Surreal Lives: Ruth Brandon

Ruth Brandon
BY Mark Chichester-Clark

RUTH BRANDON is a writer and journalist based in London and France. She is the author of many works of both fiction and nonfiction, most recently a thriller, Caravaggio’s Angel, published by Soho Press in 2009. Her book Surreal Lives: the Surrealists 1917-1945, appeared in 1999, and was much praised.

This interview was conducted via mail from October 2007 until January 2008… I thought Ruth Brandon wrote a great book on the Surrealists, and wanted to find out why the book spoke to me as deeply as it did.

This interview was first published in Complete with Missing Parts: Interviews with the Avant-garde by my press, (VOX Press, 2008), in a limited edition of seventy-five copies.


Il faut changer la vie.
— Rimbaud

What led you to write Surreal Lives? Since when did you begin envisioning such a complex book project?

Ever since I was a student reading French and Spanish, I’ve been attracted to Apollinaire and Tzara. Dada appealed to my childish knee-jerk anti-authoritarianism. Still does. My tutor at Cambridge, Alison Fairlie, actually knew Tzara, so I have a Tzara number of one. A little later, when we graduated, my closest Cambridge friends started a magazine called Form. As the name implies, it was about formalism in art, so very counter-Dada and totally anti-Surrealist. But people like Arp and Raoul Haussman and Hans Richter kind of crept in. I wasn’t involved with Form personally, and actually had little real idea what it was about, but it all stewed together in there — something I was interested in.

Then studying Spanish meant I spent quite a lot of time in Madrid during the Franco period. My friends there were an absolutely charming but terrifically Catholic family, so pious that they’d cross themselves every time they even passed a church. So I was introduced to that extraordinary overheated hyper-religious atmosphere, which I’m sure hadn’t changed very much for centuries. In London, where I grew up, I belonged to a very left-winged set, and it never crossed my mind that people I liked could ever be anything other than socialists. So when the penny finally dropped — that my Spanish friends had been on the Francoist side during the civil war — that was quite a jolt to my narrow little world. All these made me very interested in Buñuel’s films. I remember seeing Viridiana when it first featured — in the light of what I’d seen in Madrid, it was quite something.

After that, I didn’t think about any of that stuff for a long time, though it did vaguely cross my mind that the Surrealists would be an interesting subject. When it became clear that I wasn’t going to make a living as a novelist — which my publisher had at one time thought I would — I was casting about for a nonfiction book to write, and thought about the Surrealists again.


Surreal Lives

Surreal Lives
BY Ruth Brandon
(Grove Atlantic, 2000)


From the Publisher:

“In the years following World War I, a small group of writers, painters, and filmmakers called the Surrealists set out to change the way we perceive the world. In Surreal Lives Ruth Brandon follows the lives and interactions of such firecracker minds as the movement’s didactic ‘Pope’ André Breton, and the ambitious and manic Salvador Dalí , as well as Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Tristan Tzara, Man Ray, Max Ernst, and filmmaker Luis Buñuel. It charts the shifting allegiances of such muses and patrons as Gala Dalí and Peggy Guggenheim. Ruth Brandon spins the many stories of Surrealism with wit, energy, and insight, bringing sharp analysis to an eccentric cast of characters whose struggles and achievements came to mirror and define the way the world changed between the wars.”

Surprisingly, given that they were so very much a product of a particular time and place, there didn’t seem to exist the kind of book
I envisaged, setting them in their historical/political and personal context. There was reams of stuff, of course, but either it was about the pictures, which in my view are the least interesting aspect of Surrealism, or else it was in French, which as far as writing goes, means a very different approach from mine — rather reverent, every detail an icon, which is always unproductive and particularly bizarre in the context of the Surrealists. Useful as a sourcebook, but not much more. And nothing in Spanish. (I’m not talking here about memoirs and biographies, which of course abound.)

