It could, I suppose, be argued that I should be writing about these exhibitions when they open, rather than a few days before they close. To which I reply: whatevs. I’ve got television shows to review, and surely no-one’s going to suggest that painting is a higher art form than TV? But bearing in mind that there is, once again, a lot of new stuff starting this week on the box, I don’t think you’ll be remotely disappointed if you find the time to see this exhibition.
When reviewing it, I remarked that one of the unexpected strengths of the National Galleries of Scotland‘s other big summer show, ‘Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape In Europe 1880-1910’, was that there actually wasn’t too much by either Van Gogh or Kandinsky in it, which gave some excellent but lesser-known artists room to make an impact. ‘Picasso & Modern British Art’, on the other hand, has bucketloads of Picassos. As it happens, though, this is once again an extremely wise curatorial decision.
The theme of the exhibition is, broadly, the effect that Picasso had on 20th century Britain’s artistic community, but what it demonstrates is that while Picasso was clearly capable of coming up with two or three new directions for modern art before breakfast, his British acolytes were reduced to playing catch-up. Indeed, the greatest curatorial challenge must have been to come up with euphemisms for “copied” in the (typically excellent) object labels: Picasso “influenced” some artists, and was a “key reference point” for others, who “appropriated” his style, paid it “homage”, or – my favourite – “adopted a style that owed much” to him. “Much” meaning, in the case of Duncan Grant at least, “approximately 100%”. Of the home team, it’s only Wyndham Lewis, with his Futurist leanings, and Francis Bacon who emerge with a lot of credit, in my (completely uneducated and uninformed) opinion.
But with over 40 dazzling works by Picasso himself, including many of the first paintings and drawings to have been purchased by both public and private collectors in Britain, and a wealth of archive material putting his work in a peculiarly British context – ‘Guernica’, for instance, was exhibited in a car showroom in Manchester in 1939 – the exhibition is in many ways nothing less than a potted history of the art of the first 50 years of the last century, as outlined by its most consistently brilliant practitioner. Which makes it essential viewing, and nearly as good as TV. It’s open until Sunday, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.