“What can I have done that they should have let me through?” wailed Picasso to his English supporter Roland Penrose in 1950. One of 52 Parisian delegates landing at Dover to attend the Second World Peace Congress in Sheffield, Picasso alone was allowed into the country; the rest were sent back to Calais.

His surprise was understandable, because for the first half of the 20th century Picassos were rarely admitted to Britain. Tate did not buy its first work by the artist until 1933 – a conservative still life, “Flowers”, from 1901. Legendary modern art collector Samuel Courtauld purchased just one Picasso, the domesticated Blue Period “A Child with a Dove”. Although by 1950 Picasso was the most famous living artist, his UK visit was controversial enough to be discussed in parliament, and a government-planted newspaper article called him “the distressed victim of a distressed time”.

But a decade later, in 1960, Tate held a landmark Picasso retrospective, attracting half a million visitors, and the museum acquired from the artist the jagged, ecstatic “The Three Dancers” (1925), which Picasso reckoned, with “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), one of his two greatest works. Why did he part with this dance of sex and death, primitivist, abstracted, but also deeply personal (its origins lay in the love-triangle suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas) to Britain? When Penrose, a Tate trustee, picked up the painting from his Mougins studio, Picasso talked of how Winston Churchill had saved “Angleterre …et bien plus – c’est il a sauvé nous tous.”

“The Three Dancers” is a highlight of Tate Britain’s Picasso & Modern British Art, an unusual, anecdotal exhibition about art and politics, the history of British taste and our slow acceptance of European modernism. Its weakness is predictable: most artists are feeble compared to Picasso, and of the seven in focus here – Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and David Hockney – only the last three transform his impact into something individual and new.

Plundering the past, Picasso boasted: “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” Put the borrowings – Grant’s decorative proto-cubist pastiches “The White Jug” and “Design for a Firescreen”; Lewis’s dry, sound-and-fury abstractions and Nicholson’s pallid, lifeless ones; Sutherland’s plants-as-beasts such as “Gorse on Sea Wall”, recalling Picasso’s surrealist metamorphoses – alongside the originals, and they wilt. Among British artists born in the 1880s-90s, Picasso’s near-contemporaries, Moore alone convinces because, working in a different medium, he appropriated with less anxiety. How marvellously he learnt monumentality from Picasso’s classicising 1920s oeuvre, reprising the exact pose and grandeur of the sculptural figure in “The Source”, for example, in his weighty elmwood “Reclining Figure”.

‘Crucifixion’ by Francis Bacon
‘Crucifixion’ (1933) by Francis Bacon © The Estate of Francis Bacon

For a trio of reasons, this show is greater than the sum of its parts. First, its narrative – especially the celebration of Quaker-born connoisseur Penrose – is arresting throughout. Penrose won Picasso’s grudging respect by falling for “Nude Woman Lying in the Sun on the Beach” (1932), a picture whose central oval shape represented the bather’s anus and had been rejected by Picasso’s dealer because “I refuse to have any arseholes in my gallery”. Penrose acquired the piece in 1936, then began a campaign to change British opinion. To astonishment, he wangled a visit of “Guernica” to London in 1939. By 1960 he had made Picasso a sufficiently establishment name to escort the Queen privately around Tate’s retrospective.

Second, partly as a result of Penrose’s canny purchases, the show is packed with Picassos. So broad is its remit that any Picasso that ever did time in Britain has a claim for inclusion; the jumble of foreign loans, private and museum pieces, early and late works confers an exhilarating, random quality, affording juxtapositions liberated from the usual curator-led themes.

Thus the masterpiece of hermetic cubism “Man with a Clarinet”, a key work in the collection of Penrose’s rival, the academic and embittered Douglas Cooper, returns from Madrid, joining a seminal collage-like “Head of a Man” bought by Roger Fry in 1913, from New York’s MoMA. Canvases lent fresh from Picasso’s studio to Tate in 1960 – an opulent oriental interior “Women of Algiers” (1954) and some savage, vital “Las Meninas” canvases (1957) from Barcelona – are reassembled. “Reading at a Table”, a tender portrayal of Marie-Thérèse Walter absorbed in a book, visits from the Metropolitan Museum, displayed opposite “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust”, a more characteristically voluptuous depiction of Picasso’s sexiest model as a series of luscious curves, her body traversed by black bands inspired by a Man Ray bondage photograph. This daring work briefly adorned the London apartment of Commander Teddy Heywood-Lonsdale in the 1930s.

'Artist and Model' (1973) by David Hockney
'Artist and Model' (1973) by David Hockney

Such erotic, expressive distortions of the figure of Marie-Thérèse determined Bacon to become a painter. The third triumph here is that when a true tale of influence rather than imitation exists, Tate tells it expertly. Bacon destroyed most early work, but Tate has excavated several small 1930s studies such as “Corner of the Studio” to display with the 1933 “Crucifixion”, owned by Damien Hirst, illustrating how Bacon’s elongated, spectral figures in motion with their tiny polyp-like heads extended Picasso’s language of distortion. Those convulsive images developed in the upraised, snarling, screaming mouths as in “Head 1” (1947-48), recalling “Guernica” and “Weeping Woman”.

Penrose bought “Weeping Woman” (1937) directly from the artist’s studio, then entrusted a young Lucian Freud to take it by train to a wartime London exhibition; it was also the first Picasso encountered by Hockney. A generation younger than the other artists here, Hockney had the distance, plus easy virtuosity and confidence in his own lifelong project – the nature of image-making – to embrace Picasso’s influence straightforwardly, without becoming overwhelmed by it. In “Artist and Model”, completed in response to Picasso’s death in 1973, Picasso in his striped shirt and Hockney, stripped bare before the master, face each another, one depicted in the new sugar lift technique, the other in traditional hard ground etching: a brilliant, simplified meditation on history and modernity.

“What will painting do when I’m dead? It’ll have to walk over my body. There’s no way round, is there?” Picasso had announced shortly before. In his current Royal Academy show, Hockney is still playing cubist games; at the National Portrait Gallery Picasso’s legacy on Freud’s manipulation of the human figure is apparent. Although flawed, Tate’s exhibition is essential viewing for anyone interested in painting, past or future.

‘Picasso & Modern British Art’, Tate Britain, London, to July 15, www.tate.org.uk

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, August 4-November 4, www.nationalgalleries.org

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