What interests me is really the antithesis of that kind of iconographical, worshipful approach. It seems clear to me that movements like Surrealism begin because particular people react to particular events in a particular way.

One reason why I enjoy writing group biography is because it’s the ideal way to examine that phenomenon. I’m less interested in the credo than the human mechanics of how it evolved —the psychology, the political situation, etc. What interests me about the ideas is how they reflect the people. The opposite of an art history approach. I was actually asked to give a seminar on my book in an art history department. When I finished, the dean remarked that this was the first time he’d heard art treated as a series of personal interactions. But in the sense that all art is surely the most unmediated possible transferal of brain/heart to paper/canvas or whatever other medium, how can you think personal context unimportant? Less so in painting, perhaps. As I said, I don’t think surrealism is primarily about painting.

As to the complex form of the book, it was always fairly clear to me that that was the only way to go about it — as a series of chronological episodes tracing the movement’s history and evolution through different groups. The technical problem is that it’s hard to get started. It’s like Benjamin Britten’s ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’. You start with one instrument, but you don’t get the full band playing until the end.

You begin Surreal Lives with a straightforward thesis: Breton, so passionate about freedom, both personal and artistic, was totalitarian in his impulses, a dictator in the age of dictators. Can these two impulses — to freedom and total control — possibly be reconciled? This is the clash at the heart of the Surrealists’ story.

Please elaborate how this contradiction lead to André Breton’s glory and demise, and the type of Surrealism he helped create and nurture.

Well, of course Breton was Surrealism. That’s the first thing to realize. The whole thing is really just a huge, often overblown materialization of whatever happened to be going on inside his head. If you couldn’t accept that, you couldn’t be a Surrealist. That was what laid at the root of Breton’s great bust-up with Dalí — Dalí didn’t accept the control, yet went on insisting he was a Surrealist — hell, the Surrealist. The really big figures that could compete with Breton in stature, like Apollinaire and Picasso and Duchamp, remained his friends because they were never part of Surrealism proper.


They hovered round the edge and dipped in, to everyone’s benefit. But they had their own games to play, which they weren’t about to subordinate to Breton’s. And he accepted that. That was why he found Duchamp so fascinating — because Duchamp was someone he could never control. But that was OK, because he wasn’t a Surrealist.

Breton’s head wasn’t a very comfortable place to be. It was a very complex and contradictory place. What he yearned for was spontaneity, the unbridled, the outrageous and uncontrolled and the juxtapositions they led to. But emotionally, spontaneity was terribly hard for him. He did excess all right. But it was forced excess, from the head, not the gut. By nature he was inhibited, repressed, romantic and fanatically orderly. For instance, in the famous Surrealist investigations of sex, he said, ‘I desire a woman when I love her. This is absolutely not accompanied by an erection. If you love a woman it is absolutely impossible to masturbate while thinking of her, except…when there’s a formal agreement between the man and the woman. If for example it’s been agreed that you’ll both masturbate at five o’clock.’ There’s Breton: a formal agreement and precise timing for — masturbation.

Breton’s real and huge gift was for the politics of art. In fact that was really a combination of two gifts: for spotting new and significant talent, in which he succeeded Apollinaire, and for keeping up momentum. That was the big difference between Dada and Surrealism.

That was why he fell for Jacques Vaché in the way he did. Vaché embodied everything he would have loved to be but was not. He was a dandy, cynical, stylish, outrageous to the point of murder, whereas Breton was earnest, awkward and enthusiastic. Breton liked to define the ultimate surrealist act as going into the street and shooting someone at random: something he could never have done. But Vaché did actually brandish a pistol in the theatre — it was Apollinaire’s Mamelles de Tiresias in 1917 — and when he committed suicide, he made sure to take someone else with him. Breton was lost in admiration, and in a very real way, what would later become Surrealism was modeled on Vaché. There were other elements too, of course — the pursuit of chance, dreams, psychoanalysis. But Vaché was always there, at least in Breton’s mind — which, as I’ve said, was Surrealism.

Breton’s real and huge gift was for the politics of art. In fact that was really a combination of two gifts: spotting new and significant talent, in which he succeeded Apollinaire, and keeping up momentum. That was the big difference between Dada and Surrealism. Both Breton and the Dadaists — Tzara, Arp, Hans Richter and the rest, and also Duchamp in his New York Dada phase — evolved their artistic stance in reaction to, or rather against, World War I. But where Dada never moved on from there, Surrealism under Breton kept evolving. Dada was a scream of outrage; Surrealism was always more than that. It was never just artistic, it was political — a political movement headed by Breton. He’s called the Pope of Surrealism not just because of his habit of ‘excommunicating’ Surrealists he disagreed with, but he was really more like a Stalin, you had to keep up with the whim of the moment. That was why the communists could never really accept him, or Surrealism. He was a rival, not an acolyte.

Yet the politics that evolved around World War I, which was essentially a war of soldiers, and which spawned dictators, including Breton, were of no use during World War II, in which every civilian was a participant. That was the milieu that gave rise to Existentialism. And in that world, Breton and all he stood for simply seemed out of date.


Picabia seems to have fallen into obscurity at this point in time compared to Surrealist artists such as Dalí, Ernst, and de Chirico. If this is true, why do you think this is the case?

A couple.

1) Picabia was a Dadaist, through and through. So he simply got left behind. And 2) he was a tart. He tried this, then he tried that — you only rarely (as with the wonderful New York paintings) had the sense — that you always get with Dalí, Ernst, or de Chirico — that he was really channeling his deep thoughts and emotions through his brush. So he lost significance. The machine paintings, for instance, are intellectually amusing, with their clever puns. But not much more than that.

Why do you think Breton was so obsessed with poets like Valéry, who wrote no poetry for fifteen years, or like Vaché, who wrote almost nothing during the course of his short life? Or an artist like Duchamp who produced a small amount of work during his long life?

In my view, the key is Vaché’s early death by suicide. After that, suicide, or any other early death, (e.g. Lautréamont) became an icon for Breton. And ceasing artistic activity could be seen as a sort of artistic suicide — as with Rimbaud, who just stopped writing poetry while still in his twenties.

As for Duchamp, the whole business of conceptual art and the revolt against ‘the retinal’ can be seen in a similar light. People invest in his conceptual objects, like the famous urinal, a huge artistic significance. But if you see it as a reaction to his rejection by the French art establishment in 1912, when they turned down his Nude Descending a Staircase (following which he became a librarian), then conceptual art in general, and the urinal in particular, looks very much like Duchamp raising a finger to the whole art establishment — literally, pissing on art. It all chimes with his extremely nihilistic mood at that time. Also, Breton was very keen on puns, and Duchamp was a master punster, most of them filthy, which was even better.

What exactly is Vaché’s notion of “Umour”?

You have to remember that Breton was entirely humourless. Not a vestige of it. If he hadn’t been, he could never have driven Surrealism as he did: his force came from the fact that he took even its greatest absurdities wholly seriously. ‘Umour’, so far as I can make it out, has very little to do with humour, but was a black, nihilistic and cynical take on life generally and the war in particular. It was a take Breton could never have produced himself, and as it came from Vaché, with whom he was in love (though he would never have admitted it, he was very homophobic), he revered it. In the same way, Dalí’s humour — his ability to make jokes— always left Breton at an admiring loss.

You seem a bit critical of William Carlos Williams in Surreal Lives; is this an accurate observation or am I exaggerating what you’ve written about him?

You’re exaggerating. I was amused at the contrast between the earnest, public-spirited, rather puritanical Williams and the wholly cynical, wholly irresistible, Duchamp.

Did Arthur Cravan really die, was he ever real?

Who could tell? He couldn’t, that’s for sure.

What were the core differences between New York Dadaism and German Dadaism? How was Parisian Dada different from both?

