“Had she so wished, she might have ravaged to her heart’s content in broad daylight; and perhaps there would have been less concern…”
– so writes Valentine Penrose in The Bloody Countess, imagining the 16thC Transylvanian Erzsébet Bàthory, a murderer who tortured 612 girls to death. Valentine herself, poet, writer, artist, was viewed warily. Denounced by Vanessa Bell as “that whore from Marseilles,” she was one of several 1920s Surrealist muses-turned-artists, such as Leonora Carrington and Dora Maar, who birthed, alongside André Breton’s Manifeste du surrealism, a creativity that was “psychic automatism in its pure state” – variously aligned with the East, the occult and bisexuality.
After her first collection, Herbe à la lune, Valentine Penrose published in gobbets, in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 70s. Queer epistolary prose (Martha’s Opera, 1945) – “life is only your absence from mine …”; “as I prepared to rejoin you, for our brief caresses”; was followed, eventually, by a lesbian travel journal, Dons des Feminines (1951). Very little has been translated into English. Forward-going yet recessive (Dons des Feminines is a witty rebuke to the lickerish, 1929, Freudian collage-novel of Max Ernst, La Femme 100 têtes), Valentine is once again tipping into the light.
As glimpsed in Buñuel’s film L’Age d’Or (1930) and Man Ray’s La Garoupe (1937), she was handsome and contradictory, as devoted to silent study in Indian ashrams as “vituperations against banality,” according to her husband and lifelong friend, the English artist Roland Penrose, whom she wed, in a sari in 1925, divorced and to whose household with photographer Lee Miller she returned, a beloved aunt to their son Antony Penrose. Antony later begged Valentine to stop reading his tarot. Her readings were too accurate.
It was dark when Rosalind and I trotted down Store Street, tardy on champagne and reunion, in search of the real Valentine, born Valentine Boué, a “natural witch”, as Sabina Stent was describing her in a lecture in the lit basement of an occult bookshop, Treadwell’s.
We took our seats. Sabina, a wren-faced, Neopolitan beauty, showed us a woman in a bikini tied to a tree; a honeymoon photo by Roland Penrose. Their urgent love was not consummated, due to Valentine’s lifelong vaginismus. The bondage of this photograph is recast in Penrose’s painting of Valentine, ‘Winged Domino’ (1938). Glancing at the Domino’s blue face, Sabina remarked, “Roland could sense Valentine’s desire to manifest, evolve, fly away. However, the wire – marriage – keeps her captured.”
Love seems to have been a struggle for Valentine. “Betray feelings, yes; but not ideas,” she wrote, in the magazine, La Révolution surréaliste. Love, she said, was a downward line. “Can we really be happy with a creation that is – in spite of everything – a descent?” She dismissed love as “a fall” yet, at 72 years of age was still recollecting the sweetheart of her life, poet and painter Alice Rahon, in her last poetry collection, Les Magies (1972).
She and Alice travelled extensively in India, studying Hindu philosophy, which does not enforce law on physical love. In ‘Winged Domino’, Roland perhaps anoints such Oriental proclivities in Valentine, with the blue pigment typical of some Hindu deities. Replying to Roland’s early ardour, in those days when he bound her to a tree, Valentine’s own sketch, ‘To my husband’, serves up a voluptuous, man-pleasing version of herself, arms restricted yet provocatively raised, exposing pelted armpits and jiggling breasts. A monkey-king, suggestive of Roland’s erect cock, bears a gift, at cunt-level – like the Hindu monkey-God Hanuman – allowing the non-penetrative couple a way to “ravage” each other. Valentine the painter thus comments on posing for the man whose canvasses are in the foreground. Who is in command?
The capitalist landscape of 20th Century sexuality is ripped up by Valentine’s collages – and by the garnet-and-snow brutality of The Bloody Countess. Of Bàthory, Valentine writes, she “lived firm on her lands… upon what… heredity granted her.” Valentine was more of a Marxist, fighting for the Spanish rebels and the French Resistance. Such risks did not exorcise the darkness within. Perhaps she felt no such need. “If there is a stone of sadness, there am I seated,” opens Valentine’s poem, ‘Demeter’, describing the kidnap of her daughter, Persephone, by the Underworld. Valentine blenches then dismisses the loss: “it is fleeting”. But Nature colludes with the mother’s stubborn grief: “The tree rejects its orientation. The emerald keeps its fist clenched.” Darkness, passion and simplicity collide in her poetry.
The day after Sabina’s talk at Treadwell’s, we met her in an ill-managed vintage tea-room in Soho, above the Coach and Horses pub, still wondering what Valentine might have achieved, if “she’d ravaged to her heart’s content.” Speaking of friends who practise tarot, Rosalind said, “there’s a new surge in witchcraft – I wonder how far this is to do with the state of our world, today?”
“It is to do with the political situation, the rise in misogyny. Young women are finding or reclaiming power by using magic,” agreed Sabina. She later wrote to me, saying, “young women find solace in the Witch identity because they do not fit into any of society’s moulds. Women Surrealists like Valentine are more popular today because of their refusal to pander to societal expectations of what women and artists should be. Women are refusing to be silenced.”
Perhaps what disturbed Valentine’s disparagers is the silence from whence her art spawned. Sabina’s grandmother and great-grandmother came from a poor area of Naples where it was common to read ordinary playing cards as if they were tarot. But only for themselves. “They never called it witchcraft,” said Sabina, “It was a part of their way of life.”
Sabina creates her own rituals, at home. “Like what?” I asked.
“I often sigil,” she said (a magic that uses or creates symbols then charges them with intent), “I’m fond of candle magic. I love lunar magic. Much of it is deepening one’s observation. It’s gut instinct, sometimes it’s journaling – making a list of what’s coming in and what’s coming out of one’s life according to the phases of the moon.”
What comes in and out of Valentine’s collages, often, is the world. Manmade forms crumble; wings emerge. Sickened by the morbid masculinity of Trump, Putin and religious extremists, we are rediscovering the flights of Valentine’s imagination. “Although I usually work on more flamboyant women,” mused Sabina, “Valentine is so important to me on account of her art and her serious esoteric studies – she is so under-represented as an artist.”
Valentine, writing the film of Countess Dracula in 1971, in her last years, stared down taboos. Solstice gives us a cusp moment to see our own faces in her unending appetites; love and pain.
by Soma Ghosh