Ever wondered what happens when a child who is part of a group that you are responsible for kicks one of the Tate gallery’s most valuable and fragile paintings? Then read on.
Warning: Art-lovers who are of a nervous disposition and anyone who works in the Tate Gallery conservation department or is among its curatorial staff should definately avoid this story.
Tate Gallery, ‘The Three Dancers’ by Picasso 1925
I’ve always really liked ‘The Three Dancers’. I think it’s the blue. I love that saturated Mediterranean cobalt /cerulean blue that provides the backdrop to the jumbled array of semi human shapes in front of it. I’d always found that it had a ‘contemporary yet retro’ feel about it, which satisfied my teenage post-Punk Jazzy leanings. This was before I knew anything about it; before I knew anything about Art really. ‘The Three Dancers’ used to hang in the largely static Millbank Tate display, now the home of Tate Britain; and along with Matisse’s ‘Snail’ was one of the ‘favourites’ that I used to go and say ‘Hello’ to each time I visited the old Tate. As I said, I always remember liking it, though for the life of me, I can’t remember when I first saw it or how it was it came about. Of couse, the reason ‘The Three Dancers’ and ‘The Snail’ had this feel about them was that these were works by artists who were hugely influential on the development of the visual language used in commercial art, during the 1950s and 60s. Something, if not knowingly, I was steeped in.
As you may already be aware the Tate’s collection comprises the National Collection of British art from 1500 and International Modern and Contemporary art from 1900. Not exactly happy bedfellows, I think you’ll agree. Hence, the Tate Modern development which effectively took all the modern/contemporary work to the Bankside galleries and left the ‘boring stuff’ at what became Tate Britain.
In the dark old days before Tate Modern, the collection was housed as I said, at the Millbank site. It had been built on part of the old prison site. (You can still see how local streets to the north follow its groundplan) and was paid for by the great sugar baron Sir Henry Tate. Just think: the existence of one of the most comprehensive collections of art in the country is in a roundabout way responsible for countless thousands, possibly millions of dental caries and cases of tooth decay.
By the 1980’s, it was, if you’ll forgive me, a rather staid collection which had considerably outgrown its accomodation (Apparently it had only enough space to show 10% of its contents). Despite this, the displays changed rarely, although there was, if I remember correctly, a notional annual re-hang.
Saint Sir Nick Serota
Then along came contemporary Art’s ’Knight in Shining Armour’ (Saint) Nicholas Serota. Things soon started to change He started by using the Duveen Galleries to rotate pieces from the collection, the displays became more varied and although I was in support of Serota’s developments, on more than one ocassion, I found myself ‘caught out’ and plans to take a school group visit, had to be hastily adapted or re-arranged as the works I had intended we look at were not in fact on display. And so, it was that one day I found myself on the phone to the Tate Education Department to ask whether a visit could be arranged to see ‘The Three Dancers.‘
Because? Well, at some point early on in my Art teaching career, I had the bright idea of making, with a group of kids: a full sized version of ‘The Three Dancers.’
Why not give them a photocopy like everyone else?
Ahhhhh! Well, you see …
I’d been doing a painting project with a group of Year 8 students (Old Second Year: those of you who are still confused) and was surprised by how difficult they found it to think of and use paint in any way other than thick blocked flat areas of colour. We had previously done paintings where I had got them to look at scale and proportion using re-sized matchboxes as their subject. They drove me mad as they would attempt to paint and re-paint their work with standard school powder paint to achieve, regardless of what their subject actually looked like, a uniform, even surface – an impossibility.
Mind you, give the majority of the population of the UK a paintbrush, colours and paper and yell ‘PAINT!’ and they would do exactly the same. It was the first time it dawned on me that as a trained artist (I hesitate to say ‘well-trained’ as that is a whole new can of worms I’m keeping in the fridge for another time) I stood in front of the students with years of visual imagery, the vocabulary and command of language, plus all the other baggage that went with it, as ‘Teacher’ and therefore, despite what I may have thought, some kind of expert or specialist. Whereas the owners of the eager faces in front of me – when I could get the little buggers to shut up – were light years away from the frames of reference which would allow them to access the conceptual and contextual place I inhabited. Phew! (I hope you notice I resisted the overwhelming temptation to use the words ‘mindset’ and ‘paradigm’ here: A major achievement I feel)
I began to think of how I might get round this and help them –
- Understand more about the qualities of paint – what you can do with it.
