The Surrealists, 1917-1945

By Ruth Brandon

Grove. 525 pp. $32.50

Near the end of this superbly entertaining history of the Surrealist movement in art, poetry and film, the painter Max Ernst is trying to make his way into Spain from Nazi-occupied France. Earlier in the war he had been repeatedly interned in camps, and just as repeatedly had escaped. But he had finally had enough. Now, despite a very official-looking forged document, the tall, aquiline artist found himself stopped at the border by a suspicious customs officer, who demanded to know what he had rolled up under his arm. Ruth Brandon quotes from a memoir by Ernst's companion Dorothea Tanning: "So took place the exhibition of his life, with the unrolling of those wild and sumptuous canvases that in what seemed like a few minutes got tacked to peeling walls of the dreary little station. Travellers looked and marveled. There before them were the forests and their glistening basilisks, the green eyes of rampant nature that stared down the officious customs inspector. . . He gazes, walks away and back again. In the general commotion he has made a decision. He plants himself before Max and his voice must have trembled slightly: `Monsieur, I adore talent. You have a great talent. But I must send you back to Pau [in France]. There is the train for Pau. Here on the left is the train for Madrid. Here is your passport. Don't take the wrong train.' "

And thus Max Ernst crossed into Spain, eventually flying to New York on a Pan-Am Clipper, all expenses paid by Peggy Guggenheim, who had fallen in love with him. What surprises in this anecdote is the border official's taste in art. The Surrealists, after all, aimed to topple virtually all the imposed structures of the world, whether social, artistic or sexual. In their stead they proffered journeys into the soul's shadowy and pathless interior. In fact, much of what we regard as typical of the 1960s may be traced to the Surrealist attack on the sovereignty of the rational: improvisational theater, performance art, ready-made sculpture, erotic experimentation, revolutionary politics, automatic writing, New Age loopiness, the disorienting of all the senses, shrill manifestos, conceptual art. "Lucidity," proclaimed Andre Breton like any confirmed acid-freak, "is the chief enemy of revelation." Poet Louis Aragon, photographer Man Ray and filmmaker Luis Bunuel, among a dozen others, determinedly rejected the logical, orderly and familiar in their work; what they clamored for instead was the marvelous. For them art, and the world, too, should truly become a land of dreams, by turns frightening, sublime and magical. When the poet St.-Pol Roux took a nap, he used to hang a sign on his bedroom door: The Poet is Working.

As Ruth Brandon writes, the term Surrealism first appeared on 18 May, 1917 "in Apollinaire's programme note for the ballet Parade: scenario by Cocteau, choreography by Massine, decor by Picasso and music by Erik Satie (scored for typewriters, sirens, airplane propellers, Morse tickers, lottery wheels and two pianos). This new alliance of all the arts, Apollinaire announced, had `given rise, in Parade, to a kind of Surrealism'." This much-loved French poet -- an endearing stuffed bear of a man -- kept the new coinage to describe his absurdist play "Les Mamelles de Tiresias" (The Teats of Tiresias). The young Andre Breton was present at its opening-night riot, claiming that he prevented a close friend from undertaking what was later called the archetypal Surrealist act: It consists of "going into the street, revolver in hand, and shooting at random into the crowd" for as long as you can.

This notorious phrase -- never such irresponsibility again -- hints at one essential weakness to the Surrealist endeavor. These artists might worship Sade or daydream about sex with Hitler (Dali's tasteless fantasy) in part because such provocations shocked the bourgeoisie, but their quarrels and manifestos often make them sound like little kids trying to gross out their parents. They seem to do everything for effect, without thought for real-life consequences. The subversive gesture often mattered more than any particular artistic significance.

As paradox would have it, though, the Surrealists adopted a very serious and rigorous approach toward even the most playful matters. They insisted on favoring chance, randomness and the subconscious, but their actual creative work often feels straitened, intellectualized and programmatic. As Freud told Dali, with typical shrewdness, "in the paintings of the Old Masters one immediately tends to look for the unconscious whereas, when one looks at a Surrealist painting, one immediately has the urge to look for the conscious."

Though astonishingly charismatic, their leader Breton, in particular, frequently acted like a schoolyard bully, cold, insecure and humorless. Dubbed the Pope of Surrealism, he excommunicated those whose ideas differed too radically from his own. Naturally, most of his own work is already half-forgotten. Among the key Surrealists, only Marcel Duchamp and Luis Bunuel now seem like major creative imaginations, the latter for such films as the epoch-making "Un chien andalou" -- Bunuel himself wielded the razor that slices the eye (a sheep's eye, it turns out) in the film's opening sequence, and he was sick for a week afterward -- as well as such later masterpieces as "Belle de Jour," "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" and "Viridiana." By contrast to the wilder antics of his comrades, Duchamp chose an almost Buddhist path of detachment and non-involvement, coupled with an ascetic lifestyle and the avoidance of intensity: "No baggage" might have been his blazon. After the succes fou of "Nude Descending a Staircase" and the definitively unfinished "Large Glass" (a k a "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even"), the artist hardly produced anything, but by so doing (or rather not doing) invested his every pronouncement with shamanistic power. He virtually created conceptual art by displaying a bicycle-wheel and a bottle rack as sculpture, by labeling a marble urinal "Fountain." As Brandon writes: "In the hall of infinitely self-referential mirrors that is late twentieth-century art, no one is more constantly reflected than Marcel Duchamp, scourge of the retinal, the man of no ambition at all who proclaimed the end of painting, declined every fight, and turned his back on influence."

