Fifty-two years ago, an exhibition at London’s Tate Gallery created such a sensation that it coined the term, the “art blockbuster.” The largest-scale retrospective of the work of Pablo Picasso at the time, it drew more than half-a-million visitors, breaking all records (still the artist’s most attended show), and coincided with the height of “Picasso-mania.” It’s also considered the moment when Modernism conquered stodginess in the British art imagination, and was finally embraced after long resistance.
Fast-forward to 2012 and the opening next week at the Tate of Picasso and Modern British Art – and things come full circle. An overview of Picasso’s profound influence after his initial introduction to English audiences in 1910, the exhibit will feature over 150 pieces, including 60 Picassos, spotlighting an Anglo-Spanish alliance that spanned decades.
At first derided by the establishment — “Apart from a few heroic collectors, very few people were ready to take Picasso on,” says Tate curator Chris Stephens – Picasso’s impact on the avant-garde artists of the time and to come was wide and deep. Henry Moore, Duncan Grant, Francis Bacon, and David Hockney (who’s said to have seen the 1960 Tate show eight times) were just a few among them.
One need look no further than Grant and Bacon to witness Picasso’s sway on two seminal British artists. Grant’s The Tub (1913) evokes Picasso’s Vase of Flowers (1908) in color, shape, and shades of primitivism; likewise, Bacon’s Crucifixion (1933) followed one of Picasso’s Bathers by a handful of years, and clearly derives from the Andalusian master’s Cubist-tinged creation of 1929.
Picasso the provocateur was the subject of many heated discussions about the merits of his art that took place in Britain in the 1940s. “Señor Picasso’s painting cannot be intelligently discussed in the terms used of the civilized masters,” wrote the novelist Evelyn Waugh in 1945. “He can only be treated as crooners are treated by their devotees.” (Picasso’s joint exhibition with Henri Matisse at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1945 was similarly met with rancor.)
But time — or in this case, the art world’s first-ever “blockbuster” — healed all. An association that encompassed both disdain and acclaim, Picasso and Modern British Art (which runs February 15–July 15), is another chapter in the towering artistic journey of the most celebrated painter of the 20th Century.