Picasso and Modern British Art at the Tate Britain

Been meaning to write about this for a while, having been a couple of times to the exhibition.  It’s a mix of things: partly a collection of Picasso works that have found their way into British hands and partly a collection of works by British artists who have been inspired – or in one case, provoked – by Picasso. The first time I found it a bit of a mish-mash. Second time it began to cohere… and inspire. There is some wonderful art.

I’m just going to write about of some of the pieces I found particularly striking. It’s not going to be an A Level essay on Picasso! The pictures, which are all taken from Google Images, are a bit fuzzy in places, hopefully give a flavour; but if you can get to the Tate, I really recommend you do so. The exhibition is on until 15 July.

This is a journey through the rooms as they were set out at the exhibition. And my focus is on how the Picasso paintings interact with those of the British artists. So there’s quite a bit of straight Picasso that I don’t cover. So if you like what is here, I can tell you that the totality is even better!

The first thing that struck me was the inspiration Duncan Grant’s “Design for a Firescreen” (1912) drew from Picasso’s  “Jars and Lemons” (1907).



I love the colours and angularity of both these paintings.

In the same room as Grant’s pictures we have some of Wyndham Lewis’s works.  He apparently defined himself in opposition to Picasso.  But you can see the similarities. This is a period, around 1910, when Cubism was emerging.  Faces, figures were distorting, before being completely rearranged.  There’s something quite sinister about Lewis’ figures. They are intriguing but rather disconcerting. The painting I most liked in the Tate collection though, was “Workshop” (1914-15).

There’s something very “modern”, industrial, about it.  Vivid but impersonal.  Bizarrely, I was reminded of a kids’ cartoon I watched years ago when my own children were into Cartoon Network. It may have been the “Powerpuff Girls”, but they, or whoever the protagonists were, were locked in battle with some evil person in a strange stately home.  The villain had a British accent – of course. Not sure why, but I found the episode fascinating. I thought that the makers must have been having some kind of hallucigenic experience as they created the storyboard. And now five year old children were enjoying it. I wonder if the makers had ever seen “Workshop”…

Another interior I really liked was “Interior at Gordon Square” by Duncan Grant, said to be influenced by the geometry of Picasso’s early Cubism. I just like the colours and shapes!

The next association was between Picasso and Ben Nicholson. Nicholson was influenced by Picasso’s Cubist art and some of the “disfigurations” of the human (mostly female) form which flowed from that. Both Picasso and Nicholson were clearly influenced by “primitive” art from Africa and the Pacific.  A grand tradition, stretching back at least to the Impressionists, with Gauguin to the fore.

Picasso’s “Head of A Woman” (1926) is intriguing. To me there are two heads at play.  One face on, another, to the right, in profile. In both, I’m reminded of ancient Egyptian art.

“Guitar, Compote Dish and Grapes’ (1924) continues the Cubist theme of breaking objects into multi-dimensions, but with a more vivid portrayal of the objects. You really can just enjoy the picture for its abstract shapes and striking colours. No theory required!

Nicholson’s paintings in the exhibition draw on a variety of Picasso’s themes. “1932 (Au Chat Botte) could be from the classic Cubist period.

Guitars feature too.”1933 (Musical Instruments)”

And there are some dark profiles that draw on the classical theme – in Nicholson’s case they look Greek rather than Egyptian. I can’t find a picture of the one I really like, “1933 (St Remy, Provence)”.  The model was his lover, fellow artist, Barbara Hepworth. But there are etched hints of the same in this picture, “1933 (Coin and musical instruments)”. Note the profile in the top left quarter.

Picasso had a varied and turbulent love life by all accounts, and throughout his life that is reflected in his paintings.  There are other factors at play, be it the allusion to poetry, the links to surrealism, the disturbing politics of the twenties and thirties.  All contribute to the disaggregation, distortion and haphazard reassembly of everyday images, especially of the women in his life. There are a series of paintings of women on the beach, reduced to a variety of strange triangles and body parts. Here’s one, “Nude On The beach” (1932)

More recognisable, are two classic paintings, tributes to two of his lovers. “Nude Woman In A Red Armchair” (1932) is said to be a portrait of Marie-Therese Walter. It is on the cover of the catalogue of the exhibition – vivid, enticing, but also recognisable, unlike a lot of the others, as a human form!

