Updated: Jan 19, 2022
The Lives of the Surrealists by Desmond Morris Thames & Hudson, 272 pp., 2018
Until recently I knew Desmond Morris only vaguely as a zoologist and author of The Naked Ape. It turns out he was also an accomplished painter who was associated with the London branch of the surrealist movement in the late 1940s. His first major London exhibit was at The London Galleries in 1950 where he was on the bill with Joan Miró, pretty fair company for a young fellow.
His new book, The Lives of the Surrealists, is a delightful collection of short biosketches of thirty-two artists selected according to criteria Morris set for himself. His account is restricted to the visual artists he finds most interesting, omitting photographers, filmmakers, theorists, writers, poets, and organizers of the movement who were not visual artists. It's a hoot and, for me, a trip down memory lane to my own early encounters with surrealism, and a reminder of an ongoing relationship with it that has endured some forty-five years.
For purposes of the book Morris rejects both the strict, purist view that only a member of André Breton's inner circle can be classed a surrealist and the debased, common usage whereby any painting that is strange is called "surreal." He includes members of the group that grew up around Breton in Paris in the 1920s, independent surrealists who knew about the group and their theories but were not interested in any form of group activity, antagonistic surrealists who produced surreal works but disliked Breton and others in the group and what they stood for, and so on, thus making room for artists like Alexander Calder and Henry Moore, who I do not typically think of as surrealist. Expelled members of the group are classed for inclusion, which covers pretty much everyone ever associated with the group. More than a few were expelled by Breton, later accepted back, still later expelled again. It could be a tumultuous environment.
A number of talented, early surrealists had been affiliated with Dada, among them Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Man Ray, and Jean Arp. Breton joined a Dada group in 1916. Over time his ideas diverged from Dada, and he broke from the group as those ideas coalesced into surrealism.
Surrealism shared with Dada wholesale rejection of conventional culture, aesthetics, morality, and politics, subsumed under the all-purpose slur "bourgeois," which the group held responsible for the horrific slaughter of World War I. Breton, who had studied medicine and psychiatry, witnessed the consequences of the war first-hand when he served in neurological wards working with traumatized soldiers. He considered surrealism a revolutionary movement and was drawn to Marx. For a time the group entered into an alliance of sorts with the Communist Party. That did not pan out. Surrealists, fiercely independent, fiercely noncomformist, were not much for party discipline.
The surrealists used drugs, hypnosis, concepts of Freudian psychoanalysis, dream, tarot, chance association, and other methods in pursuit of the marvelous, which lay outside any realm of reason and rational expression. Breton provided a dictionary definition of the term and a brief encyclopedia entry in the Manifesto of Surrealism (1924):
SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.
ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving the principal problems of life. The following have performed acts of ABSOLUTE SURREALISM: Messrs. Aragon, Baron, Boiffard, Breton, Carrive, Crevel, Delteil, Desnos, Eluard, Gérard, Limbour, Malkine, Morise, Naville, Noll, Péret, Picon, Soupault, Vitrac.
As you can see, Breton was prone to bombast. He is infamous for his formulation of the simplest surrealist act, to walk into the street with a revolver in each hand and fire as rapidly as one can pull the trigger at random into the crowd. We can presume, I think, that his intent was to outrage and offend bourgeois sensibility, and he was not proposing that anyone actually commit such an act. Nonetheless, he rightly caught a lot of flak for it.
Aimé Césaire, a surrealist poet and Marxist from Martinique also influential in the négritude movement, captured the spirit of surrealism with his declaration that poetry begins in excess, in a fascination with that which is forbidden.
The nineteenth-century French poet Lautréamont's phrase "as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table" was considered a classic surrealist image. Max Ernst invoked this metaphor "to define the structure of the surrealist painting as 'a linking of two realities that by all appearances have nothing to link them, in a setting that by all appearances does not fit them.'" (Surrealists Inspired by Lautréamont)
Morris notes that surrealism could include painters as different as René Magritte and Joan Miró because it was not so much an art movement as a way of life. For Magritte the artistic act consisted of coming up with the surrealist image in his mind. Painting itself was a chore. "He complained about…how tedious it was to have to spend hours creating the painting of a perverse idea that had flashed into his mind in seconds" (p. 161). E.L.T. Mesens, cofounder of the Belgian surrealist group in 1926 and a lifelong friend of Magritte, told a friend that "there were occasions when Magritte would suddenly put down his brushes and 'run frantically to the brothel'" (p. 181).
