When Salvador Dalí came to lecture at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936, he arrived with two Russian wolfhounds on leads. He wore a deep-sea diver’s suit and carried a billiard cue. A jewelled dagger hung from his belt. The subject of his lecture was ‘Paranoia, The Pre-Raphaelites, Harpo Marx and Phantoms’. The audience couldn’t hear him through the diving helmet, so it was not immediately obvious that Dalí was suffocating. When friends did eventually sound the alarm, they found the bolts on Dalí’s helmet stuck fast. Send for a spanner! By the time they’d taken the helmet off, Dalí was close to death.
All in the name of surreal art. Nothing was too silly, too sensational, too childishly scatological for Dalí, André Breton, Marcel Duchamp and the squabbling Surrealist gang. In The Lives of the Surrealists, Desmond Morris gives us thirty-two brief biographies of the heroes, villains, groupies, hangers-on, dropouts and kick-outs of the Surrealist movement that flourished in Paris, Spain and New York in the 1920s and 1930s. Morris, aged ninety, is one of the last Surrealist survivors. His mischievous, Miró-like hand-lettering decorates the cover. Morris shared his first London exhibition with Joan Miró in 1950. Since then, he has presented nearly seven hundred television programmes; his book The Naked Ape, a zoological study of mankind, has sold more than twelve million copies.
In the best Vasarian tradition, The Lives of the Surrealists is gossipy, waspish, biased, score-settling and very entertaining. What a bitchy bunch they were. Breton, Surrealism’s capricious leader, born to ‘a father who was an atheist policeman and a mother who was a pious seamstress’, was, writes Morris, ‘a pompous bore, a ruthless dictator, a confirmed sexist, an extreme homophobe and a devious hypocrite’. Don’t hold back, Desmond.
Even Breton’s followers found him unpalatable. Frida Kahlo called him ‘an old cockroach’. Giorgio de Chirico thought him a ‘pretentious ass and impotent arriviste’ who surrounded himself with ‘degenerates, hooligans, childish layabouts, onanists and spineless people’. Leonor Fini, most woundingly of all, described Breton the Iconoclast as merely a ‘petit bourgeois’.
Fini styled herself as an insatiable glamour puss. In a photo taken by Dora Maar, Picasso’s mistress, Fini clutches a long-haired Persian cat between her thighs. Her lover Henri Cartier-Bresson complained – or boasted – of the claw marks Fini had left on his body. When she died, aged eighty-eight, one art critic wrote that it was impossible to think of her as being old, describing her as ‘the vampire we would most like to visit us’.
Breton carried on like the Red Queen in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. If an artist displeased him it was ‘Off with their head!’ For sins against Surrealism, Breton expelled Dalí, Picasso, Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, Henry Moore, Herbert Read and Yves Tanguy among others. Eileen Agar, Luis Buñuel, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, René Magritte, Paul Nash, Man Ray, Miró and de Chirico jumped before they were pushed.
Morris has a light touch and a witty way of giving each life dashes of Surrealist brio. He writes of Agar’s voyage with her family from Argentina to England: ‘On the journey, they were accompanied by a cow and an orchestra to provide them with fresh milk and music.’ After the war, Agar played ‘musical chairs with ex-Prime Minister Herbert Asquith – she was told she had to let him win’. Later, she refused to marry a Belgian prince ‘on the grounds that she disliked Brussels sprouts’. According to her eventual husband, she was always ‘trying to do something in a way that cannot be done, such as making love standing up in a hammock’.
Surrealist sex sounds exhausting. When Duchamp married Lydie Sarazin-Levassor (‘the sweetly innocent, overweight daughter of a wealthy industrialist,’ writes Morris) she shaved her pubic hair because he found female hair disgusting. She was so dismayed by his preference for chess over being with her that one night she glued all his pieces to the chessboard. She later divorced Duchamp for desertion.
Breton took his wife to Vienna on their honeymoon so he could meet Sigmund Freud. Freud was apparently so dismissive of Breton that the artist refused to talk about the encounter. Later, he called Freud ‘a little old man with no style’. The marriage of Roland Penrose and Lee Miller faltered after she lost interest in sex following the birth of her son. Penrose took up with a trapeze artist called Diane Deriaz and then had an affair with Peggy Guggenheim. In her memoirs, Guggenheim called him a bad painter who had tied her up with ivory bracelets when they made love. Penrose asked her to remove the ‘bad painter’ line from subsequent editions and to change the ivory bracelets to ordinary police handcuffs. She agreed to the first request, but declined the latter. Dalí’s sexual fears and deviancies are well rehearsed and Morris gives only a potted summary – a mercy.
Francis Bacon merits inclusion because he petitioned (unsuccessfully) to be included in the great 1936 exhibition of the British Surrealist Group that attracted over a thousand visitors a day. Bacon once called on Morris for advice about a painting of a howling baboon. When the conversation turned more broadly to facial expressions, Bacon said, ‘I think I’ve got the scream, but I am having terrible trouble with the smile.’ He couldn’t bear people banging on about ‘the soul’ in his painting. ‘Ah! Soul!’ he would drawl. Then, changing the emphasis: ‘Arsehole!’
Leonora Carrington’s behaviour, Morris writes, was ‘decidedly odd. On one occasion, when dining in a restaurant, she covered her feet in mustard, and on another she took a shower fully clothed when visiting a friend’s house.’ The question Morris raises regarding Carrington could go for the whole weird lot of them: ‘It was not clear whether her eccentricities were surrealist events or moments of madness. Perhaps they were both.’