There hasn’t been a Picasso at the Laing Art Gallery for at least 35 years – and maybe never – but that has been put right.
The undoubted highlight of a new exhibition about art and the Spanish Civil War is The Weeping Woman, an instantly recognisable painting by the 20th Century’s most famous artist.
Sarah Richardson, keeper of art at the Newcastle gallery, joined the staff in 1986 and has had to wait until now to see a painting by the celebrated Spaniard on display.
Looking at the painting in its gold frame, she said: “This is the most important, celebrated and valuable picture in the exhibition.
“I think it’s a really strong picture. With its colours, those reds and yellows and black, it really hits you very powerfully, especially combined with the jagged outline of the weeping woman.”
The woman, with aircraft reflected in her eyes, was modelled on Picasso’s mistress, Dora Maar.
She is weeping in sympathy with the women of Guernica, the Basque town which was flattened in the Spanish Civil War by German and Italian bombers in support of General Franco and his Spanish nationalists.
The painting has been in the collection of Tate Britain, in London, since 1987 but it was loaned out for this exhibition which looks at how British artists responded to the Spanish Civil War and also to the European artists who were influenced by the conflict.
Sarah Richardson said Picasso’s famous mural, Guernica, had been brought to Britain in 1938 by the British artist Roland Penrose to raise money for the anti-Franco republican cause in Spain.
It had been shown at a London gallery and also, she believed, at a car showroom in Manchester.
“When the big Guernica painting came to Britain, this painting came with it and other paintings relating to Guernica.
“They were seen by British artists who were greatly influenced by them.”
Guernica, which is arguably Picasso’s most famous work, remains in Madrid now and is too fragile to travel. But The Weeping Woman still has the power to inspire.
It hangs in the Laing with work by British artists of the time, including Wyndham Lewis, Edward Burra and Julian Trevelyan, and also by posters and photographs documenting aspects of the war, in which many British volunteers fought – alongside the republicans – in the International Brigades.
Most of the paintings on display are sympathetic to the republicans but one expresses an opposing view. It is by Sir Francis Rose, who “hoped and felt certain that Franco would win”, but it is a poor looking thing when set alongside the Picasso.
The exhibition also includes a striking Picasso-inspired sculpture called A Perfect Fragment by the Ulster artist FE McWilliam and sketches by Clive Branson of his fellow prisoners-of-war which, according to Sarah Richardson, he was ordered to do by the camp commander.
The sketches by Branson, an artist and active communist in the 1930s, are on loan from the Marx Memorial Library in London. Branson survived combat and imprisonment in Spain but was killed in action in Burma during the Second World War.
The exhibition, Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War, was put together with Pallant House Gallery in Chichester.
It opens at the Laing on Saturday, the latest in its exhibitions with an admission fee, and runs until June 7.