Pepys in the court of King Pablo

Visiting Picasso
November 24, 2006

This carefully edited publication gives a lively account of the unequal but extraordinarily productive friendship that Roland Penrose cultivated with Picasso from the moment of their first encounter in 1936 up to the latter's death in 1973. It is based on a close reading of the library and papers that the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art acquired in 1994 and is illustrated with a wealth of intriguing photographic material, much of it from the archives of Penrose's wife, Lee Miller. As an account of a relationship, it is remarkably one-sided, given that there is only a handful of, mostly cursory, notes from Picasso to set beside well over 200 letters, many of them lengthy, from Penrose. There are the records of Penrose's numerous interviews with Picasso's friends and private notebooks, extensively drawn on here, in which he spontaneously recorded every detail of his regular visits to Picasso and responses to his work in the period 1954-72.

The book tells us more that is new about Penrose than about Picasso. Penrose's biography of Picasso became a standard point of reference for English readers for at least 20 years after its publication in 1958. But Penrose himself, who has always seemed a pale figure beside his colourful Surrealist friends and is usually granted only a walk-on part in the dramas that were played out in public, begins to emerge from the shadows for the first time, if we read this publication along with his informal Scrap Book of 1981 and the National Galleries of Scotland's recent biographical study, Roland Penrose/Lee Miller: The Surrealist and the Photographer .

From the mid-1930s, when he was the co-organiser, with David Gascoyne, of the International Surrealist Exhibition in London (1936) until his death in 1984, Penrose played a central role in British cultural life as artist, patron, collector, exhibition organiser, committee member, translator and writer about the arts and artists, even though he was never, perhaps, wholly at ease with any one of these roles. Picasso became the focal point of his existence, though we should not overlook the depth of his friendship with Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, Joan Mir", the poet Paul Eluard and so many of the French and British Surrealists of his generation; nor his key role in establishing the Institute of Contemporary Arts (with Herbert Read and E. L. T. Mesens) in 1947-48 and supporting it throughout its many vicissitudes, up to his resignation in 1976; nor his place, as (with Edward James) the foremost British collector of Surrealism, whose sales, legacies and donations have enriched numerous collections in this country and America; nor his role as adviser to the collections of the Arts Council, the British Council and the French Government (for the Musée Picasso); nor, finally, his significance, as an artist in his own right and as leader of the English Surrealists.

All the interests and strands in Penrose's life came together in the brief period between the time of his return to England in 1935, after 13 years in France, and the outbreak of the Second Word War. In quick succession, he bought the Surrealist collections of the banker René Gaffé and of Éluard; met his future wife, Miller, the photographer; purchased a controlling interest in the London Gallery; made his personal artistic breakthrough with his collaged picture postcards; and launched the London Bulletin (with Mesens), which also prompted the beginning of his career as a writer. But the most momentous of all these events was undoubtedly the meeting with Picasso, which, Elizabeth Cowling convincingly shows, took place one year later than is commonly supposed (it was in August 1936 on holiday in Mougins with the Eluards) and was sealed by a return visit the following summer - this time with Miller - and that "unforgettable dream of marvels", in the company of Éluard, Man Ray, Eileen Agar and their respective spouses or partners.

The hedonistic atmosphere of this season in paradise is well documented by Miller's photographs of picnics and topless sunbathing. Picasso was there again, and Penrose was hooked - captivated by the man as much as by the work, and a courtier to the manor born: "a Samuel Pepys at the court of King Pablo", as Cowling remarks.

There followed a long string of initiatives that Penrose took as much to cement the relationship as anything else, one suspects, which had the effect of making Picasso's work widely known to an English-speaking public through purchases, loans, exhibitions and publications. Penrose's sometimes tortuous progress with widely differing projects forms the substance of much of this book and is not without elements of drama, as the convoluted negotiations leading to the Tate Gallery's 1965 acquisition of The Three Dancers (1925) reveal. Penrose did more than anyone else to popularise Picasso's work in Britain, to the point where it came to be viewed as synonymous with "modern art" (as it was then called) in the mind of the general public and the subject of endless debate. The first major event was a tour of Guernica and related studies to a variety of venues, including a car showroom in Manchester, to raise funds for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War.

