrong-footed by Mrs Grundy, who decided that adulation was a safer bet than arse-kicking. This is still the status quo.
Picasso was first presented to the British public in the winter of 1910-11 by the critic Roger Fry, the Saatchi-Serota of his day (though without the cash). After the hiatus of the First World War, with the Tate a Vale of Lethe and the Academy mounting only its Summer and Winter Exhibitions (the latter always art historical), our awareness in the Twenties and Thirties of what was happening abroad in art in general and with Picasso in particular, depended almost entirely on exhibitions mounted in brave small dealers' galleries -- a handful only, but persistent-- even during and after the Second World War. There were two exceptions: the now notorious Surrealism Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in 1936, which included 11 works by Picasso, and spawned an increasingly political debate that lasted into the 1950s; and in January 1939, the exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery of Guernica and 67 related paintings and studies; hanging for only two weeks, it was seen by 12,000 or 15,000 visitors (recorded figures vary).
This drip, drip of exposure -- to which must be added his work for the Ballet Russe in London in 1919 (10 weeks a resident at the Savoy) and the ease with which the bright young things of the London art world could spend time in Paris, the rate of exchange madly favourable, meant that towards the end of the 1930s Augustus John could write enviously of Picasso as having "the greatest snob-following of our time". This was true, but not wholly and only so. After six years of war, when our clothes were threadbare or hand-medowns and our bellies empty on the shortest rations since the Rape of Poland, 160,000 of us queued in the bitter winter of 1945-46 to see a Picasso and Matisse exhibition mounted at the newly reopened Victoria and Albert Museum, and very few of these were snobs. There were 30 paintings by Matisse, and by Picasso 25, all but one lent by himself and painted during the war. …