Visiting Picasso: The Notebooks and Letters of Roland Penrose 
by Elizabeth Cowling.
Thames and Hudson, 408 pp., £25, May 2006, 0 500 51293 0
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A lot of the stories, truthful or otherwise, about Picasso are as colourful as they are improbable. Picasso liked the mystery, was eager for no one to be sure what he would do next. Told that Joanna Drew, a curator at the Hayward Gallery, had found cocoons huddled in the slits of his Man with a Sheep, Picasso said that at Vauvenargues one day he had felt a wasps’ nest between the sheep’s legs; nothing more natural: animals lurking in the animal. Picasso always wanted the statue to be accessible to everyone, so that the children could play with it and the dogs piss on it.

Roland Penrose – a friend of the Bloomsbury Group, close friend of the French Surrealists and a Surrealist painter himself – was, as the blurb to this collection of his notebooks and letters claims, the ideal commentator on Picasso’s goings-on, a Saint-Simon at the court of Picasso. Penrose set off in 1922 on Roger Fry’s advice, to study art with André Lhote, and fell in love with Paris, with French art and with the poet Valentine Boué, whom he met in Cassis. He had a villa there from 1923, set up a studio with Yanko Varda, and became close friends with Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Virginia and Leonard Woolf, all of whom spent time in Cassis during those years. Through Max Ernst, a friend of Boué’s, he met the Surrealist poets and painters, and with Herbert Read and David Gascoyne, introduced Surrealism to England. He helped persuade Picasso (it didn’t take much) to contribute to the 1936 exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in Piccadilly, which launched the movement in Britain. As Penrose tells it, Eluard had taken him to Picasso’s studio on the rue des Grands-Augustins in 1935, because he – Penrose – wanted to buy one of Picasso’s works. In fact, Picasso did not move into his studio there until January 1937, but never mind. People in love often tell a story about their meeting that diverges slightly from the truth.

Cowling sets the story straight. In fact, Eluard, wounded by having fallen out with André Breton, was moved by the reception he and his wife, Nusch, had got from the Penroses in London, and invited them to Mougins that summer. There, along with Man Ray, the poet René Char, and Christian and Yvonne Zervos (the publishers of the Cahiers d’art, who were so important for the Surrealists and everyone else; Picasso published his prose poems with them), he had met the great man. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that Penrose fell in love. Lee Miller, his second wife, often called herself a ‘Picasso widow’.

This collection includes Penrose’s extensive notes on his visits to Picasso over the years, his letters to the artist, and Elizabeth Cowling’s invaluable explanations and interpretations of these writings. Without her comments, we would quite often lose the point and, just as often, the meaning of these scribblings and musings, which take us from the first moments of the acquaintance through all the years of negotiation about this and that, as Penrose’s affection for Picasso deepens from admiration into adulation. Yet Penrose rarely loses his cool, even when Picasso repays his love with downright nastiness: ‘Oui je suis méchant si ça m’amuse.’

Like most love affairs, this one was not untouched by jealousy. What most upset the ever polite Englishman was the effrontery of his arch-rival, Douglas Cooper. Penrose’s letters to Picasso mentioning Cooper are not always entirely truthful: from time to time, as Cowling puts it, ‘personal animosity got in the way of strict accuracy.’ Cooper didn’t tell the truth either. Angry at not having been chosen to curate a huge Picasso exhibition at the ICA, which Penrose ran, Cooper refused to contribute his Picassos or his words to the catalogue. He then told Picasso that he had seen Penrose with the detested Françoise Gilot, at the opening of the Maeght Foundation in St-Paul-de-Vence, which coincided with the publication of the memoir she wrote of her time with Picasso. In fact, Penrose was not with Françoise, but Joanna Drew, with whom he curated many shows, but even the idea that Penrose might have been with Gilot was enough to turn the artist against his adoring friend and for some months he was strenuously kept away from Notre-Dame-de-Vie. Penrose’s brief letter to Françoise shows what he felt about her behaviour: ‘Dear F, I feel obliged to tell you how much I despise you for the way you are exploiting your ‘Life’ with Picasso. I should not have thought you capable of such flagrant lies. R.P.’ And he removed all her paintings from his home.

Roland to Pablo, 9 March 1965: ‘Even English phlegm dissipates before your miraculous, southern assault.’ What a task for Cowling, transcribing these cringe-inducing declarations. How do you reconcile professionalism and hero worship? Penrose managed somehow, as these documents show. His descriptions of Picasso at work couldn’t be more alluring: ‘La réalité est ce qu’on crée et c’est tout.’ We can almost hear Picasso, chivvying the other guests, that summer in 1936 at the Hôtel Vaste Horizon in Mougins: ‘Au travail, au travail.’ And there he always was – working. The first word Picasso uttered was, it seems, the word for pencil: lápiz, shortened to ‘piz, piz’.

Later, contrary to what might be supposed, Picasso was not always sure of himself. It seemed risky to him to be filmed painting: ‘Supposing it falls on a bad day,’ he said. ‘That could happen and all could be wasted.’ One of Penrose’s most telling anecdotes concerns the great man’s failure to amuse Jacqueline’s daughter and her young friend by wearing a red student’s cap Penrose had brought from Venice. Afterwards he sat in a room alone, weeping. ‘Whatever humour may dominate,’ Penrose writes, ‘there is always instability in P.’s mood. While in the happiest of moods, for some imperceptible reason a shadow falls across his face. It becomes pale, ridden with care and his eyes blacken like two nails driving deep into anguishing sensibility on which his face seems to hang.’

