Ruth Brandon has set herself the unenviable task of sorting out the history of the Surrealists between 1917 and 1945, and trying to define what Surrealism meant at any given moment. The word first appeared in Paris in May 1917 and was coined by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, but he died of influenza soon afterwards. André Breton thereafter carried the flame – indeed, Max Ernst used to say: ‘Breton is Surrealism.’ But Breton was a pompous, humourless, schoolmasterly bore who tried to run Surrealism like the SWP. Dali summed up with as much accuracy as bitchiness: ‘The Surrealist group was a coterie of pederasts all in love with André Breton. They all adored him and he enjoyed exercising his implacable power over them.’
Breton defined Surrealism in 1922 as ‘a certain psychic automatism which corresponds to the dream-state’ and he was heavily inspired by Freud. But Freud wanted nothing to do with it. He wrote to Breton: ‘Although I have received many testimonies of the interest that you and your friends show in my research, I am not able to clarify for myself what Surrealism is and what it wants. Perhaps I am not destined to understand it, I who am so distant from art.’ He was, however, impressed by Dali, who visited him in Swiss Cottage in 1938 and drew his cranium in the shape of a snail.
From the mid-1930s onwards, it was increasingly Dali, rather than Breton, who personified Surrealism, and it was he who exported it to America. This had a tremendous self-advertising effect. In his new role of Avida Dollars, Dali quickly realised that there was nothing like turning up in a diving suit for getting your picture in the papers. His biggest coup came in 1935, when he took Gala to a New York ball with a model of a dead baby on her head, its skull in the grip of a lobster. This was shortly after the kidnap and murder of the Lindbergh baby and caused headline outrage around the world. Dali recorded in his Secret Life: ‘Henceforth Surrealism was to be more and more identified with me, and with me only.’ This was true – and very much to the detriment of Surrealism.
And what of de Chirico? He makes only the most passing appearance in Ruth Brandon’s book, when he and Max Ernst, Paul Eluard and Gala all hop into bed for a foursome in 1923. In any case, he was not really a Surrealist – or rather, he was a Surrealist before Surrealism, but not after. Apollinaire and then Breton befriended him when he first arrived in Paris in 1911, and Breton bought his important early masterpiece, The Child’s Brain, in 1914. His work was reproduced in the first six issues of La Revolution surréaliste, and Magritte and Tanguy both claim to have been inspired by him. But in 1924 de Chirico changed his style – without asking Breton – so, while his early work was admired, his later work was denounced. He in turn attacked the Surrealists in his memoirs as ‘ ‘impotent intellectuals’ and ‘the leaders of modernistic imbecility’.
De Chirico was, in any case, a very odd man, as Margaret Crosland’s intriguing biography makes clear. He was born in 1888 of aristocratic Italian lineage, but brought up in Greece, where his father was supervising the construction of the Athens-Salonika railway. His father died when he was seventeen and his mother took him and his younger brother, Andrea, to Italy and then to Munich, where he was strongly influenced by the work of Böcklin (The Island if the Dead) and also by Nietzsche. Through Nietzsche, he wrote in his memoirs, he became aware that ‘There is a host of strange, unknown, solitary things which can be translated into painting. After much meditation I began to have my first revelations…’ These were the early ‘metaphysical’ paintings, with their obscurely erotic and melancholy atmosphere.
De Chirico was a shy, sickly young man, prone to depression and psychosomatic intestinal disorders, and overprotected by his mother, the Baronessa. His younger brother went to Paris, where he changed his name to Alberto Savinio and became known for his eccentric piano recitals – battering the keys until his hands bled and ‘screaming and throwing himself about while his instrument struggle[d] to attain his own pitch of enthusiasm’. He arranged for Giorgio to exhibit at the 1912 Salon d’Automne and later at the Salon des Indépendants. There he was noticed by Picasso (among others), who described him rather oddly as ‘the painter of railway stations’.
But then came the war and the two brothers decided to leave Paris and enlist in the Italian army. Fortunately, this only entailed doing clerical work in Ferrara. De Chirico loved the place, describing it as ‘terribly lecherous; there are days, especially at the height of spring, in which the libidinous atmosphere that hangs over Ferrara becomes so strong that it can almost be heard’. He thought the fumes of the hemp harvest probably had something to do with it. His brother wrote that the women of Ferrara had ‘eyes like those of a crayfish: small lucid globes, like those of laxative pills, sprouting from the tip of a corneal antenna’. It was here that de Chirico painted some of his most memorable works. But he spent the last year of the war in a mental hospital and around this time began developing the distrustful attitudes that would later harden into paranoia. He changed his style radically in 1924, around the time when he met and married his first wife, Raissa Krol, a Russian dancer with ‘breasts full of borscht’. He entirely omitted this first wife from his memoir but she was obviously an influence – not least because she stopped him going to prostitutes. Perhaps this explains why his inspiration so completely dried up; his work from the mid-1920s onwards was increasingly repetitious and banal. Worse, he developed a side industry of faking his own early work. When Paul and Gala Eluard wanted to buy The Disquieting Muses in 1924 and found that it had already been sold, de Chirico volunteered to produce a copy, and soon made a habit of it – there are at least eighteen versions of the painting. He even trained his Russian cook, Vladimir – who wasn’t much good as a cook because he only cooked potatoes – to colour in the canvases.
When the question of forgeries became public in the 1960s, de Chirico offered to clear up the mess by inviting owners to bring disputed attributions to his house and he would sign them if they were genuine. But even so, he seems to have signed some that were fake and denounced others that were genuine, and the issue of dating and authenticating de Chiricos remains a nightmare for scholars. Crosland’s biography does not attempt to resolve these problems, but it is an intriguing glimpse of an enigmatic man.