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the Complete Review
the complete review - art / history

History of the Surrealist Movement

Gérard Durozoi

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To purchase History of the Surrealist Movement

Title: History of the Surrealist Movement
Author: Gérard Durozoi
Genre: Art History
Written: 1997 (Eng. 2002)
Length: 791 pages
Original in: French
Availability: History of the Surrealist Movement - US
History of the Surrealist Movement - UK
History of the Surrealist Movement - Canada
Histoire du mouvement surréaliste - Canada
Histoire du mouvement surréaliste - France
  • French title: Histoire du mouvement surréaliste
  • Translated by Alison Anderson
  • Includes 232 color plates and 777 (!) halftones
  • Includes Notes on Principal Surrealists and Some of Their Close Followers
  • Includes a Bibliography

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Our Assessment:

A- : impressive if unwieldy volume

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The New Republic . 2/5/2003 Mark Polizzotti
The Observer . 9/6/2002 Peter Conrad
TLS . 1/11/2002 Peter Read

  From the Reviews:
  • "(D)oggedly encyclopaedic (.....) For all his thoroughness, Durozoi is not omniscient. He sees the world as a suburb of Paris." - Peter Conrad, The Observer

  • "Reading Durozoi's book as a running narrative is not facilitated by the quality of the translation. The comprehensive documentation, the indexes, bibliography and good set of potted biographies will, however, make it a valuable work of reference. Unfortunately, Durozoi's narrative largely neglects Surrealist literature." - Peter Read, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Gérard Durozoi's History of the Surrealist Movement is an impressive achievement, a detailed, richly illustrated survey covering what would seem to be every possible aspect of the subject.
       Seven chapters chart the surrealist movement from 1919 to 1969, from its Dadaist antecedents to after André Breton's death. Each chapter is divided into fairly short sections focussing on specifics -- events, people, exhibitions, publications -- that were of significance in the surrealist movement. All major events (and their consequences) are succinctly described, an often fascinating tour of cultural and political life in the 20th century.
       Much of the focus is on France, and the most familiar representatives of surrealism, but the book is of particular value in also looking beyond that. Durozoi goes far afield in exploring surrealism abroad. Where most attention is generally focussed only on the diaspora caused by World War II and surrealism establishing itself, briefly, in the United States, Durozoi's reach extends much farther. The book is truly international in scope, and examines surrealist influences and efforts in, it appears, every corner of the world (including Latin America, Czechoslovakia, and Japan).
       In thinking of surrealism most people (certainly in the English-speaking world) focus on the visual arts: vivid, playful paintings -- by such artists as Dali, Magritte, and Max Ernst -- or perhaps Duchamp's readymades. Durozoi's History of the surrealist Movement is a stunningly illustrated volume -- its 232 color plates and 777 halftones offering a spectacular and broad overview of what the surrealists did. But Durozoi properly also pays attention to the literary output of the surrealists -- creative, critical, and polemical -- striking a good balance and also showing how efforts in one area influenced other areas.
       Durozoi makes clear that surrealism was, in many respects, a theoretical, word-based movement: manifestoes and proclamations abounded. He offers a good overview of the many public statements and publications -- though occasionally one wishes for more explication of the theories being propounded, as well as more attention on surrealist fiction and poetry.
       Durozoi also considers the periphery of surrealism, looking at those artists who did not fully embrace it but who nevertheless were influenced by (or themselves influenced) the movement -- including, of course, Picasso.
       Of great value is also Durozoi's awareness of surrealism as a political movement -- again something too-little understood in the English-speaking world. The movement long had an uneasy relationship with Communism which Durozoi explains well. He also enumerates many overt political acts, dealing with everything from workers' rights to the open letter to Paul Claudel (in response to his statement that the only rationale he could see in surrealism was "a pederastic one").

       Durozoi's accounts of the exhibits, publications, crises, controversies, and other events makes for fascinating reading. But it is also exhausting. Durozoi presents each incident concisely. A fill of names, a few high points: for those not in the know, or unfamiliar with the actors it can be a tough slog.
       In the end, History of the Surrealist Movement is more a reference work than a book to be read cover to cover. The strength is in the individual episodes, and though Durozoi ties much together along the way it can be overwhelming in its exhaustiveness.
       As a reference work it seems essential for anyone interested in the surrealist movement. Aside from the text, Durozoi also offers a very useful appendix of Notes on Principal Surrealists and Some of Their Close Followers, some 200 brief descriptions covering all of the major (and many of the more minor) players. The bibliography is also helpful.
       There are a few weaknesses -- notably the absence of any index of the illustrations. Given how many illustrations there are -- including many of magazine covers, pamphlets, and other written documents -- this would have been particularly useful.
       There is also too little connection between text and illustrations (which then again highlights the problem of a lack of a proper index which might help one find the relevant illustrations). Still, given the wealth of illustrations -- much of it spectacular stuff -- one can't complain too much: it is a pleasure to hunt through those pages, again and again.
       One final complaint, which is not as trivial as it might seem: the book is massive. Beautifully printed, on high quality paper, richly illustrated, it isn't too large but it is a truly weighty tome. In fact, it is so heavy that it is almost impossible to read except in coffee-table-book fashion: the book flat on some surface. For those who want to enjoy it merely as a picture (or reference) book this may not be much of a problem, but there is a lot of text here too (important, worthwhile text, too) and readers might well find the book's heft a bother. We did. Still: it's worth the effort.

       History of the Surrealist Movement is a fascinating, thorough documentation, truly richly illustrated. Essential for anyone interested in the surrealist movement.

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History of the Surrealist Movement: Reviews: Surrealism: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Gérard Durozoi is a French author and philosopher.

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