Book Review: The Lives of the Surrealists by Desmond Morris

Book Review: The Lives of the Surrealists by Desmond Morris

This is an incredible book. Written by Desmond Morris who is a prominent Zoologist and well-known for his book The Naked Ape. It’s possibly less widely known that Morris was himself a surrealist and knew many of the prominent surrealists in the art movement.

I have to admit not knowing much about Surrealism prior to reading this book. I have seen a lot of Salvador Dalí and Man Ray’s work in exhibitions in the past. It resonates deeply with me on a soul level.

Picnic: Nusch and Paul Eluard, Roland Penrose, Man Ray; and Ady Fidelin, Île Sainte-Marguerite, Cannes, Frances (1937, photograph by Lee Miller)

The Lives of the Surrealists is Morris’ insider view into Surrealism. Instead of focusing on a theoretical understandings of Surrealist art and philosophy, Morris focuses on 35 amazing, temperamental and strange luminaries of the Surrealist movements. What kinds of foods did they like to eat? How did they have sex and with whom? All of the drama, relationships, controversy, tragedy and triumph of these very singular, unusual and unorthodox people who rebelled against norm.

La Lampe Philosophique (1936) by René Magritte

The moniker and label of an artist being a Surrealist is problematic and flexible. Morris does a good job of explaining the trickiness of this label. He includes artists in here that may not be considered as Surrealist in other books, such as Picasso and Francis Bacon.

Andre Breton, the founder of the movement and minor artist himself in the would regularly boot people out of the group if they failed to adhere to its rules.

The irony was the Surrealism didn’t really adhere to any fixed visual code but rather tapped into workings of the unconscious mind,, the darkest wells of irrational thought. So trying to harness and control that would have been like trying to control a violent storm on the ocean – impossible.

I particularly enjoyed reading about the women in the Surrealist movement, who are lesser known than their more famous male counterparts. This in itself is a tragedy because they are amazing both as artists and as strong women, burning as bright as Roman candles.

Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning and Leonor Fini were rebellious, wild and iconoclastic women living in the early 20th century when it was a difficult time for women to be true to themselves. The art that they created in spite of the two world wars, estrangement from family and friends and a lot of tragedy in their lives is incredible.

Leonora Carrington with her lover and fellow Surrealist Max Ernst (1937, photograph by Lee Miller)

While some of the Impressionists were extremely eccentric, others such as Spaniard Joan Miró lived a conventional and happy middle-class life and had only one wife throughout his life. It seemed that Miró saved up all of his bizarre weirdness for the canvas itself.

The idiosyncracies, complex love lives and theatrical nature of these singular people is told in a rollicking, fast-paced and gossipy tone. Yet far from being irritating, I found this style utterly addictive.

Despite the gossipy nature of the book, the appendix and references are hefty and speak to Morris’ research for the book. He splices in amusing vignettes from his encounters with the artists from his own life.

This is an incredible book for artists, writers and anyone creative. It reinforces that when people dare to live outside of the prescribed norm of society – they can produce sublime beauty and unique ideas that become timeless.

The Giantess (The Guardian of the Egg) by Leonora Carrington 1947
The Giantess (The Guardian of the Egg) by Leonora Carrington 1947

That time when Pink Floyd (musical Surrealists if ever there were), Salvador Dalí and Walt Disney collaborated…

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Lives of the Surrealists by Desmond Morris

    1. It’s soooo good Terry. I know right! I read The Naked Ape years ago and I had no idea that it was the same Desmond Morris, it is astonishing how much this guy has achieved in his life. He has an anecdote of how he brought Joan Miró to the Zoo where he was working to meet the animals, and so it’s true, it’s the same guy. He has a lot of other cool books about the intersection of art history, psychology and biology…fascinating stuff! https://www.bookdepository.com/search?searchTerm=desmond+morris

    1. I don’t remember the doco but I am sure it would have been good though. Surrealism is like an acid trip or a trip into strangeness, I love it myself but I would understand how it doesn’t resonate with you. What styles of art do you like?

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