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  • Published in Arts Review

Don’t miss the brilliant ‘Picasso and Modern British Art’ exhibition at the Tate Britain, says John Rees.

This is a really first class exhibition for three reasons. Firstly it shows the sheer range of Picasso’s artistic output. From the early Impressionist inspired work of his early years (almost shocking if all you have in mind is his later Cubism), through his continuing interest in figurative art to some of the modernist masterpieces for which he is best known.

Secondly, and this is where the exhibition really lifts itself to a higher level, it shows the impact of Picasso’s work on his contemporaries and on artists who came after him. Their work is also on display.

For me the outstanding rooms were those containing Wyndham Lewis’ pictures, Henry Moore’s sculptures and David Hockney’s work. But there are also rooms displaying the art of Francis Bacon, Duncan Grant, Ben Nicholson and Graham Sutherland. Perhaps the most powerful of all  is Henry Moore’s work where the impact of Picasso’s painted view of the human form seems almost to have been directly realised in Moore’s sculpture. I’d never thought of the connection, but it’s blindingly obvious as soon as you step into the room.

This approach contextualises and explains what Picasso was doing in a way that it is hard to imagine being done so effectively in any other way.  After all, other artists were Picasso’s most attentive, informed and, sometimes, critical audience. Their reactions are a particularly valuable lense through which to understand Picasso, the other artists, and the whole modernist movement.

Finally, the politics of Picasso come through in the exhibition. Picasso’s reaction to the Spanish Civil War is at the heart of this, especially Guernica, the painting of the Spanish village bombed by the Nazis. Guernica was displayed at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1938, the exhibition was opened by Clem Attlee. Some 15,000 people saw in in just 14 days. So it is a little disappointing, if not surprising, that only a photographic copy is on display here. Nevertheless, the story of the creation of the work, and the preliminary sketches which are exhibited, is fascinating. Particularly striking is Minotauromachy, produced just before Guernica, and using some of the same images in a more orderly manner, but also to great effect.

And Picasso’s involvement with the Aid Spain campaign, the massive movement of solidarity initiated by the Communist Party, and for which he drew material is all here. Particularly interesting are the postcard designs, in blocs of eight, that were meant to be printed and sold (but never were).

This political engagement had another dimension. Apart from a small number of supporters in the art world, Picasso struggled to find an audience in Britain. But the left was sympathetic from earlier.

The last time that Picasso visited Britain was as a Communist Party delegate to the 1950 Peace Conference in Sheffield. The government banned the conference and so Picasso unexpectedly had time on his hands. He visited the well-known scientist and CP member J D Bernal at his London flat and, while he was there, hastily drew a sketch on the wall of flat. It stayed there for 14 years and now the whole section of wall, approximately 10 feet wide and 6 feet high, is on display here. It is quite brilliant in its simplicity.

The Tate Britain could have simply relied on Picasso’s work and still have had a successful exhibition. But they have done more, and in doing more we learn more and appreciate more of Picasso and those inspired by him. I doubt there will be a similar exhibition any time soon, so don’t miss it.

Picasso and Modern British Art is at the Tate Britain, Millbank, London, until 15th July.

picasso painting

John Rees

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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