Both German Dada and Zurich Dada were shaped by the inescapable consciousness that while they laughed, savagery was going on just round the corner. In that rather hysterical sense they were life-affirming. New York Dada was different. New York, until 1917 and even after that, was a long way from the war. It was a sort of dance of death, a deeply decadent whirl taking place in a vacuum. Paris Dada was a dead end, an attempt to import the Zurich vitality to postwar Paris. It was largely a matter of Tzara and Picabia shouting the same things louder and louder, until quite soon everyone had heard them and wanted to move on.

I confess that I am slightly confused with a passage in Surreal Lives, somewhere near the end of the chapter “Dada Comes to Paris.” At this point, Breton is attempting to find a way “out of Dada.” On a Dada spectacle organized by Tzara, you write:

The evening began with some music, politely applauded. Then Tzara introduced Pierre de Massot, who proceeded to read a proclamation:
André Gide, died in battle
Sarah Bernhardt, died in battle
Claude Terrasse, died in battle
Francis Picabia, died in battle
Pablo Picasso, died in battle…
Picasso in the stalls folded his arms and caught Eluard’s eye. Breton rose and shouted “That’s enough!” Cane in hand he climbed on-stage and ordered de Massot off. De Massot stammered something and Breton hit him so hard that he broke de Massot’s left arm.

My question: what exactly sets Breton off in such a violent rage? Because he perceives that de Massot has insulted his friends Picabia and Pablo Picasso, or is it something else?

I think it’s more that Breton, Eluard, Péret and the other Surrealists had had it with Tzara and all his rather repetitious works, and that this marked the breaking point, the moment when Surrealism moved on and Dada stayed put. It’s clear Tzara was expecting violence — the whole evening was a sort of staged fight. Breaking Massot’s arm was Breton demonstrating outrage in an outrageous manner. Because it was so forced and serious, it went too far. He was in a genuine rage, but it was about Tzara continuing to hog the spotlight. Massot was just its unfortunate recipient.

Another slightly unclear point for me in Surreal Lives comes with the final break-up between Breton and Picabia: what finally ended their long but desultory friendship?

Partly it was the cumulative effect of Picabia’s determination to go his own way and not be dictated to by Breton, combined with Breton’s inability to deal with irreverence directed at himself (as when Picabia printed Breton’s pedantic rejection of an invitation to contribute to his magazine 391 under the heading ‘A Letter from Grandpa’). In fact, unusually, it was Picabia who broke off the relationship — on that very occasion, when he commented: “When I’ve smoked a cigarette, I’m not in the habit of keeping the butt.” Generally, it was the charismatic Breton who did the breaking-off, and the excommunicates who moped in the solitude of rejection. It was also that Picabia was and remained a Dadaist, and Surrealism moved on and left him behind.

Why did the Surrealists come to view the novel as an inauthentic form of literary expression?

Novels need plot and form, of some sort — even Tristram Shandy is not shapeless, and it’s certainly not spontaneous. Surrealism is about spontaneity and whim. And as Breton and Soupault’s Magnetic Fields shows, that, in book form, is quite simply unreadable. So in a way the notion of a Surrealist novel is a contradiction.

There is a great sense of immediacy in Surreal Lives — I felt that all these writers and artists, some of whom go back to almost a hundred years ago, were audible, had truly come to life on the page. I wonder if you’ve considered extracting a screen play based on Surreal Lives?

For some years now, I’ve been meditating a film about Duchamp and Henri Roché in Dadaist New York, seen through the eyes of Beatrice Wood, the lover of them both. It would be a sort of decadent New York Jules et Jim (which of course was from a novel by Roché). I do think it would make a really wonderful film — extremely sexy, that mad hellish atmosphere of World War I New York, all those German spies, Arthur Cravan… But it’s a question of finance, as usual. And time, which is the same thing.

If you had to choose your favorite Surrealist, who would it be?

Duchamp, except he wasn’t one. Buñuel.

