Surreal Lives: The Surrealists, 1917-1945

Ruth Brandon, Author Atlantic Monthly Press $32.5 (528p) ISBN 978-0-8021-1653-6
""Jacques Vach is the Surrealist in me."" So said Andr Breton of his compatriot, dead from drug abuse in 1919, well before the heyday of the official movement that Breton came to run like a political party. Vach , a man who created virtually no artwork, embodied the surrealist ideal that one's life itself should be a work of art. Brandon (Uncertainty Principle; Singer and the Sewing Machine)--entranced by these artists' dadaist outrages, political radicalism, flirtations with Stalin, psychic seances and sexual debauchery--finds the search for this ideal more compelling than any art objects, poetry or manifestos left behind along the way. The narrative focuses on the most sensational behavior of this disparate group of avant-gardists; at times, it has the breathless feel of a rock-star bio, paying considerable attention to outrageous, backstabbing disputes and wife-swapping affairs. Her interpretations of their art are swift and punchy to a fault, however. Of Duchamp's infamous ""readymade"" urinal, Brandon says: ""In Art's very own sanctum Mr Mutt pissed on the notion of Art."" And she misses key connections. Brandon herself suggests that Vach may well have modeled himself on Gide's character Lafcadio. Later, she dismisses Arthur Cravan as a ""simplified and brutalized"" version of Vach . She then provides evidence that Cravan may have been Gide's model for Lafcadio--and yet, she never directly comments on this Escher-like circle of influence. Despite such drawbacks, this account of the flawed and ambitious group of surrealists is enthralling, for despite their many failures, the questions the surrealists sought to raise are more relevant today than ever. Illus. not seen by PW. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 08/30/1999
Release date: 09/01/1999
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 554 pages - 978-0-8021-3727-2
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