In Montparnasse: The Emergence of Surrealism in Paris, from Duchamp to Dalí by Sue Roe

At the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century, the centre of the art world shifted. The distance it moved was little more than five miles, from Montmartre in the north of Paris to Montparnasse on the Rive Gauche.

Montmartre had been the gathering place for Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Vlaminck, Brancusi and Gris and a host of dealers and patrons, but around 1910-11 there was a change in the air. Montparnasse, much of it a building site pulled open by the new Métro and innumerable apartment blocks, became the new favourite. The artists swapped the Moulin de la Galette and the Moulin Rouge — the windmill-nightclubs of Montmartre — for café life at Les Deux Magots, the Café de la Rotonde and La Closerie des Lilas.

In her previous book Sue Roe chronicled the heyday of Montmartre and now she has done the same for Montparnasse, describing in detail and with plenty of colour how surrealism, from René Magritte’s bowler hats to Salvador Dalí’s melting watches (the idea came to him while staring at a particularly ripe Camembert), was born and developed there. The atmosphere of the area in 1914 was described by Beatrice Hastings, the English writer who became Modigliani’s lover: “Much laughter, much applause for your frock if it is chic, three hundred people inside and outside the Rotonde, very much alive.” It was also a place of high artistic seriousness whose guiding lights were the avant-garde poet Apollinaire and the creator-impresario Jean Cocteau.

Art of War

What gave Montparnasse its artistic impetus was the First World War. Apollinaire and Braque were wounded at the front; the poet Louis Aragon worked as a medic and was once buried three times in a single day by grenade explosions; Cocteau served in the ambulance corps transporting the wounded and eviscerated; the writer André Breton, later known as “the pope of surrealism”, worked as a medical orderly specialising in shell shock; Kiki de Montparnasse, good-time girl, model and muse, worked in a factory repairing the shoes of dead soldiers for reuse. Picasso, as a Spaniard, escaped conscription; Marcel Duchamp was excused because he’d already completed his military service; Modigliani was too ill with tuberculosis.

All, though, witnessed the chaos of a world turned upside down and felt the need to create art that acknowledged humanity’s newly revealed fragility. If, in Cocteau’s words, “iconoclastic gorillas” were everywhere “destroying, smashing, wasting — sowing bile and death”, then art was a psychological necessity. In 1917 this took shape with Parade, a ballet staged by Sergei Diaghilev, written by Cocteau, with designs by Picasso, music by Eric Satie, choreography by Léonide Massine and programme notes by Apollinaire. This gathering of talents conjured up a vaudeville spectacle that included 8ft figures, acrobats and an American with a cardboard skyscraper attached to his shoulders. Part of Satie’s soundtrack was a rhythm of clacking typewriter keys.

The surrealists witnessed the chaos of a world turned upside down.

We are so used to art made to shock that the latest provocation barely raises the collective eyebrow; the audience for Parade, however, was appalled with this assault on convention and taste. The performance was drowned by catcalls and jeers, walkouts and women waving their hatpins like daggers. Cocteau thought it was only the presence of Apollinaire, his shrapnel-wounded head swathed in bandages, that prevented a lynching. Apollinaire coined a new term for it all: “une sorte de sur-réalisme”, a kind of surrealism.

Before surrealism became an accepted movement, however, there was dada, which started at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich during the war, but later moved to Paris. Anti-hierarchical, anti-bourgeois and virulently anti-patriotic and anti-war, dada (meaning “Yes, yes” in Romanian, baby talk in German and rocking-horse in French) was anarchic, nonsensical and aligned to the radical left.

Dadist writers André Breton, René Hilsum, Louis Aragon, and Paul Éluard, 1919.

Driven by the poet and journalist Tristan Tzara, and with Max Ernst and Hans Arp as its leading painters, dada left Parisians scratching their heads. In 1921, at the first exhibition of Ernst’s paintings in the city, visitors were confronted by Breton in white gloves and no tie uttering bestial cries, Aragon hopping around pretending to be a kangaroo and Tzara playing hide and seek.

The titles of their performance pieces mixing music, poems, proclamations and films were just as incomprehensible: The First Celestial Adventure of Mr Benzedrine or Vaseline symphonique. One performance, The Bearded Heart Soirée, descended into violence when assorted artists, piqued by real and imagined slights, leapt on to the stage to fight: Breton fractured the arm of a performer with his walking stick; a poet punched Tzara in the face and was beaten up in return; the theatre was smashed up; and the riot continued outside until the police were called. Picasso later told a friend he had enjoyed the evening immensely.

While the behaviour may have been farcical the art was serious. Roe charts in almost diary form how dada’s nihilism was gradually replaced by surrealism’s exploration of dreams, the erotic and the anti-rational. She charts too the alliances that were made and the fresh artists who appeared, among them the photographer Man Ray from America, and Dalí and Joan Miró from Spain.

Apollinaire coined a new term for it all: “une sorte de sur-réalisme”, a kind of surrealism.

On his first visit to Paris in 1926, Dalí, shy and deep-voiced, wore so much product in his hair that it made a “tock” sound when tapped with a comb. When he returned in 1929 he came with a reputation and Picasso’s approval. He announced himself with Un Chien Andalou, the film he made with Luis Buñuel, which opened with a girl having her eyeball sliced open with a razor and which won him the approval of the surrealists.

The figures behind dada and surrealism tended to be strong characters, if not appealing ones, and there was nothing straightforward about their art or motivations. Roe, though, marshals them with great finesse and shows how febrile was the milieu in which they lived. Montparnasse itself often gets lost in the story, but given that surrealism has long been part of the artistic mainstream, it is worth remembering how revolutionary the idea of expressing something more real than reality itself first seemed, and the intensity and messiness that surrounded its invention.

Michael Prodger is an art critic for the New Statesman