The Second World War marked only a temporary pause in Penrose's activities as an impresario, though a longer one in his career as an artist. His next sensational coup came in 1948, when he secured the loan of the Demoiselles d'Avignon from New York's Museum of Modern Art for his second exhibition at the newly established ICA, 40,000 Years of Modern Art: A Comparison of Primitive and Modern . After this, in 1956, came Penrose's documentary exhibition, Picasso Himself and related publication, Portrait of Picasso , which were instant successes; the great Picasso retrospective in 1960, which attracted 460,000 visitors; Picasso Sculpture, in 1967; and Picasso's Picassos , in 1981, the day-to-day negotiations for which are recorded here in sufficient detail to make plain some of the curatorial difficulties involved.

What was the nature of Penrose's relationship with Picasso? In Cowling's view, it was passionate and obsessive, bordering on blind devotion. In this, Penrose was not alone, for he confided to his journals that: "The friends of Picasso tolerate his behaviour when the same in another would be condemned." But in this case, adoration was tinged with a strain of masochism that occasionally found expression - as in a prose-poem he composed in Picasso's proximity in Cannes ("Destroy me I need to be destroyed") - and causes Cowling to speculate on whether there might have been a "sublimated sexual dimension to his love".

We learn of the sometimes painful lengths to which Penrose went to keep on the right side of Picasso's wives and lovers, starting with Dora Maar in the 1930s and continuing with Francoise Gilot and Jacqueline Roque. As he knew full well, access to Picasso was jealously guarded by his women, his secretary Jaime Sabartes, and the few cronies who belonged to his intimate circle; and it became increasingly hard to secure as the great man grew more suspicious and isolated by his fame. All but the closest of friends were kept on probation, and Penrose was no exception.

In the notebooks, there is ample opportunity to sample Picasso's mischievousness and wilful behaviour. The harmless aspect of this was the kind of tomfoolery he put on for the actor Gary Cooper and his daughter when, as Penrose notes: "P. repeated the same opening gambit as he had done with Barrs. Going to sideboard with mirror, picks up comic disguises, glasses and black beard, put them on with nautical cap, cowboy hat, bowler, etc., and with comic gestures makes all laugh. Easy way of making contact with foreigners who don't talk French and means of overcoming his own shyness." And the rather straight-faced Penrose, too, allows himself to be captured in Miller's lens in a "self-portrait wearing one of Picasso's disguises" - namely, a wig, false nose and bracelet of beads. But things often went further, as on the occasion when Picasso played a practical joke on his unsuspecting admirer by inviting him to share a box with his scheming rival, the other Cooper, Douglas, at the gala presentation of Henry Clouzot's film Le Mystère Picasso . As Sabart s confirmed, Picasso could be deliberately mean - "Unreasonably generous and unreasonably mean. Exaggerated in both cases" - and this meanness extended to the spiteful withdrawal of favours, as when visitors, Penrose included, were humiliated to find the front door closed in their faces.

Picasso brooked no dissent and no division of loyalties, as Penrose found to his cost when he was forced to choose between his friendship with the artist and affection for Gilot after the publication of her unbuttoned memoir, Living with Picasso (1964). This has consequences for the style of the biography, which has been superseded by authors with more critical judgments about Picasso's relations with women, his political compromises during and after the Second World War and his ambivalent attitude to authority. As Barr had warned him when Penrose had sought his advice on whether to accept Victor Gollancz's commission to write the biography: "My only misgivings about your book have to do with your possibly uncritical admiration for Picasso. As his devoted friend, you may find it difficult to write critically of him, even if you should feel certain doubts."

The strength of the private diaries in their uncensored state is that they are full of fresh observations, valuable anecdotal evidence and perceptive asides that were often toned down or turned into harmless generalities when written up for publication for a readership that Penrose expected to include (but probably never did) Picasso himself.

Henry Meyric Hughes is president, The International Association of Art Critics (AICA).

Visiting Picasso: The Notebooks and Letters of Roland Penrose

Editor - Elizabeth Cowling
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 408
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0500 512930

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