Roland Penrose was a key figure in the development of British surrealism. An accomplished painter, collagist and photographer, he organised the ground-breaking London International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936. As well as helping to gain a wider UK audience for painters like Ernst and Picasso, his personal friendship with European artists and writers strengthened domestic links with the continental movement. Alongside other innovators like David Gascoyne he helped to lay the groundwork for the broad dissemination of surrealist ideas and the development of an organised surrealist tendency in the UK.
The current exhibition running at Southampton City Art Gallery is therefore very welcome. It features some of Penrose’s most important works, including the wonderful Seeing Is Believing (shown above), Bien Vise, The Conquest of the Air (final plate below) and Night And Day (directly below).
Also on show are a selection of his photographs, documenting his travels in Egypt, France and Spain as well as nearer to home – there are some nice snaps of Brighton! Included is a photo of Spanish Republican fighters, taken during his time in Spain; Penrose was a strong supporter of the Republican government and the anti-fascist struggle. In the same section are photos taken by Lee Miller (who married him following his divorce from Valentine Boué) showing daily life at the country home they eventually settled down in.
One of the strongest aspects of the exhibition is the inclusion of a small but resonant selection of works by contemporaneous British surrealists. These include paintings and drawings by Emmy Bridgewater, Conroy Maddox, Oscar Mellor, Edith Rimmington, Reuben Mednikoff, Grace Pailthorpe, Ithell Colquhoun, Eileen Agar and others.
The exhibition is worth visiting, particularly if you are not already familiar with Penrose and the first wave of British surrealists. The small scale of the show is something of a disappointment, as is the prominence given to Desmond Morris; a whole section is set aside for Morris’s paintings, and another room is taken up with paintings produced by Congo the chimp, one of Morris’s ‘pet’ projects. Personally I rather like Morris’s work, but it is given far too much weight here – and the curator’s description of him as ‘the last living surrealist’ is extremely unfortunate. While the chimp died some years ago, its spirit clearly lives on.
Although the political dimension of Penrose’s life and work is not entirely neglected in the exhibition it is very much a minor concern. The revolutionary liberation of desire exemplified in his early and mid-period paintings is of a piece with his support for the Spanish revolution and his vocal pacifism. His later accommodation with the cultural establishment – he accepted a CBE and a knighthood – is an example of an all-too-common phenomenon which the Southampton show passes over in silence.