- Understand how to achieve these qualities themselves in a controlled way through
- colour mixing and all that it entails: mood, emotion, symbolism etc.
- Application of paint: brushwork, other methods of application.
- Formal qualities like texture, surface, tonal variations.
- Methods like impasto, washes etc. Techniques versus Experimentation
- And to understand why artists do the things they do: the all –important context ; and to give them a bit of respect for what they do. To begin to arm them with some of the basic tools – which would allow them to decipher or read artworks – even if it all it managed to achieve was a little insight, it was better than nothing.
Kwik Kwiz (Or by-pass it if you prefer) Art in Context. Let’s see what you know!
La Vie 1903
Annunciation C. 1430
Why did Picasso use blue as the predominant colour in his painting ‘La Vie’ of 1903? And why did fifteenth century Italian Renaissance painter Fra Angelico use blue to create The Virgin’s robes and ceiling in his ‘Annunciation’ of c. 1426? Do you know? Answers (Sort of) below
So, after much deliberation (Probably the last hour in the Priory Tavern on a quiet week night) I hatched a plan which was to get them into handling paint more freely. By subterfuge. Trick them into it!
All I had to do was find an abstract/ish painting (one which would not allow them to get hung up on achieving a ‘likeness’ to anything they might see, or think they might see in it.) Preferably a painting with a story, which when it was finished, could be revealed and de-bunk the notion that ‘Modern Art doesn’t mean anything’. It also needed to fit the bill in terms of its freedom and handling of paint.
Picasso, You know who and you know what 1965 The year the Tate bought it.
(Pic. The Wonderful Lee Miller)
As I thought about it a bit more (Wednesday and Thursday night in the Priory Tavern) I realised that a Picasso Cubist painting or at least a ‘fractured plane’ painting would be ideal because it would allow me to ‘cut up’ the image and distribute it among the class more easily. If I worked out the proportions correctly, each member of the class would have an identically sized piece, which when painted could be assembled the same size as the original. Because of the nature of the original, it wouldn’t matter if the students’ work wasn’t a perfect fit – so they didn’t need to get hung up about that either. I would tell them nothing about their ‘slice’ of the painting. In fact only when all the pieces were complete and the finished painting displayed in school – would they see it for the first time, and then the story behind it revealed. Now then … which painting would fit the bill? The Still lifes were obviously out. What about ‘The Three Dancers’?
And so it was.
Ha! And you thought it was just ‘playtime with paint’ all those years down in the Art department then?
You know what? It worked like a dream. We were mixing paint with glue, sand and sawdust to achieve textures, some of the kids went to great lengths to replicate the cracks in the original paint surface – by making actual cracks in their work. It was great fun and the finished group piece went up on display. Because of my promise, however, the mysterious story wasn’t to be revealed till the gallery.
Some weeks later
‘I’m afraid it’s not on display’ (Imagine a voice on the phone ..)
This is not what I wanted to hear. The students had made such a fine job of the ‘patchwork painting’ and were so interested in its story, that I’d (rather hastily) promised to take them to see the real thing.
‘Is it possible to see it in the vaults, or wherever it’s kept when not on display?’
‘You mean The Stores? We only allow that usually under special circumstances’
‘Okay, I’ll see what I can do. Call back in about half an hour’ …..
Which I did:
….. I’ve spoken with the Heads of the Education and Curatorial Departments and they have agreed on this one occasion only to allow you access to the stores with your group. Please report to the School’s Reception on arrival.’
Result! We’d done it!
Came the big day, and I was as excited as the kids. I always loved doing gallery trips; it only got tiresome when we were into our third or fourth year of doing the infamous ‘Monster Trips’ (2 halves of a whole year group (90 kids each visit) on consecutive days – on the TUBE, believe it or not. I was a great believer that contact with original artworks and the people who make art, be an ‘entitlement’ to all students. Regardless of whether they are able to operate a London Underground ticket barrier or not. Yes, to be honest, finally, those extravaganzas began to do my head in. Despite everything though, we never had any disasters (Well, nothing that anyone ever heard about); students were generally well behaved and conducted themselves appropriately when they came into contact with the public.
On our Picasso trip, I’d pushed the boat out. I mean we didn’t sail up the Thames or anything like that. No on this particular occasion, I’d hired a small bus (and driver) So, off we went, worksheets fluttering out of the back window in the lap of luxury to the Tate and our (by now) beloved ‘Three Dancers’.
