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Review: Picasso &Amp; Modern British Art - Tate Britain

17/02/2012 17:53 | Updated 22 May 2015

"Good artists copy, great artists steal" - it's a variation on a phrase that has been (apocryphally) attributed to Picasso and which I found stuck in my mind throughout Tate Britain's Picasso & Modern British Art show.

Review: Picasso & Modern British Art - Tate BritainPhoto: PA

The exhibition itself is explicitly not a survey but rather an examination of Picasso's relationship with modern British art through comparisons with a number of British artists including Francis Bacon and David Hockney as well as picking up on Picasso's evolving critical reputation in this country and the work he produced during the summer of 1919 for the Russian Ballet's The Three Cornered Hat.

The use of the word 'relationship' suggests a two way process, with Picasso gaining from modern British art as well as providing food for thought. Certainly the artist's visit to London would have not been utterly inconsequential. Picasso had a habit of appropriating motifs from all walks of life, creating artworks at such a pace it appeared to come as naturally as breathing and thus anything catching his eye at the time would presumably have been added to his vast internal reference book.

He was also familiar with a great number of British artists through reproductions - you can see echoes of pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne Jones in Picasso's Blue period paintings, for example. But while Picasso would not have left England without having at least looked around him, his single summer in this country was a mere drop in the ocean of external influences on his work, dwarfed by his time spent in France and his strong ties to his homeland of Spain.

This lack of a particular connection with Britain from Picasso's end is evident in his sketches and designs for the Russian Ballet production he designed while here. The room devoted to these works is hugely engaging with costume illustrations, clothing, sketches for the production backdrop and so on. But although sketched and designed in the centre of the British capital but the results don't betray a hint of it. Don't get me wrong, they're fascinating pieces - possibly the most interesting in the exhibition - but they do imply that Picasso and British art had a remarkably one-sided relationship.

Review: Picasso & Modern British Art - Tate BritainPhoto: PA

As such the far more dominant aspect of this exhibition is the influence of Picasso on British artists. Curator Chris Stephens explains that each of the chosen artists (Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland and David Hockney) was chosen because they were strong enough in their own right to use Picasso's work to "enrich their own" rather than slavishly imitate. It's a statement which unfortunately doesn't hold true across the board.

Picasso's beachbound biomorphic forms and his monumental neo-classical women inform Moore's anthropomorphic sculptures. And although the visual similarities are strong, Moore's pieces take on a calm, smooth peaceful mood which differentiates them from their inspiration.

Bacon's room is a let down. It feels unfinished or unstructured. You are left with the feeling that there would have been more than enough material to devote an entire show to setting Picasso against Bacon - and the fact that this section is given the smallest physical space can only lead to disappointment.

Hockney's section is the opposite - well chosen work, a clear demonstration of an artist at ease with his debt to Picasso and, therefore, the energy not to be crushed under the weight of it.

Review: Picasso & Modern British Art - Tate BritainPablo Picasso, Still Life with Mandolin 1924, © Succession Picasso/DACS 2011

Wyndham Lewis's segment is a slightly odd one. The work definitely suffers from the comparison with Picasso but he is the only one of the selected artists who is revealed to have voiced frustration with his inspiration, referring to "the exquisite and accomplished, but discouraged, sentimental and inactive, personality of Picasso". Comparing Lewis's Vorticist chafing with the tedium of Duncan Grant's works in the same room can only serve Lewis well.

The Nicholson and Sutherland works on show seem to be trapped in the shadow of Picasso's influence, producing more in the way of tribute than innovation. Nicholson is the livelier of the two, riffing on particular motifs while Sutherland has more of the mimic about them, or perhaps the pastiche.

The anecdote which sheds most light on the show is one told by Stephens - that Picasso was en route to London when he left Barcelona in 1900 but got "stuck" in Paris. The great artist's vision of Britain and his personal attachment to it couldn't withstand a stay in the French capital.

Ultimately (and despite the hugely enjoyable presence of the sixty or so Picassos), if good artists borrow and great artists steal, this show involves a disappointing level of borrowing and not enough stealing. Picasso & Modern British Art is suffused with the feeling that we as a nation have a massive cultural teenage crush on Picasso and he was simply not that bothered.

Picasso & Modern British Art, until 15 July, Tate Britain

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