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Apr 2012 Journal

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Art Notes (review)

The wonder of Picasso is that he never stops growing. There is always something to admire, be moved or astonished by - reason enough for Tate Britain to demonstrate his profound influence on other artists throughout half a century. Picasso and Modern British Art (until 15 July) presents him in contrast with seven other painters: Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson and David Hockney.

If Picasso was among the first to present another dimension of the psyche through the dissection of the human form - that a head is still a head even if it sits somewhere outside the body – he was himself, like every artist, influenced by another. His much earlier Spanish compatriot, Velasquez, for instance, or in his own time, Matisse, helped stretch that amazing mind into many art forms beyond Cubism. Inside one face you will see another: his guitars and violins take on human form and even at his most geometric he is still wondrously curvilinear, his love of life represented by the voluptuous female form. An artist of many parts, he also designed imaginative costumes and sets for the Ballets Russes.

Picasso is the most sensual of painters. Explicit, cheeky, humorous and tragic by turn, his colours are luminous and he often includes his personal symbolism – the bull in the field. Even in Guernica, his most powerful protest against the Nazi bombing of the Basque town of that name, too delicate now to be moved and presented here in a full-size black-and-white sketch, you can see that raging bull of his matador sexuality.

But if the distorted faces and yelling mouths depicted by Wyndham Lewis, ¬the founder of English Vorticism and Blast magazine in the 1930s, reflect something of the Spanish master’s free Expressionism, this bears no comparison with the luminosity of the former’s genius. Picasso’s great influence on Francis Bacon is more tangible and more honest: Bacon abandoned interior design for painting after seeing a Picasso exhibition in the late 1920s. In his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion he expands the scope of anguish through distortion.

Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure seems an abstraction of Picasso’s biblical figurative painting The Source. The desire to catch Picasso’s spontaneity is crudely exemplified by David Hockney in his grovelling homage to the Master by depicting himself nude before him.

In a much lauded show at the National Portrait Gallery, one room after another of Lucian Freud’s awkwardly contorted nudes in their flat colours was just too much. Did Freud never learn that we are not all made of one colour? His thick application of green, pink, white and brown paint ends up with a molten mass of ugly flesh. Humanity? Sensitivity? Compassion? Empathy? Forget it. That’s just what Freud does not get. Man or beast - with him it’s all cold meat. Freud’s earlier, and in some senses, more popular work reflects the German Expressionism Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement, exemplified by Otto Dix, George Grosz and Christian Schad.

Gloria Tessler

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