It seems to me that everything Picasso says is enlightening, and sometimes touching. I had forgotten his words on joining the Communist Party: ‘I have found my family.’ Or this about Braque, his ‘bride’ in Cubism: ‘Avec Braque toujours la crème – moi jamais.’ But then, as he won’t let us forget, he was Cubism. Penrose records what he remembers as ‘interesting scraps of conversation’. On one occasion, when Picasso had finally relented and invited Penrose and Miller to his château in Antibes, they were looking at his latest paintings together when he exclaimed:

What is stupid is that it comes to an end, a picture ought to continue for ever. Why does it [the line] end there? It ought to continue beyond [the edge], far away like a Sputnik. And yet it ends and one loses interest. One doesn’t know what one is doing until one has done it and then it’s no longer interesting. And if one knew in advance what one was going to do, it would already be the past and without interest.

It is very strange about Penrose. Wanting desperately to be just a close friend of Picasso he endlessly put the friendship in jeopardy by asking for favours. ‘I loathe myself for doing this. You have helped us so much and so constantly . . . If only you would donate a beautiful canvas.’ Most of the difficulties in their relationship came about when Penrose felt obliged to ask for something that Picasso felt entitled to refuse. In 1963 Penrose entreated Picasso to design a monument for the piazza in front of Chicago’s new Civic Center. Picasso was tempted and finally produced a massive sculpture. But Penrose’s anguish as he tried to get a commitment from Picasso is the most nerve-wracking part of the book. There he is, waiting for an answer yet again, and yet again he is told that neither Jacqueline nor Picasso will come down from their rooms to see him. Picasso very badly wanted to be thought of as, and to act like, a genius. Penrose suffered and suffered from feeling himself obliged to ask: for the ICA, for Chicago, for this and that, three projects at a time. ‘I tire you, don’t I?’ he asks Picasso at one point. Yes, he did – but it was heroic of him. As Cowling puts it, Penrose had ‘a quasi-religious conviction in the rightness of his mission. He could be quite as intractable as Picasso – taking up the punishment with a martyr’s fortitude and sticking resolutely to his agenda.’

And Picasso would lose patience. It used to be different, he would say.

In the past at Mougins there was Eluard and Nusch, Dora, you and your wife. We had the time, we swam, we ate, we went to nightclubs, we talked, we walked and we worked and we had the time. Now it’s completely different. We have time for nothing. Everything is rushed . . . We’re all in a hurry these days. I no longer have the patience . . . I have to work quickly.

Were he to work patiently, he would of course get bored.

Even after Penrose had finished his lengthy and detailed biography of Picasso, he was not through with his subject. He had developed an addiction to writing about Picasso’s work. Discouragement would follow a resurgence of his old optimism, and then anguish would set in at Picasso’s harshness – ‘Don Diabolus’, Penrose would call him. On and on he went, nevertheless. Piecing together the painter’s sayings can make us feel we are understanding Picasso, but Picasso never wanted to be understood: ‘I want to do things that people don’t understand – that I don’t understand myself.’ That was part of his project, like destroying modern painting: ‘On a déjà détruit la peinture ancienne et maintenant il faut détruire la moderne.’

Penrose knew that the Picassomania that gripped London in 1960 during the first retrospective would diminish. But he stuck to his guns as London critics switched their allegiance to minimalist abstraction and criticised Picasso as a ‘victim of his own absurdly inflated reputation’. So far as Penrose was concerned, Picasso was a force of nature, whose unique vitality was just as evident in his late work. Robert Hughes was scathing in Time magazine:

The last Picassos are also the worst. It seems hardly imaginable that so great a painter could have whipped off, even in old age, such hasty and superficial doodles. One enters in homage and leaves in embarrassment . . . two years of silence would have rounded off that singular life better than these calamitous daubs . . . Unlike Titian or Michelangelo, Picasso failed in old age.

Whatever one’s own view of the late Picassos, it would be unreasonable to grudge Penrose’s persistence or not to admire his superhuman efforts as a Picasso-man. Many of his analyses of Picasso’s work are riveting and at times quite unlike anyone else’s. In spring 1967, for example, writing about the ‘sensations of space in Picasso’s latest paintings’, Penrose explains his reaction to them thus:

The story is not unlike my memories of the taunt made at school that I was no more than a hole in the air. The interest lies in the air being considered as comparable to a solid shape. This is precisely what P. has achieved in the C.C.s. The spaces filled with air between, circumscribed by the curves of solid material, or partially walled in, become saturated with the invisible presence which completes the form in general.

Cowling interprets these ‘C.C.s’ as the ‘chubby-faced bewigged figures’ in Picasso’s paintings of that period (C.C. after Cyril Connolly, a friend of Penrose). This makes every bit of sense, but how on earth could we have guessed? Each of Cowling’s notes is informative, discreet and useful. I didn’t know that Alice Derain, wife of the painter so close to the Bloomsbury Group, was Picasso’s girl until he handed her over to Derain. Nor did I know that she, like Picasso, was interested in horoscopes, palmistry and other forms of divination. Cowling’s discretion and subtlety of perception give you absolute confidence and Penrose comes out of her account as a hero of unflagging effort: he endured an enormous amount, and – the important thing after all – he endures.

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