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BITTEN BY PICASSO

With just over a month left to visit our one-room display, Bitten by Picasso, Marketing and Communications Manager Kate Giles tells us more about the relationship between British artist Roland Penrose, Pablo Picasso and Sussex.

There is a gem of an exhibition in the gallery this summer called Bitten By Picasso. The works are from the collection of Sir Roland Penrose, a British Surrealist artist who became a renowned curator, collector and artist biographer, was on the board of the Tate and who owned a farmhouse in Chiddingly, near Lewes called Farley Farm.

Exactly 80 years ago, Roland Penrose was mounting the first ever Surrealism exhibition in London and it had quite literally stopped the traffic (that was the Oxford Street traffic). After the exhibition, over the summer of 1936, Penrose was traveling around Europe returning the works to the artists who had loaned them. By the end of July he was in Mourgins in the south of France. Hanging out on the beach were two friends of his - the artist Man Ray and the poet Paul Eluard.

Eluard was a warm, friendly, funny and kind man and things happened around him. He was a connector of people. After a while on that lazy July afternoon in 1936, another of his artist friends came to join them on the beach. It was Pablo Picasso. Eluard introduced Penrose to Picasso and they hit it off from the first. There was no hierarchy to the meeting. They were just a bunch of artists on the beach. They met as equals, but for Penrose and Picasso it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship, which saw Picasso visit the Penrose family in Sussex. 

In 1954, Penrose began to write his biography of Pablo Picasso. The friendship gave him a deep insight into his subject. Penrose wrote in English but Picasso couldn’t read English. He had to wait until it was printed in French. Penrose waited with baited breath for the reaction. “It is as if we sat at the table and wrote it together” was Picasso’s verdict. It was the English version of the biography that alerted America to Picasso’s work and saw his profile rise outside Europe.

Picasso agreed to let Penrose curate a retrospective of his work at the Tate in 1960. Penrose, who had trained as an architect, planned the layout of the exhibition on the architectural plans for the gallery, cutting out scale pieces of graph paper to represent the works. He was doing this on the dining table at Farley, his Sussex home, with the french doors open. The wind blew, and the Picasso hang was summarily rearranged. History doesn’t relate whether it was the version the wind produced or Roland’s design that made the final hang.

The works in Bitten by Picasso are almost entirely from the Penrose collection, but very few were bought by Roland, most were gifts to him from Picasso. There are three ceramics that are from the Medura Pottery in Vallauris in France. 

After the wars - the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War - Picasso was living in Vallauris, an area that had been full of potteries and artisans. He realised the economy of the area had been ruined by war time decline and resolved to help put the area back on its feet. Picasso sat with the potters, experimenting with designs and techniques, as ever, pushing the boundaries of what was considered possible. 

It was bold, experimental but above all, fun. Picasso designed, the potteries of Vallaurismade, and their fortunes were revived. Roland bought several of these to support his friend’s project.

Bitten by Picasso aims to show us aspects of the man beyond his fame. His childlike playfulness. The fun and loving person known to his friends. The way he pushed the boundaries of expectation and technique all the time. When Roland’s son, Antony, was three, he was playing bullfighting with Picasso and things got rather over excited. Antony bit Picasso, and Picasso bit him right back. ‘C’est le premier Anglais que j’ai jamais mordu!’ (‘This is the first Englishman I’ve ever bitten!’). This proves there is more than one way to be Bitten by Picasso.

Image: Lee Miller, Picasso by Signpost, Chiddingly, East Sussex, 1950 © Lee Miller Archive