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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.