In Montparnasse begins on the eve of the First World War and ends with the 1936 unveiling of Dalí’s Lobster Telephone. As those extraordinary years unfolded, the Surrealists found ever more innovative ways of exploring the interior life, and asking new questions about how to define art. In Montparnasse recounts how this artistic revolution came to be amidst the salons and cafés of that vibrant neighborhood.
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....was born and developed there ... 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.
In Montparnasse has less to do with evoking its titular neighborhood—Ms. Roe’s passing descriptions notwithstanding—or interpreting the objects themselves, than it does with untangling Surrealism’s evolutionary history. In this undertaking she succeeds admirably, making sense of the by-turns anguished and playful chaos ... Ms. Roe argues for Surrealism’s generational inheritance and relevance, with reference to the Young British Artist set pieces of the 1990s and Alexander McQueen. Surprisingly, she leaves its interaction with and influence on the Abstract Expressionists of the future during the wartime exile in America unmentioned. In fixing on the emergence of Surrealism rather than its popular apotheosis in, say, the mature paintings of Dalí, René Magritte and Joan Miró, Ms ... Roe leaves readers to draw their own visual conclusions. The expectation is reasonable and just as the artists themselves would have wanted. For the Surrealists’ chief revolutionary legacy lies in the credit—and role—they gave to viewers.
...Roe is not in the business of pausing for thought. Like her previous book...this is a ceaselessly forward-moving narrative – she tells and tells and tells – and while highly colourful, it’s sometimes wearying to read. An almost month-by-month account of the activities of a quite large group of artists, most of whom worked in Montparnasse from 1910-11, they themselves are only sketchily drawn, arriving on the page without much context ... It’s as if you’re at a long and glamorous party, but are allowed to spend only a few minutes at a time with each guest. Meet Man Ray! she says, excitedly. But no sooner have you shaken the great photographer’s hand than she’s urging Marcel Duchamp on you ... Still, they’re all here, the big names of the time – behaving badly and, at times, quite madly, too ... Roe’s restive narrative, then, does at least reflect the wildly spinning, agitated lives of its subjects.