From the Archives
T.W. Earp, a contemporary of Tolkien at Oxford, is believed by etymologists to be the unfortunate source of the word ‘twerp’ – yet this often dismissed writer’s dissection of Picasso, in the July 1931 issue, was extraordinarily perspicacious.
Robert O’Byrne, Sunday, 1st July 2012
For at least two decades after being founded in 1925 this publication ordinarily espoused an ambivalent attitude towards Picasso. Successive editors and authors accepted the artist’s genius and made obeisance before it, but shied away from discussing him in any depth lest, one suspects, they expose themselves to readers’ ridicule.
Apollo was by no means alone in adopting this position, as an exhibition currently running at Tate Britain, ‘Picasso and Modern British Art’ (until 15 July) makes plain. By the outbreak of the First World War anyone with even a passing interest in contem-porary art was familiar with Picasso’s name but not necessarily much else. Like Banquo’s ghost, the presence of his work was felt in Britain while its actuality mostly remained unknown. And, as the Tate show demonstrates, his influence on the country’s artists was predominantly baleful as they sought either to emulate or ignore him. In both instances their efforts failed.
The interwar era’s art critics likewise struggled to come up with an intelligent way of writing about Picasso. A rare exception to this rule can be found in the July 1931 edition of Apollo where T.W. Earp wrote an astute report on the retrospective ‘Thirty Years of Pablo Picasso’, held the previous month at London’s Lefevre Gallery. Unlike Picasso, it is probable Earp and his opinions would have vanished without trace but for two reasons, the first being that his name is habitually cited by etymologists as the origin of the word ‘twerp’ (with his Oxford contem-porary J.R.R. Tolkien given as a source). Someone who might have thought the term well merited was D.H. Lawrence. In 1929 he held an exhibition of his paintings at the Warren Gallery in London. The event attracted much publicity, little of it favourable: the Observer’s critic called the pictures ‘frankly disgusting’. Following a complaint from a member of the public, a squad of policemen removed 13 of the 25 works on show, only returning them to Lawrence once he had given a commitment never again to exhibit them in England. Replicas of the banned pictures were displayed in the Piccadilly branch of the bookseller Waterstones in December 2003, and created scarcely a ripple of interest.
Meanwhile, compared to the repugnance expressed by other reviewers at the time, Earp’s remarks on the 1929 exhibition were restrained. After declaring admiration for Lawrence the writer, he suggested that, as with Ingres and his violin, painting should be treated more as a hobby than a vocation. An indignant Lawrence retaliated in mediocre verse, the opening lines of which run: I heard a little chicken chirp: My name is Thomas, Thomas Earp, and I can neither paint nor write,I can only put other people right.
Actually Earp did put other people right about Picasso in his Apollo article. He opened with the observation that hitherto it had not been easy to see what the artist had been doing, ‘although some of our younger painters have been willing enough to provide it at second-hand’ – an opinion confirmed by the current Tate show. Before going on to analyse the 37 pictures in the Lefevre exhibition, Earp expressed gratitude for the opportunity the occasion had given British art lovers: ‘For it is at last possible to take comprehensive survey of the most lively artistic career of the century…and even those who do not judge it altogether favourably must at least admit that they have been profoundly interested.’ The point made by Earp, that Picasso ‘has revived again the heat of controversy which surrounded the work of Manet and Cézanne,’ is especially important because for a long time in Britain modern art was regarded as the preserve of a small band of insiders like Bloomsbury’s Vanessa Bell, who smugly declared that she found Picasso ‘perfectly charming and quite easy and simple.’ Alternatively modern art was perceived as a joke, and sometimes made into one: 1929’s Bruno Hat hoax, in which a group of London’s most fashionable young people pretended to present work by a German avant-garde artist, springs to mind.
Earp recognised that grasping the measure of Modernism’s evolution as represented in the work of Picasso was not easy; after all, the Tate Gallery only bought its first work by the artist, an insipid floral still life from 1901, two years after the Lefevre show. But Earp also understood that Picasso’s origins, like those of Modernism, lay in tradition, since he ‘would hardly have exercised so great an influence as a pioneer in new directions had he not already reached very high achievement in the accepted way.’ Demonstrating rare perspicacity for the time, this does not look like the opinion of a twerp.
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