Artsy Group Biographies: Lives of the Surrealists and Muse

I’ve been in the mood for these lately!

It started with a visit last fall to the Sammlung Scharf Gerstenberg, a collection of surrealist art close to our Berlin apartment. In the bookshop there I found Desmond Morris’s The Lives of the Surrealists. Morris, a painter (and zoologist!) himself, is one of the last surviving original surrealists, and since the majority are dead now, he seems to see no reason not to gossip!

This group biography of 35 artists covers all the household names (Dali, Magritte, Miró) and plenty that I’d never heard of. Fair warning, Morris grinds every axe in his shed and his primary focus seems to be on the artists’ sex lives and any strange proclivities they may have had in this area. So make of that what you will, but it was pretty entertaining. (I had no idea Dali was so unconventional: essentially asexual, but with an arrangement with his wife and muse, Gala, that seemed to work for them.)

It includes pictures of significant works by each artist, and it’s beautifully laid out, including full-page color reproductions of some truly stunning artwork. Like any more casual group biography, it’s fun to dip in and out of, although I did find it compelling enough to read straight through much of the time. I ended up bookmarking a bunch of artists I hadn’t heard of and wanted to explore further. Morris also weaves in the genesis of the Surrealist movement and the principles of the group, strange (fittingly) as they were, so it’s an educational primer on what it meant to be a part of the cliquey, exclusive group as well.

This one covers Surrealists from any background, but he has a new one coming out next month just covering The British Surrealists, which sounds promising too.

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Art historian Ruth Millington’s Muse: Uncovering the Hidden Figures Behind Art History’s Masterpieces, first published in the UK and released May 3 in the US, delves into the fascinating and surprisingly complex concept of the muse. Millington details 30 different muses throughout art history, while exploring the question of what it actually means to be a muse and what the relationship between muse and artist entails, including the power dynamic.

As a former art model myself (I started just to pay the bills during college and ended up doing it full-time for several years after graduating), I was so excited to read this. I always found the whole “muse” concept kind of eye-rolly when I was working — as much as I often enjoyed the work, it was still just work to me and I think I didn’t get as passionately into it as other models who were artists themselves did. I loved that Millington mentioned this very point: that the idea of a muse is a bit of a “romanticized myth” in places, but it really comes down to the muse themselves and their relationship with the artist.

The muses featured here really run the gamut: Millington groups her subjects into categories of the artist as muse, the self as muse, “family” muses, those who were in love, performing muses, muses representing movements, and finally, ones who underscored a message.

I loved that these encompassed such a broad spectrum of muses, from the ones whose images are instantly recognizable, like Lucien Freud’s paintings of benefits manager Sue Tilley, or Anna Christina Olson of Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World (one of my favorite chapters here), and even iconic celebrity muses like Beyonce, Tilda Swinton, and Grace Jones, to plenty of new-to-me artists and muses and the stories behind some very famous imagery, like Picasso’s Weeping Woman Dora Maar (more on her in the excellent Finding Dora Maar) and Elizabeth Siddall, the tragic model for Millais’ Ophelia, among many other Pre-Raphaelite works.

Millington explores race, gender, visibility, sexuality, class, power, and so many other topics that are folded into these stories of muses and artists across history. The goal here was to “deconstruct reductive stereotypes of the muse” and it succeeds overwhelmingly — even having worked in this area myself, I felt like I was looking at the entire concept with new eyes after reading this. Enlightening, sensitively considered, and very smartly written.

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I received an advance copy from the publisher, Pegasus Books, for unbiased review.


14 thoughts on “Artsy Group Biographies: Lives of the Surrealists and Muse

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  1. Is this the same Desmond Morris who wrote The Naked Ape? I read that decades ago and I had no idea he’d become a surrealist painter. What a wild career path! Thanks for the fascinating review!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You’ve sold me on Morris’ book. It sounds entertaining but also like something to use as a reference when memory fails.

    I’m wondering if the Muse book talked about KIki de Montparnasse. I did a couple of posts about her in 2020. Fascinating woman.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad I could convince you of that one! It’s definitely a great reference, and was really entertaining if a bit catty. It’s a more casual history but I really liked it.

      No Kiki de Montparnasse in Muse! Although now I’m very curious about your posts and must investigate!


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