Housed in the Tate collection is a Surrealist masterpiece, The Arena by Desmond Morris. It is filled with uncanny, imaginary figures, which he refers to as 'biomorphs'.
It's unclear exactly what these creatures are doing – they appear engaged in some sort of ritual – but the painting illustrates Morris' double career as an artist and a zoologist, specialising in animal and human behaviour.
Ruth Millington caught up with 'the last living Surrealist', Desmond Morris, who shared stories of meeting Joan Miró (1893–1983) and student stunts, while also reflecting on his continued commitment to Surrealism.
Continue scrolling to find out what Surrealism means to Morris today, and how he is passing the time in lockdown.
Ruth Millington: Desmond, you have been a Surrealist artist for over 75 years! How did you first come across this movement and why were you drawn to it?
Desmond Morris: It was during the Second World War. I was at boarding school and, one day in 1944, when I was 16, I went into the school library and found a book that contained essays about Surrealism. The Surrealist movement was a rebellion against the slaughter of the First World War. If the establishment could allow such horrors, then established society must be rotten to the core. So the Surrealists set about destroying traditional art. And here was I, growing up during the Second World War, with another mass slaughter going on all around me.
So I took to Surrealism for the same reason as the original Surrealists. I would rebel against the lunacy of the adult world. I made my first Surrealist sketches during that year and, when the war was over I started painting in earnest.
Ruth: Surrealism is associated most of all with Paris, but you were a 'Birmingham Surrealist'. When you came to study zoology at the University of Birmingham, you also found a thriving art scene. What can you tell me of this time?
Desmond: When I completed my two years of army service I went to Birmingham University to read Zoology. It was my intention to spend most of my time doing drawings under the microscope – of biological organisms that fascinated me. While I was there I found a group of local Surrealists who were holding meetings and exhibiting their work and I joined them.
The Birmingham Surrealist group met regularly at Conroy Maddox's house. There were endless arguments and debates – which was typical of all Surrealist meetings. As Surrealism was widely disliked in those days – the 1940s – we felt like an embattled little group and there would be endless discussions about future projects and plans, most of which never saw the light of day. Although much of the debate was pointless, the value of these meetings was that it gave each of us the feeling that there were at least a few people who felt the same way that we did.
Ruth: While you were a student, you made the headline 'A dinosaur in Broad Street' in the local newspaper, accompanied by a photograph of two policemen struggling to force a strange object through the door of a police car. Can you share the story of this stunt?
Desmond: It was the Surrealists who started what is today called 'installation art', and I played my part. Behind the Zoology department there was a rubbish dump and on it, one day, I spotted a discarded elephant's skull. I was surprised that anyone would want to dispose of such an awesomely magnificent relic, but I was told that this one was in rather poor condition and no longer suitable as a scientific specimen.
As far as I was concerned, its eroded surfaces rendered it even more remarkable, as a piece of natural 'sculpture' – what the Surrealists referred to as an objet trouvé. I decided that such an object should inspire a sense of wonder and determined to bring it to people's attention.
It was extremely heavy and I had to enlist the aid of a number of hefty helpers, who assisted me in carrying it down the road to the nearest tram stop. The conductor refused to allow us to sit with it in the tram, insisting that it was 'luggage', and made us stow it under the stairs with a group of suitcases, where it was already beginning to take on a suitable irrelevancy.
Since its huge teeth were in a bad state of repair I had decided to take it to one of the city dentists and leave it on a chair in his waiting room. But it was so late by the time we arrived in the city centre, that I changed my plan to the simple act of leaving it sitting in a shop doorway in the main street. Nothing more was done – it was going to sit there quietly making its statement, reminding people that the world is full of strange and mysteriously beautiful objects. It was the lack of any other purpose in its presence that was an important part of its Surrealist quality.
I was slightly taken aback to read, in the following evening's paper, that my 'happening' had happened so effectively. It had never occurred to me that the object's impact would be so great as to draw a crowd that eventually caused an obstruction, to use the police term. The skull was eventually removed in a police car, but the mystery of its presence in the city centre remained.
Ruth: You also travelled to Paris to meet the Surrealists over there. Can you tell me anything about these adventures?
Desmond: In 1949 I went to Paris to meet André Breton (1896–1966), who had returned there from New York. I had his address and phone number in my pocket but sadly he was away from Paris while I was there. I did, however, meet some of the other Surrealists, including one who was working on a project that involved building a life-size pyramid underground in Wales. What else?
Ruth: Have other artists influenced you?
Desmond: Miró and Yves Tanguy (1900–1955) have both been influences.
Ruth: And you met Miró, didn't you?
Desmond: I had a show with Miró at the London Gallery in 1950 and in 1964 he visited me at the zoo, which is when I hung a large python round his neck. Later I went to see him at his home in Palma in 1975, to take him a birthday gift.
Ruth: What do you give someone like Miró for his birthday?
Desmond: I gave him a small pre-Columbian figurine. He was so pleased with it that he took the trouble to write me a letter of thanks. The figurine was recently rediscovered and is now on exhibition in Canada in a display case next to Miró's paintings.
Ruth: Let's look at your paintings, such as The Hermit Discovered and Dyadic Encounter, which are filled with abstract, biomorphic figures. How do these relate to your zoological research?
Desmond: In 1947 I began creating a private world of my own on canvas. It was influenced indirectly by my knowledge of biological shapes, but all my 'biomorphs' were invented beings. This style has been with me ever since, with my biomorphs evolving and changing, as though there is a parallel evolution taking place in my private world. By 2020 I had produced a total of 3,394 paintings.
Ruth: Have you ever felt a conflict between the two sides of your life: art and zoology?
Desmond: The two sides of my brain complement one another. There is no conflict. My general plan is to write a book each year and to paint enough pictures for an exhibition each year. When I finish the book my writing urge is exhausted and I am ready to paint. When I finish a new suite of paintings, my painting urge is exhausted and I am ready to write a book.
The mental processes involved in my two activities are totally different. One is analytical and objective and the other is intuitive and subjective. I use both sides of my brain. Many people only use one side. I am very lucky.
Ruth: The lockdown has been a very surreal time for all of us. How have you been spending it? Have your dreams changed?
Desmond: I have always had vivid dreams, but sadly they never relate to my paintings. My current activities are writing (four books this year), painting (57 paintings this year), watching old movies on television, studying the birds in my garden, and reading books in my library. All of these are solitary activities, so I am lucky. Lockdown, which has been a horror for so many, has been very pleasant for me. I feel rather guilty to have enjoyed it so much when so many lives are in chaos.
Ruth: You're still loyal to Surrealism. What does it mean to you today?
Desmond: Today it means, for me, the joy in irrational, unconscious thought processes – letting my imagination run free. I have always rejected Surrealism's political views and activities. I am non-political. The Surrealists were extremely left wing, but I have always said that the only difference between the left wing and the right wing is that one kicks you with the left foot and the other kicks you with the right foot. My only interest in politicians is in analysing their body language.
Ruth Millington, art critic and writer
Desmond Morris has an upcoming show, 'Desmond Morris in the 21st Century', at the Beaux Arts Gallery, London, from 14th October to 12th December 2020