SURREAL LIVES by Ruth Brandon


The Surrealists, 1917-1945
Email this review


Brandon (The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, 1994, etc.), a prominent biographer and fiction writer, explores the aesthetics, politics, and psychology of Surrealism by unraveling the complex personal histories of the movement’s key players. Among multiple sources of Surrealism, Brandon highlights two: Marxism and Freudianism. Born of the turmoil of WWI and christened by Apollinaire, this revolutionary artistic trend advocated anarchy, sided with the political left during the interwar period, and aspired to produce an iconoclastic “anti-art.” A creative use of dreams, delving into the subconscious, and a preoccupation with sex, death, and excrement complemented the Surrealists’ political radicalism. Although nowadays we associate Surrealism primarily with visual art, literary figures like the autocratic AndrÇ Breton headed the movement at its inception. Transgression of boundaries between different artistic media was quite common, and many artists also wrote poetry or prose. After the shock induced by Bu§uel’s films, cinematography advanced as the most immediate Surrealist format. Brandon systematically points out the eccentricities that shaped Surrealists’ lives and, consequently, their creative process. Despising conventional moral and family values and considering procreation “sloppy” at best, many Surrealists were involved in mÇnages Ö trois, bisexual relations, and unscrupulous leeching off rich American lovers. On the other hand, Elsa Triolet and Gala Eluard successfully exploited their husbands’ talents to attain the lifestyle they desired. Elsa made Louis Aragon a national icon and had him endorse her writing; the “nymphomaniacal harpy” Gala achieved fame and wealth by transforming (her second husband) Dal°’s originally subversive art into expensive commercial entertainment, compliant with the Fascist regimes in Spain and Germany. Scattering its principles by the wayside, the Surrealist movement stumbled toward its zenith, torn by internal contradictions. Rooted to a large extent in neurotic obsessions, pathological tendencies, and introspective observation, Surrealism is a rare case where insights into artists’ lives facilitate interpretation of their creations. A marvelous job of using biographical material to demystify esoteric art.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-8021-1653-1
Page count: 528pp
Publisher: Grove
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1999


NonfictionUGLY BEAUTY by Ruth Brandon
by Ruth Brandon
FictionCARAVAGGIO’S ANGEL by Ruth Brandon
by Ruth Brandon
NonfictionGOVERNESS by Ruth Brandon
by Ruth Brandon


NonfictionIN MONTPARNASSE by Sue Roe
by Sue Roe
NonfictionTHE LIVES OF THE SURREALISTS by Desmond Morris
by Desmond Morris