Everything you can imagine is real: Pablo Picasso’s visit to Sussex

On 3 September I gave a short talk about Pablo Picasso at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. Here, I discussed the artist’s visit to Farley Farm House at Muddles Green, nr Chiddingly in East Sussex, the home of the artist and critic Roland Penrose and the photojournalist Lee Miller. I also explored a selection of his works, from his Blue Period, Rose Period, and Primitivist Period. Below is the text of my talk – enjoy!

Pablo Picasso points to Chiddingly

A small, stocky man in a herringbone suit and black beret stands in a field. Behind him is a lush hedge, and, peeping up from behind that, are two houses and several large trees. Standing in the thick grass the man points enigmatically at a black and white place sign, obscuring some of the letters. Even today, these black and white signs are a common sight across rural Sussex. The man is Pablo Picasso, and the place name he is pointing to is Chiddingly. Picasso lived his life with a ‘passionate intensity’, with a ‘torrential flow of work’ that made him ‘a universal celebrity and the outstanding genius of the art of the twentieth century’. But what on earth is one of the giants of twentieth century art doing near a small Downland village?

The year was 1950 and Picasso was visiting his friends Roland Penrose, an artist and critic, and Lee Miller, a photojournalist, at their home, Farley Farm House. Penrose and Miller had bought the farmhouse at Muddles Green, near Chiddingly, in 1949. It is set amongst the rolling chalk-and-grass expanses of the South Downs; the Long Man of Wilmington, cut in to the chalk of Windover Hill, can be seen from the farmhouse. Like Kipling, Picasso has gone ‘out against the sun, / Where the rolled scarp retires, / And the Long Man of Wilmington / Looks naked toward the shires’. Indeed the nakedness of the two hundred and twenty seven foot tall chalk figure greatly amused Picasso, who found his lack of genitalia ‘prudish’.

Roland Penrose had first met Picasso in Paris in 1936, where he became intrigued by the artist and his work. Building upon his Quaker background, Penrose lived by their belief of service to others and decided to dedicate his life to promoting modern artists and modernism. One of the artists he promoted was Pablo Picasso, publishing numerous articles about the artist, advocating for the display of his work, and arranging for his art to tour Britain. This included a tour of Picasso’s 1937 work, Guernica, which aimed to raise funds for anti-Fascist organisations and the fight against Nazism in Spain. This, combined with Penrose’s publication of his biography of Picasso, Picasso: His Life and Work, in 1958, cemented his reputation as the champion of Picasso and meant Penrose became known as ‘the Picasso Man’. Lee Miller’s friendship with Picasso was longer than Roland Penrose’s; she had met Picasso for the first time in Paris in the late 1920s and early 1930s when she was one of Man Ray’s lovers. She then met with Picasso again when she was recording the Liberation of Paris in August 1945. Picasso’s visit to Chiddingly was not the first time he had visited Lee Miller and Roland Penrose – he had stayed at their home at 21 Downshire Hill in London – it was the first time he had visited Farley Farm House.

But who is Pablo Picasso, and what did Roland Penrose think of him – and his work? Born on 25 October 1881 in Malaga, Spain, Picasso always had an affinity for art and creativity – his mother recalled him, as a toddler, asking for a ‘piz, piz’, a lapiz, the Spanish for pencil. He was a prolific artist, producing art from childhood right up until his death at the age of 92 in 1973. Picasso’s work spanned many different styles –such as Fauvism, Primitivism, Cubism and Surrealism – and many different media including painting, sculpture, prints and ceramics. His work is loosely divided in to a number of distinct periods. The first period is his Blue Period, as exemplified by La Vie. The second period is his Rose Period, exemplified by his Family of Saltimbanques. Next is his Primitivist Period, which we can see in his Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. This is followed by Picasso’s Cubist Period, where he produced work such as his Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. The final period of his work is his Neo-Classical and Surrealist Period, examples of this period include Guernica and The Weeping Woman.

The sheer variety of his work has made Picasso difficult to categorise. This has meant that, as Roland Penrose notes, his life and achievements are cloaked with legends’. Penrose continues: ‘paradoxes are so frequent in any statement made about him that he was either a strange and evil monster or an oracle whose wisdom had occult significance’. It is the sheer variety of Picasso’s work, however, that makes him consistently popular with, and accessible to, the public. His work is in the collections of major galleries, such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., Tate, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art; but it is also on show in less obvious venues – like the Sala Picasso y Sala Miro, in a tram station in Soller, Majorca.

Sala Picasso y Sala Miro, Soller, Majorca.

Now, to take a closer look at some of Picasso’s paintings. Let’s begin with La Vie, painted in 1903. This is a large, ambitious work, about 6.5ft by 4.25ft, from Picasso’s Blue Period. It depicts two pairs of people, a naked couple and a mother with a child in her arms. The woman on the left is leaning against the man, a group that is balanced by the draped female figure holding a child. The man points enigmatically at the woman with the babe in arms. In the background two studies of nudes are propped up, as if in a studio. The upper shows a crouching, embracing nude couple, the lower one shows a lonely nude figure reminiscent of Vincent Van Gogh’s Sorrow. These paintings-within-a-painting suggest the collage technique that Picasso would use later on in his career; using collage techniques allows Picasso to create several alternate realities within one frame. As Penrose emphasises, collage ‘led later to the introduction of real objects stuck to the painting in order to introduce different kinds of reality’ to the canvas.

The second picture we will focus on today is Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques, a picture that for Penrose had ‘no message, no allegory’ and a ‘balance between spontaneity and sensitive judgement’ that ‘relieves it of any suspicion of sentimentality’. In other words, it is a picture without any obvious symbolic meaning, it is intended as an exploration of figures and form. Part of Picasso’s Rose Period, the painting depicts a motley troupe of travelling performers standing under a vivid blue sky with ‘an empty, timeless landscape as their background’. The characters in the painting seem aloof, and are depicted with a certain fresh coolness with ‘contributes to the mystery of their presence’. Why are they standing together? What have they gathered for? These questions plague the viewer and make the image mysterious. Indeed, the mystery of the Family of Saltimbanques made an impression on the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who shared Picasso’s interest in the wandering circus troupes of Paris. Rilke was so compelled by this interest – and Picasso’s painting, with which he was familiar – that he wrote about them in his fifth Duino Elegy. For Rilke, Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques has ‘so much Paris, that for moments I forget’. Rilke, like us, is also intrigued by the figures in the painting, asking ‘but tell me, who are they, these acrobats even a little more fleeting than we ourselves…’.

The final painting I want to focus on today is, perhaps, one of Picasso’s most iconic: it is, of course, his Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. Originally titled The Brothel of Avignon it depicts five nude prostitutes in a brothel on the Carrer d’Avinyo, in Barcelona. None of the figures are conventionally feminine, they are angular, menacing, confronting figures. The two figures on the right are shown with African mask-like figures; just before painting the Demoiselles, Picasso had seen African Masks on a visit to the Ethnographic Museum of the Trocadero with Andre Malraux in June 1907. After the visit Picasso described how this visit was transformational, ‘I wanted to get away, but I didn’t leave. I stayed, I stayed. I understood that it was very important. Something was happening to me, right. The masks weren’t like any other pieces of sculpture, not at all. They were magic things.’ The influence of the masks can clearly be seen in the Demoiselles, and the power Picasso felt in the Trocadero is translated into paint: as Penrose notes, ‘this picture has the power of drawing the spectator to it’. Initially other artists such as Braque, Derain, and Matisse were horrified by the image, Les Demoiselles D’Avignon had a profound effect on their work: it was the spark that lit the fire of Cubism.


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