How Picasso won over (some of) the British

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Winston Churchill and Evelyn Waugh hated his work, but Picasso provided inspiration for a whole generation of UK artists, as Arifa Akbar discovers at Tate Britain's new exhibition

In 1905, when Britain had yet to encounter the bright, multi-perspective works of Pablo Picasso, an art critic predicted a great reception for him in the UK, on the basis of a brief but well-received exhibition across the Channel, in Paris.

Théodore Beauchesne couldn't have been more wrong. His words would sound absurdly optimistic for decades to come. Picasso had not yet shown any of his Cubist paintings on British shores, but when he did, five years later in 1910, they were met with hilarity, anger and blank-faced bemusement. The lack of comprehension would build up its own momentum of suspicion, hostility and intense dislike over the next three decades, culminating in withering words from Winston Churchill.

From the moment that the Bloomsbury group's Roger Fry staged a post-Impressionist show featuring the Spanish artist's paintings in London in 1910, right up to the nail-in-the-coffin statement from Churchill in 1949 who declared that he would like to give the artist a kick up the backside, Picasso was reviled and rejected by the British establishment, even as he was being snapped up by American collectors and adored across Europe.

The Picasso-haters were many, but the words of Churchill – himself a painter, though hardly in the same league – were among the most vitriolic. They were conveyed by Alfred Munnings, president of the Royal Academy, speaking at a gala dinner in 1945. In his speech, broadcast by the BBC four years later, he said that when Churchill had asked "Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join me in kicking his... something, something?" he had heartily agreed that he would, to the great amusement of the audience.

Evelyn Waugh, accustomed to signing off letters with the valedictory words "death to Picasso", had by then also given his critical appraisal of Picasso: "Senor Picasso's paintings cannot be intelligently discussed in the terms used of the civilised masters."

Long before this schoolboy mockery, which was as political as it was jingoistic – the conservative establishment disapproved of Picasso's membership of the Communist party, and were suspicious of the "foreign" art movement that he represented – the British art world was confounded by his non-representational work.

And just as there were different generations of dissent, from 1910 until the post-war period, so there were corresponding generations of support and admiration, however small a circle this latter clique formed at first.

An exhibition to be staged by Tate Britain this month, entitled Picasso and Modern British Art, will reflect back on the initial antipathy and subsequent acceptance of Picasso's groundbreaking Cubism. The show will mark seminal moments and influences in Britain in relation to Picasso, including the inflammatory tour of his large-scale work Guernica, which captured the violence of the Spanish Civil War, but came to epitomise the destruction of the Second World War. The exhibition will show Picasso's work alongside that of seven British artists he influenced: Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland and David Hockney.

Chris Stephens, a co-curator of the show, said that Britain was not the only country to balk at Picasso's work at the beginning. Much of the dislike was down to miscomprehension. The Modernist movement and Cubism, in which Picasso led the way, were new to Europe.

"From very early on, Picasso became the figurehead for Modern art so he is the lightning rod for the hostility for something bigger," says Stephens.

Picasso's first solo show, in 1912 at the Stafford gallery, was comprised mainly of drawings from the rose and blue periods; a second post-Impressionist exhibition followed at the Grafton gallery the same year. This was the first real opportunity that Britain had had to come face to face with work which appeared bizarrely abstract to an audience accustomed to representational art.

The earliest generation of supporters who attempted to habilitate him into the British art scene included the Bloomsbury group's Roger Fry and Clive Bell. Although the group was to become the intellectual aristocracy of the 1930s, they were, at this point, small, obscure and lacking influence. What's more, Fry might have been a great fan but he did not fully understand Cubism himself, and described it as abstract art.

Greater awareness came by the 1920s. Artists of note began to visit Picasso in Paris and the south of France, and there was the sense of a hard-and-fast British clique building up. Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth were among these admirers. Nicholson talked of a particular shade of green in one of Picasso's paintings [art historians cannot establish which] that became a benchmark of quality for him. Francis Bacon was so moved when he saw Picasso's paintings in Paris that he decided, once and for all, to pursue a vocation as a painter, rather than as an interior decorator.

In the late 1920s, a body of Picasso's paintings and drawings set in Brittany on the beach, and featuring his voluptuous lover Marie-Thérèse Walter, were reproduced in the French magazine Cahiers d'Art. Its editor, Christian Zervos, regularly devoted entire issues to his work. Art aficionados in Britain would congregate in London bookshops along the Charing Cross Road to buy the magazine and discuss these curious works being produced by Picasso.

A decade later, he had acquired a starry status in Europe and America, and the Surrealist movement hoped to claim him as one of its own. The artist Roland Penrose, who was connected to both the Modernists and the Surrealists, became Picasso's principal English friend. In 1937, Picasso rented out the whole of the Mougins hotel, near Cannes, for an entourage of painters and poets which included Penrose and his wife, the photographer Lee Miller. There was a sexiness to this group, and some art historians have conjectured that the women in it were erotically available for Picasso.

Sexual frisson aside, Penrose was the direct line to Picasso from the British perspective. He went to stay with Picasso in Paris, soon after it was liberated in 1945, and Miller stopped off as well, en route to her photographic work in the concentration camps.

Graham Sutherland, a landscape painter who became a Modernist in the 1940s, travelled to the south of France and visited Château Grimaldi in Antibes, where Picasso had served a residency. Knowing that the artist was making pottery nearby, he decided to visit. From that point on, they became fast friends and Sutherland adopted elements used by Picasso into his own work.

His clique of admirers was getting bigger and bigger and post-war Britain was coming round to Picasso's work. In fact, by the time that Munnings made his acid comments at the RA, Picasso was a superstar. Britain had changed dramatically since 1910, and the Tory right was being replaced by a new social order and a welfare state. What might have been regarded as leftish radicalism was now becoming part of the establishment, and this establishment was much more open to Modernism and Picasso.

A seminal show at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1945 was inflammatory, but also immensely popular. The "genius or charlatan" rhetoric that ranged around YBA artists such as Damien Hirst in the early 1990s, raged six decades earlier with debates on Picasso. "He started the 'my child could have done it' debates," says Stephens.

"But what was interesting," he adds, "was that by the time he made his speech, Munnings was surprised to see how many of his colleagues valued Picasso."

The tide had turned. Munnings was part of the old world, lamenting its loss, while Churchill was the art world's Victor Meldrew.

Picasso and Modern British Art, Tate Britain, London SW1 (www.tate.org.uk) 15 February to 15 July

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