The legacy of surrealism continues to affect how viewers see art.
Biographer and art historian Roe (In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse, and Modernism in Paris, 1900-1910, 2014, etc.) follows her account of the titans of modernism by documenting the lives and works of artists and writers who invented, promoted, and reimagined the anarchic movement they called surrealism. Their goal was to produce art that “extended beyond the limits of realism” by juxtaposing elements of the real world in new and shocking ways, illuminated the workings of the unconscious, and aimed, explicitly, “to jar the relationship between artist and viewer.” The Parisian neighborhood of Montparnasse thronged with surrealists: the imperious André Breton, the “Pope of Surrealism,” whose strident manifestos laid out the principles of the movement; poets Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard; German artist Max Ernst, creator of shocking collages—one featuring “part of a hand emerging through a trap door, the index finger pierced with a steel implement”; the flamboyant poet, filmmaker, artist, and opium addict Jean Cocteau; the young Salvador Dalí, enthusiastically celebrating his own inner world; Marcel Duchamp, who famously submitted a urinal as a sculpture to a major exhibition and eventually gave up art for chess; photographer Man Ray; and scores of other men and their many idealized, exploited, and betrayed lovers, wives, and mistresses. Surrealists treated women badly, Roe concedes, explaining their misogyny as consistent with the times. Surrealist artists, she adds, “were baffled by women and wanted in their work to dissect and inspect the female.” As noisy revolutionaries, they exhibited “myriad contradictions”: for example, managing to be “both trenchantly anti-establishment and sartorially dapper.” Drawing largely on memoirs, biographies, and histories of the period, Roe reprises events and personalities that readers may find familiar from works such as Ruth Brandon’s Surreal Lives (1999) and Desmond Morris’ The Lives of the Surrealists (2018). Nevertheless, she renders with deftness and precision the strange and disturbing works surrealists produced by tapping into their emotions of “terror, horror, disgust, or fear.”
A thorough, well-informed survey of an art revolution.