Well, it was something else. After leaving our coats and bags (and probably the remainder of the worksheets) in the education area, which I seem to recall was downstairs on Level one. We were guided –somewhere, unfortunately my memory is hazy about how we got to the Stores, or indeed exactly where, beneath the galleries thronging with people above, they were. I must have had a lot of deliberation to do over lesson and project plans in The Priory Tavern that week. Before we knew it we were in what resembled a concrete underground car park. The door to the stores, a HUGE door, at least a metre and a half thick was already open in anticipation of our arrival. I pretended to be quite blasé about the whole thing but in fact I was completely overawed by what I was seeing. Over to the left of us was someone I presumed to be our education department guide, waiting for us. The dungarees were a bit of a give away. Behind him, along the length of this cavernous space there were what appeared to be a long series of enormous box files, all slotted together, appropriately labelled on their spines.
Tate storage. No, they weren’t from IKEA
As we approached, one of the stores staff selected one of these spines, and using a handle about three quarters of the way down, drew out a huge metal grille display panel on wheels. On it was a Georgio de Chirico, a couple of Salvador Dali’s and our beloved ‘Three Dancers’. The pictures were tied to the grille with fabric or canvas in an attempt to prevent damage to the frame or the work within it.
‘You okay then?’ Asked the storeman ‘Yes, we’ll be fine, won’t we?’ said our education guide with a cheery smile that rapidly transformed into an imploring look. It was no use, my lot were sitting, many open-mouthed at what had been presented before them.
‘ Ten minutes?’
‘Yes Stan, we’ll be done in ten minutes’ I doubted it. Our education guide, who introduced himself as Simon, looked more comfortable now that Stan had left.
This was the quiet before the storm: any second now, a sea of hands would shoot up, then as if having no connection as a precursor to or a niceity to be observed before the bombardment with a shower of questions, like lethal arrows fired by well-drilled Roman Sagittarii … were left still pawing the air.
‘Sir! It’s not the same colour as my picture in school …!
‘Sir! I can’t find my piece!’
‘Oi You said she was a woman. Where’s her ….?
You never know who you are going to get from the education departments on these sorts of jaunts, or their ability (or lack of) to communicate with young people. I needn’t have worried. Simon announced:
‘Ah! … Any more of that horrible noise and this (he motioned over his shoulder at the painting) goes straight back in. Do you realise how lucky you are to be in here? I’ve worked here for years and this is only the second time I’ve been down here’
My throat had begun to get very dry. ‘Bloody Hell, how did I manage to blag this?’ I thought to myself.
Quiet again. Simon began by asking the kids about their paintings in school. To what extent their own individual pieces and then the group piece matched the original. He then studied with them, the original and got them to look specifically for things they had not spotted in their reproductions and paintings such as the thickness of paint in the top left of the left hand window panel and the strange hieroglyphic shapes in the background. He then drew their attention to the contorted female face on the left. Why?
‘She could have been dead’ Why?
‘Disease’ What kind of disease?
‘Aids? … Yeah maybe he wished she had Aids’
‘But what kind of person would wish that on someone?’
‘Someone that hated them’
And so the story began to unfold …
Just over seven feet high, Picasso painted ‘The Three Dancers’ in spring 1925 in Paris. X-ray images show a much more conventional painting of three more rounded realistic figures beneath. Something had happened to cause Picasso to make a new start and take a more drastic direction. The backdrop to this was his rapidly disintegrating relationship with his wife Olga Kokhlova, a Russian ballet dancer with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. But the ‘something’was a death. The death of one of Picasso’s oldest friends from his youth in Barcelona, Ramon Pichot. In fact Picasso once said ‘While I was painting this picture an old freind of mine Ramon Pichot died. I have always felt that it should be called ‘Death of Pichot’ rather than ‘Three Dancers’
Pichot (or his ghost) appears in the painting as the ghostly black sillhouette on the right. He is significant, because to Picasso, Pichot had been a link back to his formative years in the Catalunyan capital. He was one of a group of regulars at a bar known as Els Quatre Gats which, when it opened in 1897 became the centre of a cultural movement known as Modernismo. (‘The Four Cats’ which you can still drink in today) Other members included Carles Casagemas. Casagemas and Picasso who were almost the same age became very close freinds. Indeed, at the turn of the century they were sharing a studio for which Casagemas apparently paid.
