Major Picasso show as part of 2012 Edinburgh Art Festival

This article is from 2012


Picasso's 'The Three Dancers' (1925) is one of the artist's most celebrated surrealist paintings

Enduring appeal of artist considered by many as greatest of the 20th century

Picasso is considered the greatest artist of the 20th century, his works not only passing the ‘tea towel test’ of achieving mass popularity but also inspiring generations of practitioners around the world. The latest public outing for the artist’s work in Scotland explores Picasso’s influence on painters and sculptors who worked in the UK.

While Picasso and Modern British Art has only one name in its title, the exhibition is actually something of a superstar group show. It takes seven British artists and shows them responding to different phases in the Spaniard’s work over a period of more than 50 years, from early cubism to David Hockney’s response in the 1960s and 70s. For the show’s run at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, there will be an extra room of work by Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, two Scottish artists who fell under Picasso’s spell after World War II.

‘It could have been organised in an encyclopaedic way, taking one or two works by everyone who borrowed from Picasso, but since so many British artists were influenced by him you could have ended up with an incomprehensible smorgasbord,’ says Patrick Elliott, senior curator at the gallery. ‘The approach adopted here gives it a spine and some structure. I suppose the mark of a great artist is that they can borrow and not copy, taking that borrowing in a different direction. Francis Bacon certainly did that and so did Henry Moore.’

An interesting insight offered up by the exhibition is that despite a long and prolific career stretching from his 1900 move to Paris to his death in 1973, it wasn’t until a celebrated exhibition at the Tate in 1960 (attracting half a million visitors), that Picasso’s work began to capture the popular imagination here. So why was the British art fraternity so slow to cotton on?

‘British artists and collectors, and the public in general, have been quite traditional and conservative,’ says Elliott. ‘It’s partly to do with patronage and the gallery structure. If nobody wants to buy or show or publish radically new art, it’s not going to be easy making your way. Someone like Henry Moore is probably seen today as a bit avuncular, a bit old-fashioned, but in his time he was taking huge risks. Lots of British artists dabbled with modernist trends, but few of them really stuck at it. Today, the art world is completely international, and everyone wants a piece of the latest trend.’

As Elliott points out, for all the UK’s slowness to catch-on to Picasso, his appeal and influence is anything but ephemeral. ‘We have seven of the best British artists here. In the exhibition, they each try to stand up to a single, often brief phase in Picasso’s art, and they do it successfully. But Picasso was at that level for more than 70 years, and he was also doing it in sculpture and printmaking, which isn’t to the fore in this show. It’s like a boxing match, but here Picasso is going into the ring with a new, fresh opponent in every round. The best artists have peaks and troughs and many run out of steam. But Picasso was consistently on a peak.’

Part of Edinburgh Art Festival. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 4 Aug–4 Nov.

Picasso and Modern British Art

The first exhibition to look at Picasso's connections with Britain, this major exhibition features over sixty works by Picasso, including the celebrated Three Dancers of 1925 and major cubist works borrowed from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and important works by Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry…