Picasso and Britain: an influential relationship
He was born in Spain and from his homes in France changed the shape of modern art.
We all think we know Picasso. But a new exhibition at Tate Britain is inviting us to think again. And to re-examine his relationship with Britain.
For an artist who rarely travelled – he once famously said that he could go anywhere he wanted to in his head – this relationship is closer than many of us might expect. As curator Chris Stephens told me: “Early on Britain was supposed to have been an influence on him, growing up.
“His father was a great Anglophile and was known as El Inglés because of his passion for all things English. Picasso told his biographer Roland Penrose that he was on his way to London in 1900 when he stopped off in Paris and never carried on and finished the journey. And the reason was partly his admiration for British painting.”
The exhibition also examines the impact of Picasso’s later influence on British artists. Francis Bacon said that he was inspired to take up painting after seeing an exhibition of Picasso’s Dinard paintings – and the influence on his early work is obvious. In the 1930s, Ben Nicholson incorporated into his work the language of painting that came from Cubism. And around the same time Henry Moore was inspired by Picasso’s neo-classical work of the early 1920s.
Picasso and Modern British Art reveals little-known details of the four months Picasso spent in London in 1919 – while working on set and costume designs for the touring Ballets Russes company, many of which are included or reproduced in the show.
Although collaborating with visual artists was part of the company’s philosophy, Picasso was by far the highest profile artist to become involved. And exploring the possibilities of working in other art forms could be one of his most important, yet underappreciated, areas of influence.
Engagement in other art forms has been on the rise since Picasso’s time – and is fast becoming one of the defining characteristics of the current generations of visual artists: Steve McQueen and Sam Taylor Wood have directed feature films; David Hockney, Anish Kapoor and Mark Wallinger have designed sets for opera and ballet; And Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst have worked across several artistic disciplines.
The boundaries that used to hem in artistic practice have been steadily expanding since Picasso collaborated with the Ballets Russes. How much of this is directly down to Picasso it would be impossible to say. But the exhibition Picasso and Modern British Art does a great job of exploring his wider relationship with British artists.
It strikes a perfect balance between presenting a strong, well thought-out curatorial take – and showing off some spectacular work. And not just by Picasso.
Picasso and Modern British Art opens at Tate Britain this Wednesday and travels to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh in August.