Another extraordinary portrait is the picture of the “Weeping Woman” (1937).  This was one of a number of paintings done at the same time as Picasso created his masterpiece, “Guernica”. The anguish – and beauty – in this potrait is extraordinary. And hark the detail – look at how the teardrops transform into fingernails, for example. The model here was Dora Maar.

There’s a room full of Henry Moore sculptures, linked to some of Picasso’s rather large, statuesque paintings of the female form. I didn’t dwell on them, but moved on to Francis Bacon, who turned to painting as a result of seeing some of Picasso’s work in the twenties. There is something quite hideous about the mutated figures that feature in Bacon’s paintings in this exhibition; but there was another interior, in the mould of Grant’s, that I really liked. Again, it was the colours and a sense of a forest, a watery glaze, a mountain stream. In an interior! It’s just my imagination, running away with me… (thanks to Smokey Robinson!)

Graham Sutherland’s paintings from the forties feel like they may have been inspired by the same horror as Picasso experienced over Guernica. His painting of Jesus on the cross – “Crucifixion” (1946) – is powerfully disconcerting.

On a simpler level, I really do like his picture of “Gorse on Sea Wall” (1939). I’d have this one on my wall!

And that leaves David Hockney. He wears his Picasso allegiance on his sleeve.  And does it with humour. I love his two drawings in the exhibition where he pays homage to Picasso, by portraying himself with the great man.

“The Student: Homage To Picasso” (1973)

“Artist and Model” (1973-4)

And I like this piece of photo-cubism. Of course featuring a guitar. “Still Life Blue guitar” (1982).

And to end it all, as you are leaving the exhibition, you are met with one of Picasso’s iconic paintings.  “The Three Dancers” (1925). Primitive, bizarre, erotic, discombobulated, musical, colourful, multi-dimensional, poetic, celebratory.  Picasso in a nutshell.

A wonderful exhibition, that teaches you so much, and sets the imagination free…

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. I’ve written a novel called “The Decision”, a futuristic political thriller, and first of a trilogy. I’m also the author of a book on music since the 1970s called “ I Was There - A Musical Journey” and a volume of poetry about youth, “Growin’ Up - Snapshots/ Fragments”. All available on Amazon and Kindle.
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5 Responses to Picasso and Modern British Art at the Tate Britain

  1. The Book Hound says:

    Hi John:

    Thanks for a very engaging tour of the show, which has certainly inspired me to go.

    Picasso is a subject of which I, personally, can never tire, and your blog reminded me to revisit one of the great art biographies ever (so there!) – John Richardson’s masterly three-volume life, last reissued in Pimlico paperback in 2009. I guess the three books come it at a juicy 1,500+ pages between them, but it rattles along, I promise. A great testament to an extraordinary man, and written by someone who was close to Picasso, but could see him in all his complexity.


    Early 20th-century British art’s having a bit of a revival right now, of course, with a lot of stuff on Nicholson and Grant, and people like Piper and Ravilious very much back in vogue. One of my favourite biographies of the period is Paul O’Keeffe’s Some Sort of Genius, on the repellant, but charismatic, Wyndham Lewis:


    Gotta do my bit for the art publishing community!


    • John S says:

      The Richardson biography looks pretty amazing. A big project, reading that! I’m reading a somewhat slimmer volume at the moment, called “The Picasso Book”, by Neil Cox, an art historian from the University of Essex. It’s a Tate publication and rather good. Some of the language could only be in an art book, but that’s fine. I love his ambition in the intro:

      ‘” My intention is broader still, addressing further questions: what does the figure of ‘the artist’ mean in the twentieth century; how does Picasso’s lived life relate to the visions of horrors or of joy so common in his work; how might his exploration of the human form relate to contemporary understandings of what it is to be human; and is Picasso, in the end, the origin of anything?”

      I’m on page 127 of 169 and I’m not sure I have the answer to these existential questions. Nice pictures though….

  2. Pingback: Sunshine In My Life « DyingNote

  3. starlaschat says:

    That was a really great post! I really enjoyed reading and scrolling down the pictures. It would be nice to be able to catch this exhibit. I’m glad you pointed out about the tears and the finger nails I would have missed that.

  4. John S says:

    Thanks for your comments! if you can catch the exhibition, do. Otherwise, just enjoy Picasso – and all those other British artists who drew inspiration from him.

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