The world's first art blockbuster

It was the exhibition that popularised Modern Art in Britain and made Picasso a household name. Dubbed the 'exhibition of the century' and the world's first 'art blockbuster', the 1960 Picasso show at the Tate Britain broke all previous records. It attracted such a large number of visitors that several of the poor gallery warders reportedly suffered nervous collapse. In our latest blog, we look at what lay behind the show's phenomenal success. 

Picasso 1960 Tate exhibition catalogue

By the time the 1960 Picasso exhibition at Tate closed in September, more than half a million people had seen it, breaking all records and putting pressure on the Tate and its staff. Halfway through the run, the Tate had to request extra support from the Arts Council: 'The large crowd has placed a very heavy strain on our two floor polishers, one of whom is shortly to go on holiday. I wonder if the Arts Council could take on at least the sweeping of the Picasso rooms, possibly using student labour?' Indeed, it was reported that several of the gallery warders suffered nervous collapse. 

Tate cleaners before the opening of the 1960 Tate Picasso show

The show was the talk of the town with The Express breathlessly describing the exhibition as, 'the most vigorous entertaining, interesting merry-go-round of art that London has ever seen'.

While, today, a show on Picasso is a guaranteed crowd pleaser, this was not the case in 1960 as Picasso remained a divisive figure throughout the 1950s. His work was often lampooned. G.K. Chesterton, for example. once dismissed one of Picasso's drawings as a 'piece of paper on which Mr Picasso has had the misfortune to upset the ink and tried to dry it with his boots'.  

Picasso Exhibition Poster


So what was behind the phenomenal success of the show?

A key factor was the ambition, drive and marketing flair of the curator, Roland Penrose. Penrose was co-founder of the ICA and the Picasso's first biographer. He was determined for the public to 'get' Picasso and worked hard to pull together an ambitious large-scale retrospective that covered every period of the artist's career. He managed to secure 100 pictures from Picasso's private collection as well as loans from museums and collectors around the world, most notably, from the Hermitage and Pushkin Museum - no small feat in the Cold War era.

Penrose was also a savvy marketing man and was almost as much concerned with preparations for the publicity surrounding the opening as with the show itself.

By all accounts the opening party was a jolly affair. 2,000 guests including the Duke of Edinburgh, Elsa Schiaparelli, Yehudi Menuhin, Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn were invited for an evening of sangria, flamenco and Spanish food. Details of the preparations for the opening party were leaked to the press. As the party approached, it was discovered that 600lb of rice, 800lb of chicken, 450lb of prawns and 160lb of pimentoes had been ordered; 'all this,' it was reported, 'so they can make a Spanish peasant dish they call '"paella"'. 

Opening of Picasso at the Tate 1960


Opening of Picasso at the Tate 1960

The Duke of Edinburgh summed up his thoughts on Picasso when standing before a canvas called Woman in Green, he asked: 'It looks as if the man drinks. Does he?'.

Other visitors found more to appreciate in Picasso's work:

'Picasso’s precocity was more than mere dexterity; it was a gift that enabled him to express vividly whatever emotional impulse floated into his receptive mind. Often the impulses were cynical, often merely high spirited, never bitter. When he made a drawing of a friend, character and caricature were subtly mingled. Such drawings are powerfully condensed aphorisms. And when he let his imagination have its head the pen or chalk line, sometimes self-consciously elegant, sometimes reckless and untidy, always revealed a man who could see visions....A nude woman puts out her tongue at a serpent; a monocled and over-dressed business man gazes at a nude who ignores his repulsive presence; Celestina, that aged, one-eyed woman, symbol of patient affliction, appears between two absurd caricatures of fashionable vacuity' - The Guardian

Daily Mail Cartoon about the Picasso 1960 Tate exhibition

As the show went on, one publicity coup followed another, generating more headlines and attracting more crowds. At one stage, a woman was caught smuggling in paintings by her husband to hang in the show. When her husband found out what she had been doing, he made her go and take down the paintings adding, 'Picasso's early work is wonderful, but his later work is rotten. I'm much better, old boy'. 

Picasso 1960 Tate exhibition

The head attendant at the Tate, the ex-grenadier guardsman Arthur Wellstead, closed the exhibition with a sharp blast on his whistle at 7.55pm on 19 September. Six minutes later, one observer reported, 'the crowds had all gone – including two young men in sandals who tried to dive through a solid line of attendants for a last look. Arthur Wellstead breathed a sigh of relief. "I'm not sorry it's over,' he said. 'It made a change but it was all a bit hectic."'

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