Art, Review

Pablo Honey

Here’s my latest drama: I really wanted to like at least one of the Tate exhibitions I visited last weekend. It was a perfect sort of dreamy washed out Sunday. I’d had a nice breakfast, my hair dried like it was designed to, we’d had morning coffees in bed and showers and put on nice fresh clothes all before 10.30: in short, we were set up for a smug weekend mosey round a gallery before heading home, self-congratulatory with culture, and undoing it all with Dominoes and re-runs of QI.

This was not necessarily misdirected: the Tate Modern’s retrospective of Gerhard Richter late last year was perfectly executed in my wholly untrained opinion, and the Joan Miró exhibition at the same place was vibrant and fun and fascinating enough to go twice. I wasn’t expecting to be entirely floored: nothing at the Brit will ever compare to their Francis Bacon retrospective in 2008, which, for the want of a better expression, knocked the ass out of me. But I certainly wasn’t expecting the damp towel on a chilly morning that was Picasso and Modern British Art, either.


I kind of get it.  It’s the twin cultural eclipse of an Olympic and Jubilee Year and so everything, whether it should be or needs to be, must have an overarching British theme. The Tate Modern has resorted to Damien Hirst, The Royal Academy is showing David Hockney, The National Portrait Gallery is running with Lucian Freud: rule Britannia ad absurdum.  The Tate Britain, cursed by it’s own name, is admittedly compelled to throw the Albion sink in and so has flipped the ticket, tossed the pancake, and led with Picasso (rather than someone homegrown) and a smattering of British artists whom he may or may not have influenced. Theoretically neat, practically a bit of a shambles.

Certainly the Picasso bits are spectacular. To continue the chilly morning shower metaphor: they are the perfect moment where you’ve just washed the shampoo out and magically, because your scalp is now warm, you are suddenly back to 37 centigrade, and can’t remember why on earth removing your pyjamas was so cataclysmically traumatic. Each piece, from the impressionistic Flowers to the giant stickered version of Guernica to Bernal’s Picasso, stuns: Reading at a Table, a sweet and tender portrait of his then-mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, is a new favourite.

But these are weighed down by a vast percentage of the British contingent on display. The British art is not all bad, it’s just not as good. Not necessarily a problem, given Picasso’s status, but in a comparative show, the end result is that both Picasso and his apparent disciples are damaged. The alleged relationships with Picasso swinge from the tenuous to the outright obsessive. In this exhibition, Henry Moore is simply a plagiarist of Picasso’s biomorphic visions, and David Hockney is reduced from British powerhouse to cartoonish super-fan. The case for Picasso’s particular influence on British art isn’t made sufficiently substantive: as it was, the British art scene was notably resistant to his work, much more so than other national markets.

And so ultimately the show feels more than a little cynical: like the Tate might have remembered it had access to a bunch of Picasso paintings, done the maths and worked out they didn’t cover enough white wall space, and then injected British artists as an afterthought after their PR team reminded them they couldn’t do Pablo alone anyway because a) they are the Tate Britain and b) it’s an Olympic year, dummy. 

{From top to bottom: Guitar, Compote Dish and Grapes, 1924; Flowers, 1901; Reading at a Table, 1934; Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, 1932; The Three Dancers, 1925. All Pablo Picasso.}

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