‘Roland : A Collage’ is one of the theatre pieces being showcased during the Molino Group’s residency at the Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter as part of a season called art : weapon. We have been here in Exeter for two weeks now, also putting on performances of ‘Desert’ and developing Giles Roberts’ new play ‘Much Further Out Than You Thought.’ If you’re in Exeter, make sure you come along to the Bike Shed Theatre on Fore Street so you don’t miss out!
Over the next week we’ll be posting on the blog all sorts of interesting tidbits, research and videos to compliment Roland : A Collage, so check back often. Today we’ll be starting with surrealism, a massive influence on the life of painter and collage-maker, Roland Penrose.
Surrealism and Surrealists: The artistic figures in ‘Roland : A Collage’
“You’re a walking gallery, Roland! Which one of us doesn’t have some piece of work in your attic?” – Man Ray, Mougins (1937), ‘Roland : A Collage’
The 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition
Surrealism has its birthplace in Paris, where it emerged out of the anarchistic Dada movement and automatism. Andre Breton wrote its manifesto in 1924, defining the purpose of the movement and providing examples of Surrealist work. It had a journal, ‘La Revolution surrealiste’. It expanded across Parisian cafes, from literature to visual art. A group grew in Brussels in the 1920s including such names as E. L. T. Mesens and Magritte. Its first exhibition was in Paris, named ‘La Peinture Surrealiste’, displayed works by artists such as Man Ray, Masson, Klee and Miro. The following year, La Galerie Surrealiste was opened, and Surrealism’s footprint on art was preserved forever.
It was in the 1930’s that Surrealism began to be noticed by the wider public eye, however, and when Roland’s own role comes into play. The period came to be referred to as the Golden Age for Surrealism.
In 1936 the London International Surrealist Exhibition was held, organised by a Surrealist group in Britain and Breton considers it one of the high points of the period, and the model for future exhibitions.
Roland himself was one of the organisers, along with Hugh Sykes Davies, David Gascoynw, Humphrey Jennings, Rupert Lee, Diana Brinton Lee, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Herbert Read and E.L. T. Mesens. The French organising committee was comprised of Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, Georges Hugnet and Man Ray.
The exhibition was opened with approximately 2000 people attending, and it is said 1000 people a day visited the exhibition. The New Burlington Galleries in London, where it was held, certainly saw many people enter and engage with surrealism – no matter their response. It certainly helped propel surrealism into the wider waters of the art world, no longer a niche movement.
The Surrealists in the Play
‘Some leading lights are sat around. Nusch and Paul Eluard, Man Ray, Dora, Picasso’s lover. The conversation moves freely, lightly, for the most part.’ – Lee, Mougins (1937), Roland : A Collage
In the play, several surrealists are mentioned. Two are even encountered speaking aloud in the scene fragment ‘Mougins’. Who were they, and how did they know Roland?
‘Guernica will do more than any government, Roland.’ – Man Ray, Mougins (1937), Roland : A Collage
Man Ray was an American visual artist who spent much of his career in France, particularly Paris. He produced visual art of varying media, but considered himself a painter. His most famous work is his photography, including ‘rayographs’ which were photos made by the placement of objects on photo-sensitive paper.
Though he did not take students, the American to-be photographer Lee Miller persuaded him to apprentice her. She soon became his muse and they began a relationship. With her he reinvented the photographic technique of solarisation – where images become reversed in tone. Dark areas become light and vice versa. He also worked on short films.
During the Second World War, he moved back to the United States from Paris, to Los Angeles. There he met his wife Juliet Browner and was married to her in a double wedding with his friend Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. He called Montparnasse his home, and returned there.
In Roland : A Collage, he is seen enjoying the scenery and lifestyle of Mougins along with Lee, Roland and other surrealists. Though two years after the scene he would leave France, he would eventually return to the country he considered home.
‘A poet isn’t inspired, he inspires!’ – Paul Eluard, Mougins (1937), Roland : A Collage
Paul Eluard was a French poet born on the outskirts of Paris. He served in the army but was discharged due to gangrene infection. Whilst he recovered he read a lot of poetry, such as Rimbaud, and Walt Whitman who Eluard felt an affinity with. Suffering pervaded his own poetry but overall his outlook is hopeful. His poetry began to be published with ‘Le Devoir et L’inquietude’ in 1917, and in 1918 ‘Poemes pour la Paix’ was also published.
In Paris Eluard came into contact with the other surrealists. Eluard signed the original manifesto and surrealism’s influence on his poetry is clear. He became well known and liked in the surrealist group, and he endeavoured to work on surrealist causes. He edited ‘Revolution Surrealiste’ and ‘Surrealisme au Service de la Revolution’.
In the early thirties Eluard married Nusch, before he was called to military service in 1939. Eluard became part of the underground resistance movement by publishing clandestine literature during the German occupation of France, and was forced to run from the pursuit of the Gestapo. Nevertheless he continued to write Resistance poetry. After the war, Eluard became active in Communist interests and travelled extensively before his death in 1952.
In ‘Mougins’ Paul is seen enjoying the refuge with the rest of them, unaware of the years in flight he will spend during World War II. Lee later remarks in ‘Good Shooting’ that she “found Paul in the back of a bookshop like a scared cat” after the war.
“Nusch was a crumpled flower, dying as she spoke.” – Lee, Good Shooting (1950), Roland : A Collage
Nusch was a French model and surrealist artist. She was born Maria Benz and gained the nickname “Nusch” from the Swiss architect and artist Max Bill. She arrived in France as a performer but also worked as a model. It was during her time working as a model that she met Paul Eluard, who she later married. She still did pose as a model, famously for cubist portraits by Picasso, as well as nude photographs for Man Ray, but she began work on surrealist photomontages and other work. During the Second World War, she also worked for the Resistance in France like her husband. She died young, in 1946 of a stroke.
Lee remarks also on Nusch in ‘Good Shooting’, stating that both her and her husband were affected terribly by the Second World War. Though Nusch is not a speaking role in the play, she is mentioned several times over the course of Roland : A Collage.
“Do you remember Dora Maar?” – Lee, Good Shooting (1950), Roland: A Collage
Dora Maar was a French photographer, painter and poet. She was born in Croatia and grew up in Argentina. She was already a photographer and painter when she met Picasso in Paris at 28 years old, and he was 54. It was Paul Eluard who introduced them. Picasso and Maar began a relationship that was to last nine years, and he was to paint her image many times.
She photographed the stages of completion of Guernica, and became known for her portraits of Picasso. She also studied printing with Man Ray, and made surrealist collages and montages with her photographs.
After her relationship with Picasso ended Maar struggled. This blow was compounded by the death of Nusch Eluard, a close friend of Dora’s, shortly after the war. However she returned to her social circles and found reprieve in her religion, Roman Catholicism. She continued to write poetry for the rest of her life, and made a return to photography before her death.
“Picasso sucked her dry. She never recovered. Her work never recovered… Maybe she just didn’t age well.” Lee makes a series of comments about the decline of Dora after both WW2 and the end of her relationship with Picasso. There are parallels with accounts of Dora’s unhappiness in real life, and indeed Dora was the subject of ‘The Weeping Woman’, one of Picasso’s most widely recognised works. Picasso himself remarked “Dora, for me, was always a weeping woman.”
That’s all for this evening, but do drop us a line if you have any comments or come and see us at the Bike Shed, Exeter. We’re here until Saturday!