3 MAY 1975, Page 16

Man alive

Alastair Gordon

Surrealist Drawings Frantisek Smejkal (Octopus Books £4.95)

Man Ray Roland Penrose *(Thames and Hudson £5.50) Surrealism endures, and will continue to endure, because it is not the frivolous and nonsensical idea that popular taste takes it for. Intellectuals in the Paris of the early 'twenties were seriously involved not with iconoclasm but with a wish to reveal the fundamentals of the Id that 'official' art shied away from. The more the establishment raged at the Dadaists and Surrealists, the more there was to bite into. Opposition gave them teeth.

From the literary standpoint Andre Breton was the arbiter and disciplinarian of what was and was not Surrealism, but perhaps the best definition of it as a visual art was given by Max Ernst: -Any conscious, mental control of reason, taste, will, is out of place in a work that deserves to be described as absolutely Surrealist".

Too many present day so-called Surrealists play to the gallery by producing smoothly executed Pop erotica it is all too studied too conscious. Genuine Surrealism can shock or titillate, but only because it is initiated authentically from the subconscious, defying any plan or rational ' definition. When, therefore, a Surrealist makes a drawing it is unlikely to be a preliminary study for a final

version worked up in paint. Either it is a complete work in its own right, or it is the doodle-like catalyst for a series of obsessive dream-like images. Draughtsmanship, and the rapport between artist and subject that is revealed by conventional drawing, is not to be found in this book it couldn't be.

, The author, a distinguished Czech art historian, sets out in a series of essays the history, theory and practice of Surrealism, the techniques that were employed to achieve certain effects in drawing, and ends by underlining the spread of Surrealism from its original Paris base to the rest of Europe and then to America. The originators were a cosmopolitan crew anyway, so it is natural that it should not only become universal, but become diversified; there is no surrealist "style" it can come out as a frottage drawing, an elaborately detailed painting, a sculpture or, in our times, a Happening.

Having written so well, it is a pity that the reproductions following the text are a disappointment. They come from a number of sources and are very uneven in quality. Furthermore, of the seventy odd drawings shown, there are never more than three by any one artist, so that one can only get a cursory glance from such slim visual evidence.

Man Ray perpetually astonishes by his uniqueness in the history of twentieth century art. He cannot be categorised, because just when you think you have got hold of him he slips sideways into a different vein. This is not wilfulness, still less is it shallowness. In terms of original imaginative flair he has no equal, but the perpetual inventiveness is backed by a fine-tuned mind and a natural wit. There is nothing forced or exhibitionist about him; if he was his manifold talents would have led him into all kinds of falsities. As it is, he has that rare quality, even in good artists, of impeccable taste and judgment.

On the very first page Sir Roland writes: "One has the impression that, like Adam, Man Ray was the first of his race". He has even concealed his origins. American by birth and initial upbringing, but from where originally, for Heaven's sake? When he met Marcel Duchamp just after the first World War, he felt an immediate affinity with that cultured European genius. Each had an apparent waywardness which was really a deep seriousness in a slightly mad world; they had to attend to it, and Paris was the only possible starting place. That is where Man Ray's genius already apparent even in isolation in New York before and during the first war flourished.

Painter, photographer, designer. He is in the front rank in all three of these arts. Always in the thick of Dadaism and Surrealism, he yet managed to avoid the occasional internecine squabbles that must have been inevitable among such powerful minds and personalities. And not because his is a placatory character; he must be a lovely man, and one who is totally independent in choosing his direction.

Sir Roland should write more than he does. He and his wife, Lee, are old friends of Man Ray, but he never obtrudes himself into the story (she, of course, as the photographer Lee Miller, does come into it). He writes so readably and humanly that one is hardly aware that he was part of the whole pioneering adventure of which Man Ray was a central figure from the early 'twenties, until the present day; having an affinity with your subject can have its dangers, but Roland Penrose has the intellectual discipline to be the factual detached observer and at the same time make a living and loving story. The reproductions are of excellent quality throughout, and are selected to give the full range of Man Ray's oeuvre over sixty years of hectic activity.

Lord Alastair Gordon is an art consultant and a member of the International Association of Art Critics