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“Roland Penrose working on ‘The Dew Machine’”, 1937, by Thea Struve (Courtesy The Penrose Collection)

Roland Penrose first made his mark when he and David Gascoyne brought Surrealism to London in 1936. The International Surrealist Exhibition was held in the New Burlington Galleries, not a venue that then figured largely in the public mind; its two large rooms, on the third floor and reached via a lift, were, Penrose later recalled, “more frequented by cats than human visitors”. James King, in his entertaining but flawed new biography (Roland Penrose: The Life of a Surrealist, Edinburgh University Press, £30) describes the building as “prosaic”. He somewhat rewrites the geography of London by remarking that, on the first day, “traffic was stopped along the length of Bond Street as far as Piccadilly Circus”, but one gets the gist, and 1,150 people crowded into the galleries to hear the spokesman of Surrealism, André Breton, give the opening speech.

Minor distractions included Dylan Thomas offering boiled string in teacups and inquiring whether visitors wanted it weak or strong, and a “Surrealist phantom” wandering through the crowd in a long white satin gown, her face obscured by a  veil of roses, clutching a dummy leg in one hand and a pork chop in the other. The heat soon obliged her to discard the latter. Meantime, Salvador Dali, who had rented a diving suit for the occasion, including a heavy, old bubble helmet which had been very securely screwed into place, began to expire from too much heat and lack of air. While someone was sent to look urgently for a spanner, the collector Edward James seized a billiard cue and managed to prise open the helmet’s front port.

Chiefly what made the event memorable was the spectacular display of Surrealist paintings and sculpture, mixed with Oceanic, African and American objects, amounting to 392 items in all. The walls were hung two or three rows deep. A huge Man Ray painting of a pair of red lips, floating over a landscape, surmounted one doorway, and everywhere were works of art which to a greater or less degree demonstrated the Surrealists’ ability to jar the mind and set it dreaming. T.S. Eliot is said to have become obsessed with Meret Oppenheim’s Fur-Covered Cup, Saucer and Spoon. The artist Eileen Agar, who had found herself suddenly labelled a Surrealist and drawn into the exhibition, thought the intensity and brilliance of this nine-day event impossible to sustain. Herbert Read delivered a fearsome speech in the galleries: “Do not judge this movement kindly. It is not just another amusing stunt. It is defiant — the desperate act of men too profoundly convinced of the rottenness of our civilisation to want to save a shred of its respectability.” Most English critics, with their usual hostility to foreign importations, took his first command literally and damned the show. And there was a general suspicion that Surrealism was in fact less desperate than romantic.

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