Pichot was married – Now this is where it gets interesting or messy depending on your point of view. Pichot’s widow was none other than Germaine Gargallo – love interest and ultimately subject of obsession, twenty five years earlier of Picasso’s best but increasingly unstable freind. In 1901, while Picasso is in Madrid and his friend in Paris, Germaine finally spurns Casegemas who in response, invites freinds, who include Germaine for a meal in the Boulevard De Clichy, at the end of which, he stands, produces a pistol which he aims at, Germaine and fires. She avoids the bullet and has the sense to stay down and feign injury, whereupon Casagemas turns the pistol to his own right temple. This time he doesn’t miss. (Probably just as well from that range) His autopsy reveals he was impotent.
Picasso later says that it is Casagemas’suicide that prompts his ‘Blue Period’ and indeed, the male figure in‘La Vie’(Kwik Kwiz) is none other.
‘What’s imputent, Sir?’
‘It’s when you can’t have kids innit’
‘That’s OK cos then he wouldn’t have needed to use …’
‘Alright, let’s get back to the painting and the figures it shows, now that we know who they are’
In what strikes me as an innovative move, Simon has invited some of the kids out in front of the painting to get into the positions held by the protagonists and ‘act out the picture’ Top Banana: some Kinaesthetic Learning. Excellent! We have Pichot with his big nose who seems to be part of the futuristic, stylised brown and white figure. To the left, the grinning, grimacing, diseased, gun shot head of Germaine.
My mind begins to wander, and I find myself reflecting on the fact that although I’d always loved the painting, until this work with the kids, I actually knew nothing about it. In fact, I’d always completely mis-read it. I’d assumed it was simply a jazzy image of people dancing. Not the dark and psychologically charged piece of work the unfortunates from my group were attempting to recreate.
‘Now try to get into that same arched position. How is it?’
It is at this point in the writing of this long-winded epic that I realise that unusually for me, I have absolutely no recollection of the names of any of the names of the students involved. I just remember them as a lovely group. So sadly, the identity of our next volunteer to play the part of Olga Kokhlova / crucified Christ / Casagemas and at the same time very nearly write himself into the Tate Gallery’s ‘Book of Notoriety’ is lost in the mists of time.
‘Come up’ encourages Simon. Our volunteer obliges, and goes on to attempt the ‘ballet-stance’ of the central figure.
‘Good!’ He has just about been able to clasp hands with his two colleagues. (Supple then)
My throat has just gone very dry again. I struggle to raise a sound. Too late anyway.
‘That’s it now you’ve got to get your left leg back here … kick it back, that’s it kick it right back!…..
I had seen too late what was coming. What I didn’t expect was a perfectly executed back kick, chambered in the old way with the knee tucked under the mid section, shoulders square looking away from his opponent (painting) delivering full power through the heel of his flexed foot. Good rotation, balance, strength. Ten out of ten. Jackie Chan would have been proud.
The hollow noise reverberated around the stores. As it did, the frame of the painting and the piece of perspex (thank God it wasn’t glazed!) wobbled crazily, like some insane Rolf Harris instrument. I remember the reflected light flashing up and down the painting until it finally settled which took an appallingly long time for it to do.
Simon flashed me a glance which said ‘What the fuck are we going to do?’
I flashed him a glance which said ‘We? What do you mean We? What the fuck are YOU going to do?’
Simon’s face went from white, to grey to a sickly green, like a ghastly traffic light.
All I had in my head was a silent image of Trevor McDonald fronting News at Ten with a picture of ‘the Three Dancers’ behind him, followed by a photograph of me – From my Goldsmiths’ College student ID card photo. Where on earth had they bloody got that from?
Now it may interest you to know that ‘the Three Dancers’ is one of the Tate’s most fragile and friable pieces of work. You may not have noticed, but it never goes out on loan. Nor will it. ‘The Three Dancers’ is an Art conservationist’s nightmare. In fact, the gallery and its powerful conservation staff (Forget the curators: they might have all these great display ideas, but if the conservation staff say ‘No way!’ It’s ‘No Way!’) actively limit its exposure to light to slow down future changes and to preserve it for future generations. Picasso, the little rascal enjoyed using commercial oil-based paints which would have had quite different properties to artists’ oil paint. They would have been machine rather than hand ground for a start and not designed for permanence of colour. If you can, take a close look at ‘The Three Dancers’ There some decidedly ropey looking bits and large cracks (possibly just that bit wider since the visit of a certain school group) When asked in 1965 about cracks in the paint surface, Picasso said ‘some people might want to touch them out but I think they add to the painting. On the face you see how they reveal the eye that was painted underneath’ He seemed to relish the notion that the viewer now had a glimpse into how he created his work. Ah yes, but how might he have reacted to them using it for Taekwondo sparring practice?
