The people behind a movement
"Art changes life" was a famous saying of the surrealists as they waged war on the established art conventions of their time. But what about the lives that changed art -- the people behind the artistic movement? In Surreal Lives, social historian Ruth Brandon tells the fascinating stories of the men (and a few women) who shaped the movement that she claims "defined intellectual life between the wars."
Among the lives Brandon chronicles are Guillaume Apollinaire, the literary legend who, besides being a major figure in the French avant garde, wrote pornography rivaling the work of the Marquis de Sade; Marcel Duchamp, the French artist who achieved his greatest fame in the United States with works such as Nude Descending a Staircase; Tristan Tzara, known as the founder of the Dada movement, a Rumanian immigrant whose pursuit of notoriety foreshadowed the antics of today's pop culture icons; Man Ray, born Emmanuel Radnitsky in Philadelphia, who "with his magic lens was to become the wizard of surrealism" and made photography an important art form in the movement; Luis Bunuel, who distinguished himself as surrealism's filmmaker, a Spaniard whose disgust with the Catholicism of his native land led him to take perverse pleasure in roaming the streets of Paris dressed as a nun or a priest; Salvador Dali, the Spanish painter who Brandon says "spent so much of his life constructing an elaborate and repellent front for public consumption that it has become hard to imagine why so many brilliant men and women found him (as they did) so extremely attractive"; Nancy Cunard, the rich, beautiful shipping-line heiress romantically involved with many of the movement's leading names; and Andre Breton, the cold, prudish founder of surrealism, who complicated the movement's politics by becoming involved with Nancy Cunard, his best friend's lover.
Brandon writes as a cultural rather than art historian, and the result is a book that gives a fascinating look at an art movement without becoming mired in tedious discussions of style and technique. She obviously believes that it is the ideas behind art, and the lives behind the ideas, that makes art. Although she must wrestle with complex concepts, she combines ideas and story with the same skill as the Czech novelist Kundera.
Art historians and students of art will find the book invaluable, but lay people will also find it fascinating. Brandon chronicles events that often seem to come from the pages of a novel. When Paul Eluard, a lesser member of the surrealist circle, grows depressed over his and his wife's involvement in a menage-a-trois with the German painter Max Ernst, he embezzles money from his father's company to go on a binge. The wages of sin might be death for some, but not for Eluard. He doubles his money at the Monte Carlo casino and then runs off to Tahiti, following in Gauguin's footsteps.
Surrealism is probably less understood than other 20th century art movements because it is less formalistic and more cerebral. Brandon shows how Breton and other surrealists, inspired by Freud's theories, "lay the route-map for the great artistic journey of the coming century: the journey to the interior" and broke art's devotion to representation and beauty. Although we might not know it by name, surrealism is now the guiding force behind much of today's art, literature, and films.
David B. Hinton is dean of Academic Affairs at Watkins College of Art and Design in Nashville, Tennessee.