Roland Penrose (St. John’s Wood, London, 1900 – Fairley Farm, East Sussex, 1984) was an artist and poet with close ties to Surrealism and an avid promoter of the avant-garde art of his time. He established a close friendship with Picasso, enhanced by his role as a collector and curator and as the artist’s biographer. Penrose published Picasso. His Life and Work (1958) and curated a solo exhibition on the artist held in London’s Tate Gallery in 1960. With political involvement in the Spanish Republic during the Civil War, he was one of the organisers of the English tour of Guernica and its preparatory drawings, which set out to raise funds for the Spanish Pavilion (1938 and 1939).
Roland Penrose lived in France between 1922 and 1935, first in Paris and then in Cassis-sur-Mer, Marseilles. Educated in the schools of André Lhotte and Othon Friez, his work became influenced by the oeuvres of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Through his relationship with artists and poets from the dawn of the Surrealist group – initially Paul Éluard, André Breton, Max Ernst, and later Joan Miró and Picasso – he participated in the aesthetic and creative principles of Surrealism, for instance automatic writing/painting and collage practice.
Penrose was a key figure in the international expansion of Surrealism and modern art in England, and, in 1936, with critic Herbert Read, he organised the International Surrealist Exhibition, followed in 1938 by the exhibition Picasso’s Guernica, with E.L.T. Mesens, both in London’s New Burlington Galleries. Months later and within the framework of the exhibition tour, the painting was shown in Whitechapel Art Gallery in the English capital; the aim of the tour was to raise funds for Spanish refugees from the Civil War through the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief association. Penrose also witnessed Guernica’s process of creation during a visit to the studio on the Rue des Grands-Agustins with Paul Éluard.
Some claim that Penrose’s own career as an artist played second fiddle to his huge admiration for Picasso’s work. During the Second World War he enlisted in the British army and was stationed in the camouflage division, where he applied his knowledge as a painter. Penrose, married to American photographer Lee Miller and with a reputation as an eccentric, was a huge modern art enthusiast; he stood out as an artistic provocateur of his time and participated in numerous studies on experience-based reflection and direct knowledge of art, for instance the biographies on Joan Miró, Man Ray and Antoni Tàpies. In 1947 he founded, together with Herbert Read, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, where he organised, among others, the exhibition 40,000 Years of Modern Art, which attested to his interest in African art and the relativity of historiographic categories.