‘Thank Christ!’ Simon bleated, when it became clear that for some inexplicable reason, the surface of the picture, which is what I had feared for (I had a mind’s eye image of a perfectly preserved frame and perspex panel featuring at its bottom, a dusty pile of rubble.)
‘WellgreatSimonI’msureweallenjoyedthatdidn’twe?Nowit’sprobablytimeforustomakeamove’ I spluttered. Half the kids were (again) open-mouthed at what they had seen. The other half were giggling uncontrollably.
I froze: Stan!
‘Everything Okay? I mean you’ve not damaged it have you?’ Laughed Stan.
‘You’ve got no fucking idea ….’ I thought.
Simon went through his traffic-light sequence once again, and we made to leave. Stan none the wiser.
Without speaking another word, we went back up to Level One. I thanked Simon for his valuable input, and again without another word about what had just happened, he departed.
It was time to get out of there PDQ, so I assemble the kids for a ‘toilet break’ before we hit the road. I send them in, two at a time and remain outside to supervise those who have returned, are waiting to and those lucky enough not to need to. I went last after the kids had finished.
God Almighty! I was desperate for a slash, I entered and took my place far left of the Gent’s urinal. / Ah! The relief! I’d been waiting for it all morning… Oh that? / No, it’s not a mistake, it’s a slash. And a Forward Slash at that too: no Backslashes … I mean I know I’d done a lot of deliberating in the Priory Tavern this week, but I certainly didn’t have a hangover. I began to ponder on how working in schools, with their regimented days, lessons controlled by the sounding of bells, specific time slots for this and that, has left me with awesome control over my bodily functions. I am suddenly shaken from my meanderings as the door swings open and a tall, thin, elegantly-dressed, rather stern looking man wearing rimless spectacles enters.
‘Oh bloody hell! I’ve been rumbled’. It’s only bloody Nick Serota: Director of the Tate Gallery.
‘It wasn’t our fault, the Education guide said ‘Kick it back…’ I almost blurted out. Much to my surprise, Serota studiously ignores me until he becomes conscious of my prolonged stare. I quickly avert my gaze – I don’t want him to recognise me. Surely the incident has been reported by now? Starting to panic now, I become conscious of (how can I put it?) the ‘robustness’ of my flow. I don’t want to draw attention to myself. With my escape route in mind, I begin to try and locate the hand driers. I look right. As luck, or bad fortune (you decide) decrees it, it is precisely at this point that ‘Saint’ Nick decides he has banked his deposit and in turning – as a result of his height – see his Turner Prize occupying rather too much space in my immediate line of sight.
Whereupon he gives me a look that resembles a slapped arse, re-adjusts his dress, washes and dries his hands. He says nothing, but on his way out fires me another look which seems to suggest that my copious offering is the last straw in a series of events which will ultimately see the closure of the Tate and the sale of all its work to the highest bidder, while he has to stretch Jobseekers Allowance more than somewhat to keep himself in the style to which he has become accustomed.
‘Phew! He’s gone’.
Like I said working in schools has left me with awesome control over my bodily functions .
Now…. Kids, bus and home!
I must say, I spent a nervous couple weeks, half expecting a letter to delivered to me from the Tate’s lawyers, Withers, Linklaters, Brachers requesting the prompt payment of a cool $100,000 to cover the cost of repairs. And then I forgot all about it.
But every time I see ‘The Three Dancers’ ….
Kick Kwiz Answers:
In Picasso’s case, the picture comes from what is commonly referred to as his ‘Blue’ period, during which he painted gloomy, sometimes rather pat – looking scenes of poverty and misery. Paintings are usually monochrome: constructed from a range of blue, blue/green and blue/violet tones. Blue being a colour, which in the West has become symbolic of suffering. Fra Angelico on the other hand uses his ultramarine blue, derived from Lapis Lazuli, pound for pound more expensive than gold, to denote the importance of Mary and the significance of the event.
So now you know!
(Tate storage Photograph: David Levene)
© Andy Daly 2010