Books: Discreet charm of the outlaws

The shocking stunts of anti-art vandals turned into the stock- in-trade of every TV ad. And Salvador Dali became `Avida Dollars'. Diana Souhami remembers the rebels who cashed in

Surreal Lives: the Surrealists 1917-45

by Ruth Brandon

Macmillan, pounds 25, 527pp

A DEFINING Surrealist image is that eye being slit by a razor and exuding jelly in Luis Bunuel's film Un Chien Andalou. The eye was a dead calf's, the skin around it shaved, the hand with the razor was Bunuel's. Salvador Dali collaborated with him: "Last night I dreamed that my hands were swarming with ants. And I dreamed that I cut someone's eye in half." They wrote the screenplay in six days.

The image was intended to shock. The Surrealists were anti-art artists. The carnage and blunder of the First World War meant that art could no longer be a celebration of European civilisation. Tristan Tzara chopped up newspaper articles, pasted them in random order and called them poems. Another poet, Ribemont-Dessaignes, read a dictionary out loud in a Paris graveyard in the rain. The important thing was "to get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right".

The word Surrealism was coined by Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917. His play Les Mamelles de Tiresias (Tiresias's Tits) had its first performance in a tiny theatre in Montmartre. The audience sat for two hours looking at a blue curtain. A fat woman came on stage, unbuttoned her blouse and threw two gas-filled balloons at them. The first Surrealist drama was underway.

Ruth Brandon has written an entertaining and well- researched book. Her fluency in French and Spanish has allowed her to use first-hand sources and quirky anecdotes. She gives a detailed overview and analysis of the aspirations and contribution of the Surrealists. She is not fazed by her subjects' excesses. She merges boundaries between their work and lives, and relates their interests in group sex, masturbation, coprophagy, sodomy, drugs and suicide. "Real freedom is the revolver with which we can kill ourselves tonight."

If her book has a problem it is in its scale. She has too much material. Her ambition is to show the intensity of the Surrealists' group life. But there were a great many Surreal lives between 1917 and 1945 - too many to weave into an easy narrative. The atmosphere between them was of competitive shock. They wanted to go too far. They courted the dangerous and the irrational. They were interested in dreams, the occult, drugs, sexual experiment, visual and verbal puns and jokes.

At the core of the group, its intellectual force, was the poet Andre Breton. His Manifeste du Surrealisme defined a new way of looking at the world. Down the years he incorporated the influences of de Sade, of Freud and of communism. Cold and humourless, he advocated freedom but was homophobic and repressive. He lived without any money but with a priceless art collection and fell out with wives and fellow artists.

Marcel Duchamp was the purist. He obsessed for eight years on making The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. To earn money he worked as a librarian and gave French lessons before giving up art to become an international chess player. Dali opted for popularity; Breton hated him for it. He ended up pleasing the bourgeois society he scorned, and caused a sensation in New York. He made a great deal of money and Surrealism became identified with him. His life from 1929 on was organised by his wife Gala on her terms. He said that he adored eating her shit. She had been married to the poet Paul Eluard, and among her lovers were Ernst, Man Ray and de Chirico.

But the movement was essentially male. In 1936, Meret Oppenheim created one of the most famous of Surrealist images - the furry teacup and saucer now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. But she was the exception. Women were there to facilitate the artists' lives, as wives, mistresses and, with Nancy Cunard and Peggy Guggenheim, as patrons and providers.

In Ruth Brandon's view it was only Bunuel who took Surrealism from its interwar niche into the modern age, with films like Belle de Jour and Viridiana. Nonetheless, as a group, the Surrealists redefined imagination. Their images of irrationality have been riveted into our minds: Marcel Duchamp's Mona Lisa with a moustache; Man Ray's iron with all those spikes. But it was Dali who found that the shocking could be lucrative. He paved the way for Damien Hirst's dead sheep, and countless commercials.

Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil