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Measuring up against the master

Review by Penny Cole

Any artist working at the same time as Pablo Picasso – and he worked as a professional artist for some seven decades – would struggle to avoid in some way measuring him or herself against Picasso.

There is still just time to see make your way to the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh to see a fascinating exhibition exploring Picasso’s impact on artists in Britain.

Picasso Dancers
Pablo Picasso The Three Dancers 1925 Oil on canvas: 215.30 x 142.20 cm
Tate. Purchased with a special Grant-in-Aid and the Florence Fox Bequest with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery and the Contemporary Art Society 1965
Pablo Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS 2012

Picasso & Modern British Art includes some 60 works by the 20th century master, many of which you might not get the chance to see again in Scotland, including the Tate’s The Three Dancers and several from New York’s MOMA.

It is poignant to see how the great innovator even managed to break through the relative isolation of the English art world and how artists tried to respond to him.

Ben Nicholson Au Chat Botte 1932 Oil and pencil on canvas 92.50 x 122.00 cm
Image © Manchester City Galleries

For some, such as Ben Nicholson, you think it might have been better for them as artists if they had never seen a Picasso. Nicholson’s adventures with similar subject matter and tools can only serve to underline his own weaknesses without highlighting his strengths.

Nicholson “avoids the almost sadistic violence with which Picasso often attacks the picture surface” and instead “coaxes surfaces to bring out beauties that humanise things”, as the exhibition catalogue notes. Unlike the Spanish master, he did not seek “to confront the ugly and abject”. The result of this softening of contradiction gives the paintings here a rather lily-livered look. This is not true for example of Nicholson’s stark-white sculptures, or his paintings of landscapes through windows. You have a sense that these express his true artistic sensibility.

Wyndham Lewis Ovid
Percy Wyndham Lewis
A reading of Ovid (Tyros) 1920-1921
Oil on canvas 165.20 x 90.20cm
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Wyndham Lewis encountered Picasso during travels in France, and was profoundly influenced by Cubism. He is saved from Nicholson’s fate by the profound eccentricity and individuality of his vision.

Only Lewis could have painted Smiling Woman Ascending a Staircase because he was entirely part of, and satirising, the world of English intellectuals. A gaunt female with a mask-like grin ascends a staircase in a pose of total imbalance – she looks like an unsympathetic version of Virginia Woolf. Lewis depicts the theatre of Bloomsbury and like intellectual groupings in the spectacular A Reading of Ovid, said to be a satire on the Tyros “post-war immense novices who brandish their appetites in their faces”.

Lewis’ brilliant figure drawings and portraits from the 1920s underline his draughtsmanship in which, as the curators note, “he seems to present himself as the equal of Picasso, responding to [his] extraordinary talent with his own unique style and vision of the human form”.

Henry Moore openly acknowledged the influence of Picasso’s massive classical figures. He believed that Picasso’s integration of ancient art forms with modern sensibility and the Mediterranean modern school was “capricious”.  The Yorkshire sculptor felt this to be a conflict he himself had struggled to resolve after his travels in Europe.

Moore Nude
Henry Moore Reclining Nude 1936 Elmwood 64.00 x 115.00 x 52.30 cm
Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation
Image courtesy of Jerry Hardman-Jones

Bacon Studies
Bacon Studies
Bacon Studies
Francis Bacon
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion
circa 1944 Oil on board: 94.00 x 73.70 cm
Tate. Presented by Eric Hall
Francis Bacon © Estate of Francis Bacon. DACS 2012

Whilst Cubism separates elements of the human face, body or indeed inanimate objects, and displays them as a unity of contradictory aspects, Moore’s own attempts at a similar separation of human body parts gives only a baffling sense of something scattered to no purpose.

Woman with upraised hands, clearly under Picasso’s influence, is one of only a few Moore sculptures with a figure in movement. He resolved his artistic conflict by creating massively still nude figures, where the only movement is in the flow of curves imposed by the artist’s hand; and then later with huge square figures immovably enthroned in landscapes where they are surrounded by ever-moving nature.

Francis Bacon comes off surprisingly well. His Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion develop Picasso’s exploration of the human body, in which it was reduced to “rounded, biomorphic and frequently phallic sculpture-like forms”. This period of disgust culminated in the furious political commentary of Picasso’s cry against Fascism – Guernica. Bacon’s tortured personalities have more to do with R.D. Laing’s vision of the human psyche than with real world events. The figures suggest what a body would be like if it was truly shaped by the inner disgusting, tortured, in pain and conflicted human psyche.

Other artists included in this in-depth comparison are Duncan Grant, Graham Sutherland and David Hockney.  Hockney sums up his relation to Picasso by producing a drawing of himself sitting stark naked opposite a clothed Picasso, who is perusing a piece of paper, perhaps one of Hockney’s drawings. As a much younger man, he did not bear the burden of trying to relate in his work to one of Picasso’s periods or the School of Picasso.

Rather, Hockney could turn to him, as the older artist did himself, to the old masters, copying and exploring the same themes and artistic tools in order to inform his own development, in a more relaxed way than Picasso’s direct contemporaries were able to do.

25 October 2012

Picasso and Modern British Art at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art until November 4

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