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He Knew What He Liked

Review of “Roland Penrose: The Friendly Surrealist,” by Antony Penrose

Roland Penrose: The Friendly Surrealist, by Anthony Penrose

Artists are too busy to keep art in motion. Someone else has to organize exhibitions, pay for them and write the criticism. Someone else has to give the parties at which artists mingle. Someone else has to lure the poets to painters’ favorite cafes and to rent the seaside houses where the best work gets done. Someone else has to seduce beautiful women so painters can use them as models, and someone else has to manage the press.

For Britain in the 20th century, that someone else was Sir Roland Penrose, the counterpart to the Americans Gertrude Stein, Peggy Guggenheim, Elsa Maxwell and Alfred Barr. Penrose was an artist of some accomplishment, but his art is less significant than his life. He was the first Briton to champion Picasso; he was one of Picasso’s early collectors; and he became the author of the first biography of Picasso. He and a partner bought the London Gallery and in it organized the first Surrealist exhibit in Britain. He supported Max Ernst and Man Ray before they were anyone and wrote a classic biography of Miró. He and Herbert Read established the Institute of Contemporary Arts and Penrose dipped endlessly into his bottomless pockets to pull it out of perennial financial crisis. He put together one of the world’s great private art collections. During World War II, as Captain Penrose of the Eastern Command Camouflage School, he recruited a battalion of artists — including the painter John Lake and the designer Oliver Messel — to work on disguise.

He had four gifts: money, enthusiasm, eccentricity and an excellent eye; and he was generous with all of them. He was constantly getting everyone else going — serving as the engine behind the work of others. Eccentricity, a form of originality, may be valuable to any artist, but it was particularly valuable to someone who defined himself as a Surrealist and took instruction from André Breton. As for his eye: he knew at a glance which artists were great and wasted little time on those who were not.

Roland Penrose: The Friendly Surrealist,” is a curious and pleasing memoir by Roland’s son Antony. It is perhaps most fascinating in its account of how Roland, who was brought up a Quaker in a strict, even puritanical, household, banished social convention from his own life. As a student at Cambridge, he had an extravagant amorous relationship with another man. For the rest of his life, he was perpetually entangled with beautiful women. His first wife, Valentine, was a bizarre lesbian poet who suffered from “some undefined mental disorder” and had a painfully undersized vagina that prevented penetrative intercourse. His second wife, the American model and photojournalist Lee Miller, posed for many Picasso portraits, including several versions of “L’Arlésienne.” Between and during marriages, Penrose shared his bed with the wives of several friends, as well as with a dazzling array of exotic women, including a trapeze artist and bear trainer from a local circus, to whom he proposed several times.

He remained on good terms with old lovers and was fond of the lovers he encouraged his wives to take. By the time his son was growing up, he included in his household his first and second wives, sometimes his second wife’s primary lover, sometimes her first husband — and always with visitors for the sake of variety in an unusually elaborate ménage. Roland and Lee, though capable of jealousy, could also express tenderness by choosing lovers for each other (they did it often). As they went separate ways during a 1938 European rail trip, for instance, Lee passionately kissed Roland goodbye and “pointed out a pretty French girl on the train whom she felt should console Roland. As the train rolled through the night, the girl, who had been much aroused by the sight of the amorous farewell, turned Roland’s journey to Munich into an erotic encounter.” Later, Roland lived contentedly with Lee and her lover David Scherman, whose pajamas he was just mildly annoyed to find under his pillow. In fact he once wrote to Lee. “Darling, I’m so glad Dave’s home again, hang on to him as long as you can.”

In spite of all this, Penrose picked up many accessories of normality by aristocratic default. While championing and helping out his friends, he ended up with a major art collection; seeking calm isolation, he established a bohemian but desirable country seat. And, of course, the primary relic of his normality is the son he had with Lee Miller, Antony, to whom we owe this oddly detached book.

Roland “shunned emotional involvement” and chose “to redefine love as an intellectual exercise.” Nowhere is this more true than in his relationship with his son. About himself and his mother, Antony says, “Being born a baby was inevitable and risky, as Lee was an avowed child-hater.” She was an alcoholic through most of Antony’s life, and she was also so involved in whatever she was doing that she consumed whoever was near her; indeed one of her lovers said that “being part of her creative process was like feeding his brain through a meat grinder.” As she grew older and drunker, she became, for all her glamour and brilliance, violent, nasty, abusive and often cruel; for many years her son deplored her. Roland Penrose also found Lee impossible and made every attempt to flee the house, his wife and his son, manifesting thus a cowardice for which his son resented him.

Antony Penrose writes like someone telling stories at a party, sometimes rambling on rather tiresomely with irrelevant details but often telling wonderful stories whose charm may be quite independent of their relevance. He also has a capacity for ripe writing, as when he describes Valentine: “She had an arcane connection to the primordial elements of female creativity: she understood the secrets of the stars, the ways of animals and the intimate lives of plants. Astrological charts were her street maps, and her Tarot cards gave her insights into the future.” His metaphors go mad; Surrealism is “the movement that unknown to him was incubating somewhere across town like a clutch of reptile’s eggs buried in the fertile decaying matter of the Dada movement.”

About his father’s sexual proclivities he is disarmingly straightforward; Valentine found it exciting when Roland tied her to a pine tree, he says, but was very annoyed when she had trouble removing the resin from her skin. Later he describes a gift Roland gave Lee, “a pair of real handcuffs made from gold, signed Cartier. Lee was ecstatic. . . . She wore both the handcuffs on the same wrist as a chic bracelet by day, always ready to gratify Roland’s desire by snapping one on the other wrist.”

Antony Penrose evokes a very high life with that synthetic lightness that can be achieved only by those who are completely at ease in such a life. His book is frequently hilarious, as when it tells of Salvador Dali giving a lecture in a diving suit, sealed to protect him as he plumbed the depths of his subconscious. When the helmet was tightly closed it created an air lock; Dali began to suffocate and would have died if Roland and a friend had not been able to pry it open with a billiard cue. The effect of Antony Penrose’s style is to make you feel that you knew Roland Penrose, that you were part of his charmed circle. His book is not so much a biography as a social introduction.

Part of what is interesting about the writing is that it is of a piece with Roland Penrose’s art. It is not breathtaking and it is not really very original, but if one doesn’t make huge demands on it, its eccentricity can be very winning. It never achieves the brilliance of its influences; it is never at the level of Picasso, Dali, de Chirico, Magritte, Miró, Tanguy — but it is a manifestation of character, evidence of a mind forever active, deeply striving and ultimately unconventional. Roland Penrose was not as intelligent or as gifted as his friends, but very few people are as intelligent or as gifted as his friends were. What he did have is a certain freedom that most of the people around him lacked; that freedom seems in retrospect to have been a species of integrity. It is most attractive, and Antony Penrose has captured it well. He quotes the sculptor Kenneth Armitage, who wrote: “You know the vulgarity of a lot of the art world? Well, Roland was never going to exploit me or use me. He stands out as one of the best people I’ve met.”