Saturday, October 20, 2012

Channeling Picasso

Evidently Picasso made only two trips to UK, but his influence across the channel was enormous.  That is the thesis of "Picasso and Modern British Art."  The show is currently on view at the The Scottish National Gallery.  It caused a scandal when an advert featuring a nude by Picasso appeared in the the local airport.  The offending lines are reproduced as a detail above above.  There is an impressive array of canvasses by the Spaniard on display at the show, but even exciting are the Brit pics, which rarely see the light of day.  These span much of the 20th century, and they serve to cast a welcome spotlight on many of Britain pre-pop art icons.

For example, the dusted off some canvases by Duncan Grant, the bisexual Bloomsbury artist who moved in the Clive Bell to carry on his affair with Bell's spouse, Vanessa, another painter, and sister of Virgina Woolf.  Her works are not on display in this very male exhibition, perhaps because they bear less Picasso influence.  The works by Duncan Grant certainly evoke Picasso more, though there is also some German influence there.

Less surprising perhaps is the inclusion of Wyndham Lewis, the leading force behind Britain's first major modernist movement, vorticism.  Lewis seems to be having a bit of a revival, despite his fascist tendencies, and the strong work here shows why.  Though clearly cubist (or cubo-fututist) in spirit, Lewis has a voice of his own, and might just be Britain's best pre-war painter.

Also on view is a collection of Henry Moore works, that confirm the sculpture great grift, even if one senses a bit of a formula.  Especially lovely are some less seen drawings and notebooks.  I didn't manage a snap, but the one above (from the Tate collection) gives some idea of how charmingly graphic the Moorish forms can look when gridded out on paper.

Far less celebrated than Moore, is the British surrealist and collector Roland Penrose.  The Scottish Gallery recently displayed a fine collection us is works in an exhibition of UK surrealism.  One of my favorites was back on view here.  Penrose makes good use of postcards, anticipating the cubist photo methods used decades later by Hockney (who is also in the show).

The biggest revelation, perhaps, was Francis Bacon.  One usually doesn't think of him as a follower of Picasso, but the painting above shows clear influence (note the face in the upper left).  This one is from 1933, and it strikingly forecasts that artist's later works with its cage-like lines,  angsty blurring, and central figure issuing what may be a silent wail of torment.  Bacon's more famous later works are often described as reactions the Second World War.  This early painting re-writes that history.

Overall, the exhibition serves to remind us that Britain was an important center for the avant grade, long before the YBA crowd started to grab headlines.  We are also reminded of Picasso's impact.  There is another major Picasso show at the Guggenheim right now, and a strong collection of later works made a recent splash at the Gaggosian gallery.  With all this attention, the Spaniard is well poised to influence a new generation of painters, 40 years after his death.  But don't hold your breath.  While testifying to his legendary status, these recent tributes do little to establish Picasso's relevance.  We are reminded instead that modernist abstraction was a moment that has passed, despite periodic efforts at revival.  Indeed, the existential eroticism of an early blue-period picture (reproduced on the left) seems more timely, and also timeless, than the ostentatiously geometrical works that once shocked fellow painters into imitative obedience.


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