But what of the other Surrealists? Most gradually drifted away from the scapegrace values of their youth. The poets Paul Eluard and Louis Aragon ultimately became communists (and leaders during the Resistance); a few commmitted suicide (poet Rene Crevel, bon vivant Arthur Cravan); and one, Salvador Dali, traded his genuine talents as a painter and wit to become a media celebrity, a self-parody, an Andy Warhol. Breton aptly labeled this caricature Avida Dollars. Alas, some favorite Surrealists -- Tanguy, Magritte, Leona Carrington, Miro and Ernst himself -- are only parenthetical to Brandon's main narrative. They need their chronicler, as do those influential exiles-from-the-movement, the writers Georges Bataille, Michel Leiris and Raymond Queneau. Yet even if Surrealism's painters and poets now seem essentially minor -- a fact recognized by Brandon herself -- they are nonetheless a hoot to read about, and Surreal Lives makes the most of their outrageous carryings-on.

Tristan Tzara, who founded the nihilistic Dada movement, scandalized Zurich with improvised carnival at the Cabaret Voltaire -- nothing was sacred, everything could be parodied and mocked, in skits, poems and burlesques. Though celebrated as a performance artist (and writer of manifestos), Tzara was at one point so poor he actually lived in a closet. Still, in between his nightly happenings this Romanian farceur occasionally played chess with an intense Russian named Lenin.

Besides his striking photographs (many of his mistress Kiki of Montparnasse), Man Ray also created "The Gift," one of the exemplary masterworks of conceptual art: Anyone could make an iron adorned with a row of tacks, he rightly noted, but only one person could have come up with the original idea.

Louis Aragon, we learn, fell enamored of a married woman named Eyre who was primarily lesbian, though she deceived the love-sick poet to become the mistress of his close friend Drieu de la Rochelle. Aragon subsequently emerged a hero of the Resistance, while Drieu committed suicide for his collaboration with the Nazis. Widely known as a dandy and ladies man, and author of a sensuous, controversial paean in prose to the female genitalia, Aragon blithely announced in his eighties that he was actually homosexual.

An even more sexual creature, Gala Eluard -- a nymphomaniacal harpy, in the view of many -- slept with Eluard, Ernst, Chirico, Man Ray and probably Dali, whom she married. Of course, the Spanish painter's preferred mode of erotic pleasure was masturbation, complemented by an avowed coprophilia. Dali's close friend (and, as always in such cases, later his determined enemy) Luis Bunuel enjoyed -- if that's the right word -- the same copy of Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom that had previously been read by Gide and Proust. So impoverished was this eminent film maker in the 1930s that he nearly took a job washing dishes.

Be warned: Readers looking for a deep critical analysis of the Surrealist experiment won't find it in Surreal Lives. There are only the briefest analyses of, say, Breton's Nadja, the autobiographical semi-fiction that concludes with the startling sentence: "Beauty will be convulsive or will not be." Few of the paintings or sculptures are discussed at length. This is, as its subtitle suggests, a group biography, anecdotal rather than interpretive. One might appropriately see the book as a cousin to Malcolm Cowley's Exile's Return, which similarly treats the adventures of American writers in Paris during the 1920s. Roger Shattuck -- our leading authority on 20th-century French literature -- more deeply interprets some of these same figures in his recent collection of reviews and essays, Candor and Perversion, just as he deftly chronicled the Surrealists' forerunners -- Apollinaire, Satie and Raymond Roussel -- in The Banquet Years.

Perhaps Brandon's most original pages re-evaluate the place of women among the Surrealists. There are absorbingly detailed accounts of the controversial Gala Eluard and the formidable Elsa Triolet (who married Aragon, almost against his will). Though Meret Oppenheim, Leona Carrington and a few others produced inventive and original work, most women were elevated -- that is, reduced -- to being a muse, mistress or moneybags (e.g., Nancy Cunard and Peggy Guggenheim). When Breton's ex-wife Jacqueline Lamba announced herself an artist, her former husband cruelly mocked her: "Oh, la, la! We're working, We're making a living, We're even living alone." In that scorn one hears the inevitable outcome of the Surrealist cult of l'amour fou (mad love.)

In the end Brandon concludes that the real importance of Surrealism lies mainly in its pervasive transformation of the modern sensibility. The world is a surreal place: Everyone knows it, just as everyone knows the disjunctions, the bizarre concatenations, the dreamlike illogic, that the adjective implies. Breton and his companions, she resolutely insists, defined for our century nothing less than a new way of looking at the world.

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is