Book Review: ‘The British Surrealists,’ by Desmond Morris


By Desmond Morris

Desmond Morris, now a sprightly 94, is properly famous in Britain as a zoologist, author of over 40 books and a ubiquitous television presence on all matters animal. A leading academic ethnologist, Morris became a household name through his gargantuan 1967 best seller “The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal,” which sold some 20 million copies and was translated into 23 languages. Morris also propounded the ape’s creative abilities and organized a successful exhibition of their paintings. Certainly his star chimpanzee, “Congo,” proved this was more than a publicity stunt; Picasso supposedly owned one of his explosive abstractions, whose excellence still serves as a convincing refutation of anthropocentrism.

Mainstream celebrity rather eclipsed Morris’s own long career as a painter and indeed his life as a proudly doctrinaire young Surrealist, who joined the movement in London in the 1940s and then, armed with André Breton’s phone number, went to Paris to seek out surviving Surrealists. Morris had a two-person exhibition with Joan Miró in 1950, directed Surrealist short films and collected art by many of his most radical contemporaries. These are surprisingly avant-garde credentials for an eminence, rather like discovering that David Attenborough was a member of the Situationist International.

In 2018 Morris published “The Lives of the Surrealists,” and this follow-up volume gathers 34 artists just too recherché or too British to be included in the earlier compendium. As Morris admits, “It is not an analysis of their work — Surrealists dislike having their work analyzed — but rather a series of pen-portraits.” And most enjoyable these prove, each pleasingly modest at only a few pages long, a pithy, breezy read accompanied by luscious full-color reproductions. Some are famous — Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland — and many others deliciously obscure, for example Oscar Mellor, Sam Haile or John Selby Bigge. But all here are perfectly captured, dissected, analyzed and made vividly alive.

Each profile begins with a listing of the artist’s dates, places of residence and “partners,” which give a sense of just how large were such lives, each a litany of exotic locations matched by a profusion of lovers and spouses. Surrealists always have their own strong anecdotal energy, and these Anglo-Saxon iterations do not disappoint, from the shockingly rich (there are a surprising number of chauffeurs mentioned, as well as a Rolls-Royce Phantom II) to the desperately poor, walking barefoot while surviving on rabbits and rice pudding.

We learn of Peggy Guggenheim in a race with her sister to sleep with 1,000 men, how Roland Penrose, an organizer of the seminal 1936 London Surrealism show, “can’t do it without handcuffs.” There are girlfriends 50 years younger, husbands 25 years younger, satanic parties, mescaline trials and countless threesomes. We read of the blind, suicidal manager of a Hong Kong bank, a lady artist with an artificial leg named “Gilbert,” a man who sold windmills in Argentina, a baronet turned “Inspector of Muleteers” and Leonora Carrington, whose old nanny was sent by submarine to escort her from her Spanish mental hospital to one in South Africa, and who covered her feet in mustard and showered fully clothed.

Morris himself was consulted by Bacon on whether a baboon he’d painted was realistic; Moore wanted to discuss animals with him; and John Banting asked him to the Natural History Museum to discuss biomorphs. (“Unhappily for me the meeting never took place.”) Every reader will surely likewise regret not having met any of these dazzling characters and only wish to somehow wangle a chance to meet this last, and very far from least, of the original British Surrealists.

Adrian Dannatt is the author of “Doomed and Famous.”

THE BRITISH SURREALISTS, by Desmond Morris | Illustrated | 248 pp. | Thames & Hudson | $39.95

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