In Montparnasse: The Emergence of Surrealism in Paris, from Duchamp to Dali

Reviewed by John Biscello

In Montparnasse: The Emergence of Surrealism in Paris, from Duchamp to Dali
by Sue Roe
Penguin, 295pp., $28.50

A fish rides a bicycle into the Seine. The fish begins to drown and then remembers that it is a fish and starts to fly off into the pipe-smoke colony of clouds. The bicycle floats down the river. It sees things, cycling through a flurry of wonders and impressions. There is the torn yellow umbrella making rapacious love to an industrial sewing machine under a bridge. There are the kids tossing melted flattened clocks in a time-tested game of frisbee. There is the shop-worn mannequin hanging from a streetlamp, and the oily-mustached man drinking green liquid from the mannequin’s glass slipper. There are dreams collecting on the banks of the Seine like a glazed honeycomb of stemless maraschino cherries. The bicycle can’t believe everything its’s seen and absorbed during its long day’s journey down the river, and begins to wonder about its own name and purpose. Am I even a bicycle? Or am I, perhaps, a red balloon dreaming that it’s a bicycle? I mean, if fish can hijack bicycles and then fly off into the clouds, well then who’s to say what I am, what I am not, what I can become.

Questions, images and philosophical ponderances, rooted in and belonging to the “sur-real.” A term that may have been coined by the poet and luminary, Apollinaire, or if we are to take Picasso’s word for it, he was the father-tongue, with Apollinaire adopting his word which stood for “a resemblance deeper and more real than the real.” Then, of course, there’s Andre Breton, he of the Surrealist Manifesto, who took appropriation to the next level and formalized the term “surrealism” into a poetic philosophy, while extending its cope of definition to include automatism, marvelous chance encounters, and the significance of the unconscious. In a wider global, cultural and cosmic sense, none of these men “invented” surrealism (same as Columbus didn’t “discover” America), as drawing words, images and impressions from the unconscious, from unseen realms and dreamscapes, in forms that appear radically divergent from surface “reality,” has a long and varied history. What was new: the organizing forces and influences that went into shaping surrealism as a movement, as well as the context provided by a new century, which catalyzed a sense of fragmentation that found its schisms and shards reflected back through creative seizures and calculated disorder. This is the world that author and art historian, Sue Roe, vividly plunges you into in her new book, In Montparnasse: The Emergence of Surrealism in Paris, from Duchamp to Dali.

Starting around 1911, a shift began occurring, which changed both the trajectory of art in Paris, and its zip code. Montmartre, the reigning capital of the art scene in Paris, began ceding its mantle to Montparnasse, where, “with the overlapping arrondisements came an eclectic social mix; writers, journalists, students, politicians, nuns and cab drivers could all be seen on the streets of Montparnasse, mingling with the bourgeois owners of the larger properties still under construction throughout the district.” This unfinished community, in the process of remaking itself, grew into a flinty hotbed for bohemianism, the avant-garde, and new waves of thinking, seeing, acting, feeling, and dreaming.

Roe covers just over two decades in her book, and deftly manages to pack in a lot without having the work suffer from clotting or poor circulation. There is a brisk and anecdotal richness to the tapestry of storylines she interweaves, while also providing sensitive descriptions of the art born of this era. Indeed, it was a time of ferment, revolt and soul-upheavals, with the first World War — in which seven per cent of France’s population, 1.4. million Frenchmen, had been killed — unleashing previously stifled or cage-kept worlds within. Birds with lit fuses for beaks and steel plates for feathers began crossing planes from their reality to ours. Dinner tables became upside down ceiling fixtures and people defied gravity while eating from empty bowls. A legless baby, with a star branded into his forehead, dribbled pink into his lobster bib, and everyone cheered. It was that kind of time, where psychic amputees held hands with dream-figures, where agents from the Subconscious placed God under a hot-lamp and couldn’t decide whether to interrogate or tickle Him. Dada, one of the precursors to surrealism, was spearheaded in Zurich by a Romanian expatriate, Tristan Tzara (his Dada Manifesto was published in 1918), and Andre Breton would read it and grow “excited by its break with logic, its nerved-up provocative tone, and specially by its deeply controversial internationalism at a time when patriotism was still de riguer…” Dada, as an anarchic middle-finger replete with hangnail, would serve as an influence for Breton’s formulating notions of surrealism, as would the work of Freud, Marx, German Romanticism, and a cult favorite among the surrealist set, a dark and licentiously dreamlike book titled, Les Chants de Maldoror (by Comte de Lautréamont). Delineating between dada and surrealist, Roe claims, “If the goals of Dada were to demoralize and destroy, the point of surrealism was not destruction but transformation; within the surrealist agenda, monsters became marvels.”

Max Ernst, A Friends’ Reunion. 1922

The who’s who of pivotal artists highlighted in Roe’s book include: Picasso, Modigliani, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Andre Breton, Frederic Aragon, Jean Cocteau, Apollinaire, Dali. Yes, it was very much a boys club, through and through. It is easy to imagine these artists as a pack of “lost boys,” desperate to reclaim Childhood’s wonder and mystique, while fortifying their ties to Neverland. In another sense, their treatment of the female anatomy — which became a playground for dissection and radical reconstitution — qualified them as erotic scientists, with bigtime fixation and control issues, who believed they could “penetrate” the mysteries of Woman through art. Or, as Roe points out, “The female body in surrealist art became a figure that could be seen through, taken apart and reassembled like a mannequin.”

The matron-saint of modernism, Gertude Stein, delivers a delightfully incise statement in differentiating between Picasso and the “others”: “The Surrealists still see things as everyone sees them, they complicate them in a different way but the vision is that of everyone else . . . the complication is the complication of the twentieth century but the vision is that of the nineteenth century . . . Picasso only sees something else, another reality. Complications are always easy but another vision than that of all the world is very rare . . . Picasso saw something else, not another complication but another thing.”

This is one of the pleasures of Roe’s book, of the world she creates, a dynamic and complex painting all its own, for you to enter. The voices of the past, the ghosts of old-school Paris, are resurrected to tell the tales, espouse the philosophies, renew the grudges and gossip, and cannibalize time in their own words. We hear from Dali, who says, “Someday somebody will have to wind up my limp watches so they can tell the time of absolute memory, the only true and prophetic time;” we receive a heart-reading from Aragon, who claims that “love is a state of confusion between the real and the marvelous;” and we are given the opportunity to reappraise our relationship to bathing, when Picasso tells us, “Everything is a miracle. It’s a miracle not to melt in the bathtub like a lump of sugar.”

It is this siren-call toward the impossible, this hope-fueled quest to grow intimate with the blue rose, which seeds itself in the bare-asking heart of many experiments, styles and forms, or, to paraphrase, with a wink, “A rose by any other name…”


RIOT MATERIAL is LA’s premier literary-cultural magazine with an eye on art, word, and forward-aiming thought. Check out our gallery on IG: @ riotmaterial.

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