Magritte, who worked at his easel dressed in a business suit, said, "One cannot speak about mystery, one must be seized by it." (quoted p. 165). He "spent his whole adult life trying to think up novel ways of insulting the commonsense values of everyday existence" (p. 157).
When asked by an American interviewer what he did when he did not feel like painting, Miró replied "But I always feel like painting!" (p. 190). His art is not realistic at all. He said, "When I stand in front of a canvas, I never know what I am going to do—and nobody is more surprised than I at what comes out" (quoted by Morris, p. 188). This capacity to be surprised, amazed, fascinated, open to the marvelous, was far more than merely a matter of art. It was an aspect of Miró's existential encounter with what we think of as the everyday stuff of ordinary life, to which Morris bears witness:
When Miró saw something that fascinated him, his eyes came alive and fixated it with an intense stare, like a cheetah spotting an antelope. And for most of the time I spent in his company there seemed to be something in his range of vision that warranted this treatment, as though he was constantly receptive to new visual input. The only time his eyes glazed over was when I happened to mention the name Salvador Dalí. "Big mistake," whispered Roland Penrose, and quickly changed the subject. (p. 193)
In 1928 André Masson declared Miró "the most surrealist of us all" (p. 186). Although his art and his aesthetics placed him at the heart of the movement, Miró was one of those who maintained his independence:
I've been labeled a surrealist, but what I want to do above and beyond anything else is maintain my total, absolute, rigorous independence. I consider surrealism an extremely interesting intellectual phenomenon, a positive thing, but I don't want to subject myself to its severe discipline. (quoted by Morris, p. 188)
Morris's focus is on the lives of his subjects. He touches on their art more in passing than with any appreciable detail, providing one photograph for each artist to illustrate the work. Some surrealists lived surrealist lifestyles; they were a zany, wacky bunch who delighted in shocking any and all establishments, not so much a pastime as a mission. Others led more orthodox lives and only became surrealists when they picked up a brush. Filmmaker Luis Buñuel saw it this way:
We were nothing, just a small group of insolent intellectuals who argued interminably in cafés and published a journal, a handful of idealists easily divided where action was concerned. And yet my three-year sojourn in the exalted—and yes, chaotic—ranks of the movement changed my life. (quoted by Morris, p. 16)
Each chapter begins with a capsule summary listing where and when the artist was born, names and occupations of parents, romantic partners (typically numerous), and when they became associated with the surrealist group, when expelled from the group by Breton, when accepted back, when expelled again, &c.
Morris treats his subjects with humor, sometimes genuine affection, and almost unfailing generosity, with one pronounced exception, André Breton himself. Allow me to quote at length instead of paraphrasing here because it is too good not to:
André Breton was the most central, most important figure in the history of surrealism. It was he who defined it, described it and defended it against all comers….
Having established that, it must be said that he was a pompous bore, a ruthless dictator, a confirmed sexist, an extreme homophobe and a devious hypocrite. Frida Kahlo described him as "an old cockroach." Giorgio de Chirico call him a "pretentious ass and impotent arriviste."… And bizarrely, the Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg denounced him as a pederast—for which Breton struck him several times when he met him on the street. The last insult was clearly designed to cause the maximum outrage on the part of the passionately homophobic Breton. (p. 52)
In the end Morris gives Breton his due:
…it is easy to make fun of him. It is true that he was a petty dictator, arrogant, contradictory, pompous and vindictive, but at the same time he was the central driving force of the surrealist movement and it would have been much poorer without him. His charismatic presence gave surrealism its gravitas and elevated it from the level of an intellectual prank to become on of the major art movements of the twentieth century. (p. 63)
The reviewer whose piece brought the book to my attention remarked that it could have been titled The Sex Lives of the Surrealists (alas, I did not make note of the review and do not recall the author). He has a point. A reader could do with a scorecard to keep up with the multifarious entanglements. The poet Paul Éluard figures prominently in the book even though he was not a visual artist because of his role in a few complicated affairs.
