Visiting Picasso, ed Elizabeth Cowley

Roland Penrose and his photographer wife, Lee Miller, enjoyed a long friendship with the mercurial Pablo Picasso. With the publication of Penrose's notebooks and letters, Tom Rosenthal finds out that it came at a high price
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The Independent Culture

Roland Penrose, of distinguished Quaker stock, was a decent second division Surrealist painter in the 1930s and 1940s. He was also a co-founder, with Herbert Read, of the ICA and its first Chairman. A gifted arts administrator, he was an exhibition curator of high skill, an elegant writer, Picasso's first English biographer, an art collector of vast appetite and prescience, and an acolyte of genius.

Although I never met him I often thought about him, since for several years in the 1990s I was myself Chairman of the ICA in one of its many periods of precarious finances and was able to appreciate the much greater burden he had borne when there was no Arts Council funding and he often had to dig into his own considerable, but far from infinite, financial resources. I also owed him a debt as a critic. Commissioned in the early 1960s to do four 20-minute radio talks for the BBC on Picasso's oeuvre to date, I could not possibly have done them without leaning heavily on Penrose's Picasso: His Life & Work, published in 1958 and, in its 1971 revision on the occasion of Picasso's 90th birthday, still in print. As a succinct biography and evaluation of his work it is still unbeatable although now being overtaken with glacier-like slowness by John Richardson's monumental biographical study. But, of the Richardson, we have so far had only Volume I 1881-1906 in 1991 and Volume II 1907-17, published 10 years ago and Richardson is now 82 ...

Essentially, Visiting Picasso is the chronicle of a great love affair, one that makes Tristan and Isolde boring and trite, and Romeo and Juliet pallidly conventional. Penrose was in fact exclusively and vigorously heterosexual and, after a brief, unsuccessful youthful marriage, the husband of Lee Miller, one of the great beauties of the 20th century, as well as a superb photographer in war and peace and a member of the same international Surrealist circle as Penrose more or less in her own right. But, as Miller once ruefully put it, she was "a Picasso widow", and Dorothy Morland, director of the ICA during Penrose's chairmanship, maintained that Penrose "was in love with Picasso, passionately, and he put Picasso before everybody and everything." As Penrose's diaries, notes, copies of his letters to the maestro, and his obsessive pursuit of Picasso and his work make clear, both Miller and Morland were, if anything, understating the nature of his love for Picasso. Seen in cold print it is inescapable that, as the old joke has it, every masochist needs a sadist, and Penrose, in relationship to the often sadistic Picasso, was an archetypal masochist. Yet in page after page of this long, but totally absorbing book, we see how Penrose's single-mindedness in pursuit of Picasso, no matter how much the frequently enchanting and often generous Picasso teased him, denied him entry to his houses and studios, deliberately flirted intellectually with other rival collectors, curators and critics, resulted ultimately in a deeply fruitful friendship between them and one which was hugely beneficial to art and its development in this country.

While Picasso and all his works are the main and constant narrative thread of the book, there are several subsidiary storylines running through it. Penrose's family was both well off and highly gifted. His older brother Lionel was a world-famous medical scientist and geneticist and Roland himself got a First at Cambridge. When Roland helped to set up the avant garde, commercial London Gallery, he sold his three farms in East Anglia to acquire three-quarters of the gallery's capital. Thus he was at once an artist and a dealer.

At the same time he was a collector of audacity and perspicacity, and on a scale which makes Charles Saatchi look like a beginner. When his fellow Surrealist Paul Eluard needed money he bought his 40 Max Ernsts for £1,600. In June 1937, when a celebrated Belgian collection was put on the market in London and many of the paintings were unsold, Penrose bought them all as a job lot for £6,750 (say, £250,000 in today's money). As they were mostly by de Chirico, Miró and Picasso, they would today probably fetch at least £20m or more. At a stroke this courageous but shrewd man acquired the best collection of Picasso (there were 14 of them) in Britain. But, unlike most collectors, he was generous in donating or selling works to support good causes, such as his beloved ICA. Or, when persuaded by Alfred Barr, of MOMA in New York, to sell Picasso's Girl with a Mandolin (one of the job lot he'd bought in 1937) to Nelson Rockefeller in order to buy more land adjacent to the Sussex farm which was his principal home, the reasonable price was conditional upon Rockefeller's eventually giving the painting to MOMA.

Like many other highly gifted and versatile people, Penrose contained many contradictions. He could devote himself to the promotion of the arts while happily profiting from his purchases. Given his Quaker stock, he was by nature a pacifist; yet he was also - while having, unlike Picasso, no truck with Communism - resolutely anti-Fascist. It was therefore typical of him that during the war, when he was separated from his beloved Picasso for five years, he accepted employment by the War Office to teach camouflage techniques to the Home Guard.

