The Surrealism Website
Roland Penrose (1900-1984)




In his early twenties Roland Penrose moved to France and there met most of the major figures in Surrealism. Initially he came under the influence of Picasso and Braque but from about 1925 he came into the circles around Breton. Arising from his close friendship with Picasso the 1950 he wrote a sympathetic biography Picasso - His Life and Work, followed by books on Miro, Man Ray and Tapies for Thames and Hudson. In the 1940s he became a gallery owner, collector and art organiser, indeed he founded the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 1946.
Early in the 1930's Penrose became driven to promote surrealism in Britain. He organised the first International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, London, in June 1936. As this was such a key event in surrealism in Britain we will look at this before turning to examine Penrose's own paintings.It was attended by André Breton, Paul Éluard and Salvador Dalí. It included works by many of the emerging Continental surrealists, Victor Brauner, De Chirico, Dali, Oscar Dominguez, Max Ernst, Magritte, Wolfgang Paalen, Yves Tanguy and many others. Also included in the exhibition were some British painters, John Banting, John Selby Bigge, Reuben Mednikoff, Gail Pailthorpe and others.
Possibly one of his earliest surrealist paintings created by Penrose was Night and Day. It is not too difficult to read. The figure is divided vertically with solid legs but with the upper torso as a sky with clouds. She holds the black bird of night in her left and releases the white bird of day from her right.
The same year he produced The invisible island also called Seeing is Believing. Just who is doing the seeing is not clear - the woman whose head descends from the heavens and observes the world upside down or the observer of this strange phenomenon who holds up his hand in the foreground.
Penrose was rather taken with this image of the inverted woman and in 1939 produced Octavia. Here the inverted woman with long hair appears again. This time her hands reach to the ground. Her body is cut off in the upper chest and we see that she is actually built of bricks. Her hair is anchored to the ground by strong chains to give this strange building/woman the form and stability to stop it falling over. Penrose suggest this instability through the diagonal lines across the image.
Penrose had only a small output of paintings. In time he gave his considerable energies to art administration and the promotion of surrealism, as well as gathering an important collection of artworks which is now in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. He continued to make a number of collages and some surreal objects. One of his important paintings The conquest of the Air from 1938 communicates directly without needing any elaborate explanation - making the point that humans only developed flight though understanding this with their minds, by using the surrealist device of the bird caged inside the brain.