Who better to talk about the surrealists?

The Lives of the Surrealists by Desmond Morris

Surrealism was originally more than an art movement, it was a philosophical code – a way of living that rebelled against the establishment.  Originating in  1920s Paris, following the Dadaists in WWI, it spread world-wide. The term ‘surrealism’ was coined by Apollinaire a few years before two different groups, one led by Yvan Goll, the other by André Breton, launched their surrealist manifestos in 1924. The two would openly fight (anticipating Life of Brian by decades! ‘Splitters!’).  Breton would come to dominate, and dictate the movement, which encompassed all the arts, literature, music and more.

Desmond Morris is probably best known as the author of The Naked Ape – the 1967 bestseller that looked at humans from a zoologist’s eye view.  Before that book, he’d been on TV in the 1950s as the host of Zoo Time, and had also studied the painting abilities of apes including the chimpanzee, Congo, who became world-famous. I still have my parents’ old copy of the paperback (right), which I devoured too as a teenager.

What you may not know about Morris is that he has always been an artist too – a surrealist artist no less. Now 90 years old, Morris is one of the last surviving Surrealists – having been a formal member of the group from the late 1940s.  His first solo exhibition was in 1948 and a couple of years later he shared a show with Spanish artist Joan Miró, one of the founder members of the Surrealists. Motifs from Morris’ 1949 painting The Jumping Three feature on the cover of this book with hand lettering by Morris also.

So having personally known many of the Surrealists, as a zoologist and artist, who better to look at the lives of many of the foremost Surrealists than Morris.  This is not a book about art, it’s about the artists themselves.  Morris has chosen thirty-two of them to present in short biographies, looking at their lives, their oft-complicated love lives, their personalities. Each is represented by a portrait photo and one of their formative artworks which, Morris is at pains to emphasise that he has avoided their most familiar works and portraits, mostly come from the height of the movement before the end of WWII.

The thirty-two sometime members of the Surrealists Morris has picked, include many familiar names – De Chirico, Miró, Picasso, Ernst, Dalí, Magritte; sculptors too – Moore, Calder and Giacometti; he also includes five women artists, of whom I was only really familiar with Leonora Carrington, so it was a delight to find out about Eileen Agar, Leonor Fini, Meret Oppenheim and Dorothea Tanning, amongst the other less well-known male surrealists.  In his preface, Morris describes all the different styles of surrealist painting, but also, importantly for this book, defines eight different kinds of surrealist artists. He also apologises for not having the room to include non-artists, photographers and film-makers.

Then, before we get onto the biographies, Morris takes us through a brief history of surrealism, giving us André Breton’s ‘dictionary-style definition’:

SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.

Breton had problems from the start, ‘when trying to organise his little band of rebels was that they so often resisted his call for collective action. ‘  In his entry on Breton, Morris begins by noting his achievement, before damning the man:

Andre Breton was the most central, most important figure in the history of surrealism. It was he who defined, it, described it and defended it against all comers. […]

Having established that, it must be said that he was a pompous bore, a ruthless dictator, a confirmed sexist, an extreme homophobe and a devious hypocrite. He was widely disliked, even among his followers. Frida Kahlo described him as ‘an old cockroach.’

Go Frida!  Kahlo wasn’t a member of the group, but does crop up in the text a few times.

It was really interesting to read Morris’s lives of these artists. Many of them led tortured lives – including Dalí. I never knew that he had had an older baby brother who died nine months before Dali was born. His brother’s name had been Salvador Dalí too, and Morris tells us how Dalí used to be taken to his brother’s grave, seeing his own name on the gravestone.

Later, as an adult, Dalí would declare that his notorious excesses were the result of his attempt to prove, over and over again, that he was not his dead brother.

Some of the surrealists, however, were really down to earth and lived orthodox lives. The American Alexander Calder was one, Miró was another. both stable family men at home. Morris describes Miró when they met as looking like a ‘Spanish banker or diplomat’.  Miró’s chapter has a wonderful portrait taken at London Zoo, where Morris worked at the time, and arranged for Miró to meet some of the animals, including a magnificent Hornbill in the photo.

At the opposite end of the relationship spectrum was Max Ernst. At the beginning of each biography, Morris gives us the artist’s vital statistics – dates, parents, place of birth etc – followed by a list of their partners.  His is one of the longest lists, including: four marriages, a ménage a trois with Paul and Gala Eluard (who would go on to marry Dali), and many lovers including Carrington, Oppenheim and Fini.  Ernst was one of the most experimental of the surrealists, exploring all techniques including ‘frottage’ (rubbing) – that word never ceases to tickle! It was Ernst that ‘showed Jackson Pollock how to drip paint onto a canvas,’ too.

This was such an entertaining book. Morris is full of gossip and anecdote which bring the lives examined into life.  The fact that he knew many of them and that many of the anecdotes are first-hand ones adds that extra dimension, as he begins his chapter on Francis Bacon (who was rejected by the London group as a member):

I once made Francis Bacon laugh when I told him that he was the only artist whose work had made me physically sick. I hastened to explain that it was not the content of his paintings that disturbed me, but their weight.

Morris had, at a drunken party, helped to move several of Bacon’s large and heavy framed screaming Pope pictures and overexerted himself resulting in nausea!  You can’t make this stuff up, can you?!

Although primarily a textual book, Thames and Hudson have not spared on the production of this volume in the hardback. The pages are an off-white textured paper, the size is deeper than a standard hardback. The 72 paintings and photographs inside are mostly produced in full page size, in colour or black and white as appropriate, making it a pleasure to read.

My lasting impression from reading The Lives of the Surrealists though, was that for free-thinkers and painters, their movement was rather hide-bound by rules. I love the art though, and would recommend this book to anyone who wants to find out more about the artists behind the paintings. (9/10).


Source: Own copy

Desmond Morris, The Lives of the Surrealists (Thames & Hudson, 2018), hardback, 272 pages.

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6 thoughts on “Who better to talk about the surrealists?

  1. Fascinating, I certainly didn’t know that about Morris. Whom I remember from zoo quest when I was very young indeed. Later on I worked with someone also called Desmond Morris- he had a lot to put up with!

  2. Well, wow, the book, the people, the review… Makes me want to go straight out and procure a copy straight away! What a period that was. And Morris, I remember first seeing some of the paintings he did back in the days when black and white TV was giving way to colour, and being intrigued. Both amazed yet unsurprised that he’s still going.

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