- 4th June − 11th September 2016 | Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art | £10 (£8) | Free for our Friends
About the Exhibition
Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous offers an exceptional overview of surrealist art, bringing together important works, many of which have rarely been seen in public, by a wide range of surrealist artists, to create exciting new juxtapositions. The show provides an insight into the way that four key collections of surrealist art were formed and the motivations behind their creation.
The four collections shown in this exhibition – those formed by Roland Penrose (1900-84), Edward James (1907-84), Gabrielle Keiller (1908-95) and Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch.
Roland Penrose insisted in his autobiography Scrap Book (1981), that he never set out to build a collection, but that it ‘collected itself’. He began to acquire surrealist (and cubist) art on a large scale, more by accident than design. For example, when in 1938 his friend, the surrealist poet Paul Eluard, was short of money and needed to sell his collection of art, Penrose agreed to buy it. By the time the Second World War came, he had a huge art collection, including many famous works by Picasso , Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miró, Man Ray, Paul Delvaux, Dorothea Tanning, Yves Tanguy, René Magritte, Eileen Agar, Salvador Dalí, Alberto Giacometti and Henry Moore. The exhibition shows not only the range and high quality of Surrealist works in Penrose’s collection, but also the way that it interacted with his activities as an artist, patron/benefactor, curator and writer.
Edward James, born into a wealthy Anglo-American family, never regarded the works of art that he acquired as a collection, nor did he see himself as a collector. He felt that he was a poet and collaborator, working closely with artists such as Dalí and Magritte. He became a key patron for three female surrealist artists: Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini and Dorothea Tanning. In later years James sold large parts of his collection, partly to set up a college at West Dean to train people in art, conservation and making, but especially to help finance Las Pozas, the fantastical, surrealist architecture that he built in the subtropical jungles of Xilitla in Mexico. James’s ‘collection’ of surrealist art is as legendary as the jungle structures it helped to create and this show demonstrates the quality and depth of commitment in James’s ‘collection’.
The collections of James and Penrose were put together mainly in the 1930s, when the surrealist movement was still very active and when close contact with the artists played a crucial role in their formation. Keiller and the Pietzsches did not begin collecting surrealist art until the 1960s and later; they therefore bought retrospectively and, by and large, without any interaction with the artists they collected.
Gabrielle Keiller already had a collection of old master and modern art at her house in London, before she decided to concentrate on Dada and Surrealism. In 1960 she was introduced to Peggy Guggenheim and Eduardo Paolozzi. Paolozzi helped persuade Keiller to focus her collecting on Dada and Surrealism. In the late 1970s she became friends with Penrose and purchased some notable surrealist works, such as Magritte’s La Représentation, 1937 and Giacometti’s Objet désagréable, á jeter, 1931. She was also able to acquire the finest collection of works by Paolozzi, in particular the early pieces that show the clear influence of Dada and Surrealism. Keiller was particularly interested in the private and documentary side of these movements. She built up a superb library of artist books, periodicals, manuscripts and ephemera. Keiller’s collection of surrealist art is relatively small, but it makes up for that by the extremely high quality of the works and the careful balance of the artists chosen.
The collection of the Berlin-based couple, Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch, is much larger and was built up carefully and methodically in post-war Germany. It has an outstanding representation of works by, among others, Hans Arp, Balthus, Hans Bellmer, Victor Brauner, Dalí, Ernst, Magritte, Miró and Tanguy. Of particular note are the works by female Surrealists including Carrington, Fini, Valentine Penrose (née Boué) and Tanning. Since 1972 the couple have focused their collecting on the period between the two world wars and have together built up their surrealist collection, which is one of the largest and not only in Germany. Another remarkable aspect of their collection is the group of early works by American Abstract Expressionists, such as Mark Rothko, chosen because they dovetail so well with Surrealists such as Ernst, Masson and Miró, who indeed were major influences on their work. In 2009 their collection was presented in its entirety in Berlin, the city to which the collectors generously promised to donate a number of works.