Morris's accounts are amusing and never prurient, even when they describe habits, inclinations, and tastes that are decidedly left of normal. For instance, take the English surrealist Roland Penrose, with whom I was not previously familiar. Eileen Agar, a surrealist painter, said of Penrose that he was always "ready to turn the slightest encounter into an orgy" (quoted by Morris, p. 25). It seems that Penrose's first wife was afflicted with some sort of anatomical issue that made ordinary sexual intercourse impossible. The couple had to resort to other means for gratification. This led to habits that carried over into subsequent relationships. One woman who knew him well told Morris, "Roland can't do it without handcuffs." Peggy Guggenheim wrote in her memoir, "It was extremely uncomfortable to spend the night this way [shackled to a bedpost] but if you spent it with Penrose it was the only way" (quoted by Morris, p. 222). Guggenheim was not a member of the group, but she knew them intimately, you might say, and was married to Max Ernst from 1941 to 1946, one of his four wives and numerous other partners.
Morris asserts it could be argued that Pablo Picasso was one of the first of the surrealists since the poet Guillaume Apollinaire coined the term surrealisme in 1917 as a way of describing Picasso's art. Picasso's vision of surrealism was more broad and general than Breton's: "I value a more profound resemblance, realer than real, attaining the surreal. That's how I viewed surrealism" (quoted in Morris, p. 224). Picasso embraced the surrealist idea of freedom while rejecting surrealist dogma.
So there was little difference between Picasso and Breton with regards to the nature of the creative process. Where they differed was in the general conduct of the artist in society. Picasso saw the artist as an individualist, free from any interference. Breton saw the artist as a member of a collective, a strictly run club organized and dominated, of course, by himself. (p. 224)
Picasso later complained, "They've completely forgotten the main thing—painting—in favor of lousy poetry" (p. 226).
When Éluard introduced Picasso to Yugoslavian artist Dona Maar, Picasso repaid the kindness by going to bed with Éluard's wife Nusch, an ex-circus performer whom Éluard had found as a starving street-waif and had taken in after he lost his first wife, Gala, to Salvador Dalí. Far from being angry with Picasso, Éluard was honored that the great artist favored his wife in this way. None of this damaged Picasso's relationship with Maar, with whom he had an affair that would continue for nine years.
Surrealist artists were primarily a male bunch. For Breton woman's role was always secondary as muse and inspiration, erotic and otherwise, for the male artist. Yet there were women surrealists, and they could be every bit as unconventional, iconoclastic, wild, and interesting artistically and in their personal lives as any of their male counterparts. Morris's inclusion of just five women—Eileen Agar (1899–1991), Leanora Carrington (1917-2011), Leonor Fini (1907–1996), Meret Oppenheim (1913–(1985), and Dorothea Tanning (1910–2012)— among his thirty-two artists gives an idea of the breakdown.
The young women who found their way to surrealism in the 1920s and 1930s tended to be the rebellious daughters of wealthy families that were not enthusiastic about their pursuit of art as a way of life. They were expected to marry well and raise children of their own. Eileen Agar, whose father was a Scottish businessman who sold windmills, said she did not want to "rear a brood that would be slaughtered in the next war" (p. 22). Writes Morris, "They found the atmosphere of social freedoms, heated intellectual debates and improper behavior irresistible" (p. 71).
Agar's mother tried to match her up with an array of suitors that included an English lord and the Russian prince who executed Rasputin. Agar rejected them all. Her mother indulged her interest in art by enlisting a friend of Rodin to teach her watercolor painting. When an acquaintance of Renoir suggested that she take her art more seriously and attend art school, the mother was outraged, but that horse was out of the barn and galloping away over the hills.
Agar had a number of lovers, with the Hungarian writer Joseph Bard the love of her life. While involved with Bard, she had an affair with an artist named Paul Nash. Somewhere in there Roland Penrose introduced her to Paul Éluard, with whom she had an affair. Nash was insanely jealous. Bard took it in stride because he was having a fling himself with Éluard's wife Nusch.
Agar described her art as a blend of abstraction and surrealism, rather than pure surrealism, but she revealed a decidedly surrealist sensibility when summing up her life: "I have spent my life in revolt against convention, trying to bring colour and light and a sense of the mysterious to daily existence" (p. 26).
Leonora Carrington was "born in Northern England, daughter of a Lancashire textile tycoon, and grew up in a mansion with ten servants, a chauffeur, a nanny, a French governess and a religious tutor…. Despite the grandeur of her existence, she saw her family home as little more than a huge prison" (p. 71). At the age of fourteen she pulled her dress up in front of a Catholic priest while wearing no underclothes and asked him "What do you think of that?" (p. 73). Not surprisingly, she was expelled from multiple schools. She was subsequently sent to a boarding school in Florence and finishing school in Paris, where she was again expelled for refusing to conform. At eighteen she left home permanently to be an art student in London.