Why did the Surrealists hate Anatole France?

I guess because he represents, in every particular, the world they were rebelling against — that is, the world that had allowed the carnage of World War I to happen. Surrealism was absolutely a product of World War I: they were the generation that had been expected to fight in it, wanting to destroy everything about the old world that had fomented it and sent them off to die. The ‘celebrated limpidities’ of France’s prose, his honours, his membership of the Académie Française, etc, were an encapsulation. “Un Cadavre” literally buried all that.

What are your own opinions about Breton’s Nadja?

What a strange and revealing book that is. I like it — its atmosphere of the marvelous and the magic, especially its strange photos. And the way it trails round Paris. But it also says pretty horrendous things about the author — his absolute egoism, his total inability to recognize that he’s dealing with another human being, his horror, really, when he’s forced to recognize that — that Nadja isn’t just a projection of his Surrealist imagination. That was something he always found it hard to accept about people.

Aragon’s life was a strange and tumultuous one, and, from a literary standpoint, tragic, his pen having gone silent for more than forty years. Your thoughts?

I found him a rather sad figure. Extraordinarily brilliant and charming, and terribly weak. You can see why communism and Elsa Triolet so profoundly enthralled him — they took him over, gave him a framework. All they demanded in return was — himself. After the visit to Russia, he was no longer able to be an artist. But he obviously thought that a price worth paying — if he even realized it had happened. After all, he still went on producing poems. They just weren’t any good.

The fact that (as everyone knew) he was actually bisexual, but would never admit it publicly, says something about the homophobic atmosphere surrounding Surrealism.

Dalí’s career was a magnificent one from every point of the compass. However, one certainly can see a weakening of his work in his later life, to the point of utter inauthenticity of artistic expression.

Another extraordinary talent that buckled under the weight of its own neuroses. His early paintings are quite wonderful, very powerful. The one they used on the cover of Surreal Lives — fantastic. And then that cheap crap at the end…

The truth is, that Dalí really needed Breton. He needed Breton’s disciplining eye. Until 1938, his paintings carry this weight of dreamlike power. But as soon as they split, Dali was lost, artistically — though of course, tremendously successful commercially. Nothing but cheap repetition. Avida Dollars indeed.

By then Surrealism, too, was in decline. World War II was approaching, and Breton was running out of steam. America was the coming place: Breton hated everything about it, but Dalí loved it, and it loved him.

Luis Buñuel

My Last Breath
BY Luis Buñuel
(Vintage Classics, 1994)

Luis Buñuel?

I think he’s the one great Surrealist genius. Film is the Surrealist medium par excellence — you can play all their games with film, it demands them, juxtaposition, magic — Buñuel even incorporated into his films dreams he’d had the previous night — he used it incomparably. And he’s so attractive — that wonderful memoir of his, My Last Breath. And what a beautiful young man! Impossible to reconcile what he was, physically, with what he became. One has to conclude, hair is so important…

One of the reasons I wanted to do this book was the possibility of writing about Buñuel and Dalí. I could see so clearly how they were a product of that quasi-medieval Spanish environment I’d encountered in Madrid. Everything they did originated there — reacting against it, but also deeply drawing from it. For them the Surrealists — anti–religious, modern! — were glamour personified. But when they came to Paris at the end of the 1920s, Surrealism was in a rather unproductive phase. Breton at once sensed, with those infallible antennae of his, that here was new lifeblood, a new direction. So he pounced on them. It was just a wonderful moment for them all.

At the end of Surreal Lives, you make the claim that the world is a surreal place as opposed to an Existential place, as delineated by Camus and Sartre.

I think what I meant was, that when you say something is surreal, everyone at once knows what you mean. It’s about a certain dreamlike weirdness that pervades some events. It probably always has done so, since the world began, but what Breton did was to give that sensation a name. On the other hand, if you said something was existential, no one save a philosopher would know what you were talking about.

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