Some of Penrose's letters to Picasso quoted in the book are dedicated to administrative and business matters, and can therefore be skimmed over. Some of them are so fawning as to make the reader cringe. Yet they all show not only his devotion to the great man but also a canny, single-mindedness of purpose, mainly the desire to be Picasso's major exhibitor if not in the world, at least in Britain and maybe in Europe, and his most powerful interpreter. Throughout Penrose's diary entries and notes of his many meetings with Picasso there is a rich vein of anecdote, sharp observation and superb critical insights which explain why his 1958/1971 biography is still the best starter book for the neophyte. We learn that Picasso, throughout his Communist adherence, was convinced that the French Government was bugging his phone. Picasso cannot bear either perfection or the sublime, which is why when he makes a cup in the shape of a woman's breast, he has to add a fly as a finishing touch. He hates and fears what is finished. "The only finished work that is tolerable is one that leads to further creation, a sort of manure to new ideas."

Much of the virtue of Elizabeth Cowling's editorial interpolations is that while she admires Penrose, she is no hagiographer and frequently gives clear-eyed assessments of where he goes wrong. "But Penrose's bedazzled reaction to everything Picasso did eventually became oppressive to the recipient of all these fulsome encomia. Striking a balance between welcome and unwelcome levels of flattery is always a delicate matter, but with someone of Picasso's mercurial character there was no predicting his response."

Picasso inevitably produced various unforgettable aphorisms and observations. When admiring a charming Cubist work by Braque (whom he had once unforgivingly described as his wife) he said: "All was cream with Braque; never with me." Later on Picasso said: "Cubism is me. It is not another 'ism'."

When one recalls the obtuse early criticism of Picasso's style it's interesting to read his comment: "Nowadays they teach children to paint like children which is absurd. I never drew like a child. I learned to draw very young. If they had tried to teach me the way they do now it would only have been a setback."

There are also rich anecdotes about Matisse. Picasso hated to hear tales of their rivalry since both knew that they practised the highest mutual respect. However, in terms of Picasso's prolific sexual activity, it's interesting to note that Matisse, when asked what he thought of lovemaking, replied, "Every time I make love I always think it will mean two pictures less during the next few days." Something that the priapic Picasso would never have understood.

In terms of art historical writing, during Picasso's lifetime there were three brilliant Anglophone authorities: Penrose and Alfred Barr, who were close friends, and Douglas Cooper, a multi-millionaire Australian scholar-collector, who lived near Picasso and had the best collection of his work in private hands. He and Penrose loathed each other and were bitter rivals to curate the Tate's huge 1960 Retrospective. The Arts Council knew of the relationship and wisely abandoned the idea of a joint curatorship and gave the palm - and a palm it certainly was - to Penrose who, courteous as always, invited Cooper to contribute to the catalogue and to lend his best Picasso paintings. Cooper, whose malign character is brilliantly analysed by his former lover John Richardson in his hilarious memoirs, simply lied and made whatever trouble he could for Penrose. He claimed he'd been insulted by being asked to become an unpaid assistant to Penrose, refused to lend his pictures and caused the usually reliable Paris correspondent of the Evening Standard, Sam White, to print a vicious libel of Penrose who, rather than sue them, made them give a generous plug to his forthcoming Tate Picasso show instead.

Cooper also later, when Picasso and Françoise Gilot had parted acrimoniously and Gilot had become an un-person at the court of King Pablo and therefore had to be shunned by all Picasso's friends, fed to Picasso the totally untrue story that Penrose and Gilot had been seen conversing amicably - and with a clear hint that it might have been amorously - at a private view. Poor Penrose had to work very hard to get Picasso to accept that it wasn't true and had (and this is shameful to relate, but it was part of the price of friendly access) to break off all contact with Gilot who had been a close friend and whose young children by Picasso had played with Penrose and Lee's son, Anthony. Penrose even had to remove a painting by Gilot from the walls of his Sussex home.

It is a mark of Picasso's sadism, or to put it more charitably, whimsical cruelty, that he lost no opportunity to invite Cooper and Penrose to the same lunch parties or, when President of a local bullfight, seated both in the same box.

Penrose survived all this and hosted a private visit to the Tate Picasso show by the Queen, which caused Picasso to dream he was in bed with both the Queen and Princess Margaret. Penrose brilliantly negotiated Picasso's sale at a bargain price of his seminal Three Dancers to the Tate (of which Penrose became a trustee) and got a CBE. He also spent literally years brokering Picasso's creation of a major statue for a prime site in Chicago. Though he was, appropriately enough, knighted, as had been his co-founder of the ICA Herbert Read, his old English friends mocked him for having joined the Establishment. He riposted that he had merely become a "Sir-Realist".

This is a wonderful book, as entertaining as it is instructive. The editing and biographical interpolations by Cowling are impeccable. The 72 illustrations, of which 40 are superb Lee Milller photographs, are all relevant and illuminating, although rather poorly printed because of the somewhat coarse paper. All in all, an essential adjunct to Richardson's ongoing definitive biography of this wayward, Pan-like genius.