In 1936 she read Herbert Read's book Surrealism and found it fascinating. She was especially taken with Max Ernst, saying that seeing his work was like "burning inside" (p. 73). In 1937 Carrington met Ernst at a dinner party when he had a show in London. It was, she said later, love at first sight, and although he was a married man, she was soon his lover and his protégé. Carrington followed Ernst to Paris, telling her family she was going to live in sin with a married man twenty-five years older than she, whereupon her father declared she could never enter the family again. This was fine by Carrington, who proclaimed herself glad to be leaving behind the English "whose souls have the consistency of pork brawn" (p. 74).
Carrington was among the surrealists given to outrageous public behavior. Once she arrived at a party wearing nothing but a white sheet, which she later dropped, leaving herself naked. She and Ernst were thrown out of the party.
Morris describes her paintings as
always skillfully crafted in a traditional manner, [they] take the viewer into a fantastic private world full of monsters and arcane rituals. Some are demented fairy tales, others like elegant nightmares. As with many surrealist works, they make their impact on the viewer even though their precise meaning is obscure." (p. 76)
When she was ninety, an interviewer asked whether certain strange animals in one particular scene were acting as guardians. Carrington replied, "I don't really think in terms of explanation." When another interviewer asked about the meaning of a painting, she said, "This is not an intellectual game. It is a visual world. Use your feelings" (p. 76).
No review of The Lives of the Surrealists would be complete without mention of Salvador Dalí's flirtation with death during a lecture at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936. Here is Morris's account:
He arrived leading two Russian wolfhounds, carrying a billiard cue and dressed in a deep-sea diver's suit, with a jeweled dagger in his belt. The title of his talk was Paranoia, The Pre-Raphaelites, Harpo Marx and Phantoms. Speaking from inside the diving helmet he was inaudible, so it was not immediately noticed that he was starting to suffocate. Friends of his rushed on stage and desperately attempted to turn the bolts of the helmet, but without success. A spanner was sent for, but by the time it had arrived and the helmet was undone, Dalí was nearly dead. (p. 90)
My encounter with surrealism came like so much else while in college, at the age of eighteen or nineteen, pretty much exclusively by way of extracurricular reading rather than formal classwork. I seem to recall wending my way to the back basement of old McKissick Memorial Library at the University of South Carolina, where you had to duck low-hanging pipes at some points along the way, in search of Breton's Surrealism and Painting. I was most taken with Miró among the artists. Of the poets, it was Éluard and Robert Desnos, especially Éluard's The Beloved and Desnos's No, Love Is Not Dead.
I never thought of myself as surrealist, but the influence of surrealist poets and painters showed up in my poems early on. Experiments with surrealist automatic writing, writing that attempts to deliberately evade conscious thought and control, proved fairly fruitless when it came to producing actual poems, but I think it helped me cultivate a more freewheeling sense for description and imagery that I also got from the beat poet Gregory Corso, who saw surrealism as just one more device to use in making poems, saying, "Philip [Lamantia] sees surrealism as an end in itself, but I take it as just another toy to play with" (quoted in Neeli Cherkovski, Whitman's Wild Children, p. 235).
Dorothea Tanning, who lived to be 101, said in 2002, "I guess I'll be called a surrealist forever…but please don't say I'm carrying the surrealist banner. The movement ended in the '50s and my own work had moved on so far by the '60s that being called a surrealist today makes me feel like a fossil" (p. 254).
Philip Lamantia (1927-2005), who made the acquaintance of Breton and Ernst as a teenager after dropping out of high school in San Francisco and moving to New York, may have carried the banner into the 21st century. Perhaps there are others. I do not know of them. I like to think surrealism remains in some sense alive and even vibrant, however debased the term has become in common usage, through the paintings of Miró, Magritte, and their comrades, the poems of Éluard, Desnos, and others, Breton's manifestos, and books like The Lives of the Surrealists, where these extraordinary men and women whose profound commitment to love, freedom, and the marvelous can serve us yet as a defiant affirmation of human spirit in a dark time.
Memo from the Editorial Desk, July 13, 2018
Minor revisions were made to this piece after it was published in precipitous haste on July 12. I would have been well advised to let it simmer overnight before going through it one last time.