Picasso & Modern British Art, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

“What will painting do when I’m dead? It’ll have to walk over my body. There’s no way round.” Thus Picasso, shortly before his death in 1973. Today his influence is still overwhelming and inestimable.

This ambitious exhibition, moving from Tate Britain to open in Edinburgh today as a highlight of the city’s visual arts festival, is not frightened of the absurdity of placing Picasso against such weaker, milder artists as Duncan Grant, Graham Sutherland or Ben Nicholson, while offering an expert reading of the impact of Cubism on Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and David Hockney. For its Scottish presentation, work by two local Picasso devotees, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, is also featured.

But the real triumph here is simply the gathering of great Picassos. Combining trophy pieces from our national collections with outstanding loans, the show narrates the artist’s uneven reception in Britain. It runs from early resistance, through the pioneering efforts of far-sighted collectors such as stockbroker Frank Stoop – whose bequest included the Blue Period “Girl in a Chemise” (1905) and the return-to-classicism portrait “Seated Woman in a Chemise” (1923) – and Roland Penrose, to Tate’s spectacular 1960 retrospective, and its purchase of “The Three Dancers” (1925). The latter, extraordinarily, was the first work sold directly by the artist to a museum.

Picasso considered this one of his two greatest paintings. In its primitivism and themes of sex and death, it looks back to “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), but it also marks the start of Picasso’s 1920s-30s juggling with form. During this period he played the body of his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter into a series of sensuous curves, as in “Nude Woman in a Red Armchair”, “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” (1932) – sold in 2010 for a record £66m – and “Nude Woman Lying in the Sun on the Beach” (1932), Penrose’s first Picasso purchase. It was followed by “Weeping Woman” (1937), which he entrusted to a young Lucian Freud to bring to wartime Britain.

A compelling story, and an unmissable exhibition.

Until November 4, www.nationalgalleries.org

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