In The Lives of the Surrealists (Thames & Hudson, May), painter and zoologist Morris chronicles the lives of 32 surrealist artists, many of whom he knew personally.
Why write this book now?
I was the youngest of the artists who was active in the surrealist movement. In those early days, I knew quite a few of the surrealists personally, and recently I realized that everyone who knew them was dead except for me. As I am now 90 years old, I thought it was about time for me to write about them.
What surprised you most about this book?
I’ve known surrealists who had quiet, stable family lives and others who had crazy private lives with endless love affairs and fights. What was interesting to me was that if you looked at their work, you couldn’t tell which lived ordinary lives and which lived bizarre lives. I knew both Henry Moore and Joan Miró, and when I was around them it didn’t feel like I was with artists at all. In Moore’s case, it was like being with an English farmer and with Miró it was like being with a Spanish banker. Their personalities were totally unlike their work. And then I also met artists like Francis Bacon and Dalí, whose private lives were totally surreal, and it was hard to forget that they were artists.
Will people look at the surrealists’ art differently after reading the book?
I should hope so. This is a book about people, not about their art. And so what I hope readers will get from the book is a better understanding, so that when they look at the art, there will be pieces by artists who are now familiar to them as people. When you look at a work by a genius like Picasso or Magritte, you want to know what kind of a person produces this sort of work. It satisfied my curiosity to write the book, and I hope it will satisfy others’ curiosity about surrealism.
What’s the connection between your bestseller The Naked Ape and this book?
In my writing, I don’t make many compromises. With The Naked Ape, I sat down and I said, I’m going to tell people what kind of animal they are, and people said, you can’t write that! And I said, yes, I can—I write books about animals, and I’m going to write one about the human animal. I’ve tried to be equally blunt in The Lives. If I feel that particular surrealists were kind, modest, and helpful, I say so. When they were bigoted, difficult, or cruel, I say so. I’m not trying to polish their images. I’m trying to tell you what they’re really like. Most of them, like Picasso, had both good and bad in them. So what you’re getting here is the truth about them and not a piece of propaganda. It is a brutally frank portrait of the surrealists, similar to the way I wrote a frank portrait of the human species in The Naked Ape.