Tuesday 23 March 2021

Memorial to a Friend

Memorial to a Friend

Picasso's Reading at a Table, 1934 at the Tate Gallery

In 1960 a major retrospective of Picasso paintings opened at the Tate Gallery. Organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain and curated by Picasso's friend and biographer, Roland Penrose. One of the works included was listed as Girl Writing, from 1934 (cat.136), now known as Reading at a Table.

Pablo Picasso, Reading at a Table, 1934, oil on canvas, 162.2 x 130.5 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Florene M. Schoenborn, in honour of William S. Lieberman, 1995

    Whilst Reading at a Table is quite an important painting from this stage of Picasso's career, the centrepiece of Penrose's 1960 show was Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907 (Cat.34), a large canvas that had already acquired almost legendary status in the history of modern art. Owned by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York since December 1937, this was only the second - and up to now, the last - time it was shown in London. 

    Such was Penrose's influence that he also managed to borrow ten important paintings, made between 1900 and 1909, from Hermitage Museum, Leningrad and the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, at a time when relations between the USSR and the West were notably frosty. This said, I believe that the inclusion of Reading at a Table was, in many ways, just as important for Penrose.

    The painting had also been included in the landmark retrospective, "Picasso: 40 Years of his Art" at MoMA (15 November 1939 - 7 January 1940), where it was given the title Girl Reading. It was not illustrated in the accompanying book-length catalogue, although a photograph of it in situ in the exhibition exists in the MoMA archives.

Installation view of the exhibition, "Picasso: 40 Years of his Art", showing Girl Reading, 1934. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives. IN91.14C

    Girl Reading had been lent by the wealthy English collector and supporter of the arts, Peter Watson who had bought it, through Penrose, directly from the artist. Along with Penrose, Watson was one of the few Europeans prepared to allow significant work from their collections to make the treacherous journey to New York in the first months of the Second World War. The painting remained in storage at MoMA until 1945, when it was collected by Watson's sometime partner, Denham Fouts, who was at the time engaged in a characteristically tempestuous affair with the writer Christopher Isherwood. In September of that year Fouts made a written bequest, promising the painting to Isherwood in lieu of payment of financial debts he owed. As it was, Fouts sold it to a couple he met in Chicago, Samuel and Florene Marx in November. It remained in Florene's hands until she bequeathed it to its current owner, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 1995 (see J. Dronfield and A. Clark: Queer Saint - the cultured life of Peter Watson, London, 2015).

    Penrose and Watson were close friends for many years. Along with Anton Zwemmer, they were  Directors (and the main financial backers) of the London Gallery until it was wound up in 1950. More importantly, they were founding members of the London Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). Both worked passionately in the cause of establishing the new organisation, and both supported it with substantial injections of their own money. When Watson died in mysterious circumstances in 1956 he left quite a hole in the London art world, not least among a number of individual artists, including Francis Bacon and John Craxton, who had grown used to relying on his patronage.

    By 1960, Reading at a Table was, of course, in the collection of Samuel and Florene Marx, whose ownership is credited in the catalogue. However, I believe that Penrose's decision to include this particular work, rather than any of the other twenty or so variations of this theme painted at that time, was to honour his late friend. Indeed, it is surely a sign that its inclusion was a kind of memorial to Peter Watson, private to Penrose, that it is one of only two images reproduced in colour in the catalogue accompanying the show (The Arts Council of Great Britain: Picasso, London: Lund Humphires, 1960). The other one is Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

1 comment:

Antony Penrose said...

Thank you for this scholarly and appreciative acknowledgement of Peter Watson and my father Roland Penrose. It is satisfying to see them getting the attention they both deserve.