Ghost Ships: A Surrealist Love Triangle
by Robert McNab
Yale University Press. 266 pages, $40.
In the fabled Paris of the 1920s, the poet Paul Eluard was a leader of the Surrealists. His wife was a woman of Russian extraction everyone called Gala. When the young artist Max Ernst arrived from Germany, he and Eluard became friends and collaborators on artistic projects (most of Eluard's books of poetry included art by Ernst.) Their friendship was deepened by the knowledge that they had faced each other anonymously across the battlefield in specific battles of the Great War they both detested. But then Gala and Max Ernst became entangled in a sexual affair, and for awhile the three shared the same house, while Gala shared and was shared by the two men.
If this sounds like the plot of Truffaut's "Jules and Jim," right down to the historical period, it almost is. Truffaut's film is based on an autobiographical novel by Henre-Pierre Roche, whose own triangle was separated from this triangle by one degree: they all had friends in common, notably the Surrealist Marcel Duchamp.
But then apparently agitated by the prospect of losing Gala as well as other aspects of his life, Paul Eluard suddenly disappeared from Paris, launching himself on a journey that would take him to Saigon, where Ernst and Gala would meet him. After their reunion, Ernst was the odd man out as Eluard and Gala left together to give their marriage a final try. It didn't work. Gala left both men behind, and soon began her most famous and tumultuous relationship with Salvador Dali, which ended with them both at advanced age, hitting each other with walking sticks in public. Both men married other women, and through years of active friendship and periods of estrangement, they remained deeply loyal. When Ernst was imprisoned in a French concentration camp at the start of World War II, Eluard's influence got him out. When Eluard died, Ernst produced one of his most luminous paintings as a memorial.
Though this story winds through it, this book centers on that voyage to what was then Indochina and its subsequent influence, particularly on Ernst's art. It required detective work by author Robert McNab, a documentary filmmaker, for until now little was known about this journey, and art historians hadn't examined Ernst's art with it in mind.
So while McNab's description of the triangle is pretty clinical and attenuated (in particular Gala's attraction remains a mystery, except that it apparently had a lot to do with sexual performance), the heart of this book is in carefully linking a number of Max Ernst's artworks to the particulars of these voyages.
McNab insists on the historical context of this travel, in a particular and brief period when long sea voyages on huge steamships were accessible in a way we're now used to, but were different in ways we are not. The differences were in the time they took, and the few ships involved at the beginning of what would be the tourist age. This resulted in long, isolated periods in the open sea with no other contact.
The most impressive sight at the end of this voyage was Angkor Wat, the ruins of a lost city discovered in the ever-encroaching jungle. McNab describes how a trip there would go at the time, and what visitors would see. It was still a remote site, but reachable by ship or a two-day drive by car. There was one hotel, where visitors were advised to sleep through the intense heat of midday, and approach the ruins at six p.m. Though the jungle was still an imposing presence, a winding road had been built so visitors could see major sites with relative ease and speed.
According to McNab, Eluard left Indochina with new political fervor, having seen the oppressions of the French colonial regime. Though Ernst agreed politically, he was more haunted by the images of powerful and implacable nature, overwhelming human pretensions. In the lush and unfamiliar plants and animals as well as the exotic, ornate temples decaying in fierce and dazzling light, he saw surrealism come alive, and it stimulated both his outer and inner eye.
McNab's careful analysis is accompanied by dazzling reproductions of some of Ernst's most haunting works. Ernst produced a lot of varied art in his long lifetime, so most surveys can show a small portion, but these certainly deserve the extended treatment they receive here. Several paintings are reproduced opposite photographs of scenes that might have inspired them. So more despite the story of the triangle than because of it, this is a very satisfying book. I enjoyed it and learned a lot, too. I suspect it is so carefully researched and written that it will become a standard work for scholars, as well as a resource and a pleasure for students and other readers.
Besides artists and scholars, the readership for this book I suspect is comprised of people like me, who are fascinated with the arts and artists of this period and these places: western Europe and particularly Paris for the first thirty or so years of the twentieth century. Attracted by the giant romantic figures of Picasso in art and Joyce in literature perhaps, or the presence of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, we hungrily turn our attention to each of the many others like Ernst and Eluard whose major accomplishments and fascinating stories continue the revelations and discoveries in this incredibly rich and seemingly inexhaustible milieu.
My own interest, begun in college and even more intense in my early 20s on account of the mixture of art and political activism in the period, was suddenly made more personal by two more or less simultaneous discoveries. In one or another of the books I devoured in my old and barely maintained apartment in the unfashionable east side of Cambridge, I saw reference to a woman artist, said to be the only American and only woman artist in the Paris surrealist group. She was Dorothea Tanning, born and bred in Galesburg, Illinois, the quintessential middle American rural Midwestern town where I had gone to college.
A painter and writer still alive and working in New York (she had a poem in a recent New Yorker), Tanning married Max Ernst and shared the rest of his very productive career. Her beautifully written autobiographical books link those common Galesburg streets to this surrealistic life that included so many famous people whose accomplishments (well beyond the 1930s) formed the imaginative environment of our time. Plus I like her painting a great deal, and in her book Between Lives: An Artist and Her World (Norton), she offers a necessary corrective to this period, from the point of view of a woman and a wife whose own work was considered subsidiary.
The hint of an even more evocative connection came from another book, which mentioned the Italian Futurists and their representative in Paris, the painter Gino Severini. Severini is my mother's family name, and I soon learned from my grandmother that there is a good chance I am related by blood (though perhaps distantly) to a man who was at the center of everything happening in Paris during these decades. I learned about his associations from various fragmentary sources, until Severini's own autobiographical works were translated into English and published as Gino Severini: The Life of a Painter in 1986 by Princeton University Press. (Gino Severini died in 1966, the same year as Ignazio Severini, my grandfather.)
These closer degrees of separation added an unexpected texture, a different kind of grounding, to my interest, and helped keep it alive, even as my relationship to the art shifted---deepening here, becoming less involving there. I wonder how many others who are fascinated with this era have discovered something in their lives that connects them to it. A book that explores the relationship of life to art in the lives of artists reminds us that such complex interpenetrations and expressions of inner and outer life are also at work (and at play) in what attracts readers to read about them.