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André Breton (1896-1966)


French poet, essayist, critic, and editor, chief promoter and one of the founders of Surrealist movement with Paul Eluard, Luis Buñuel, and Salvador Dali among others. Breton's manifestoes of Surrealism are the most important theoretical statements of the movement.

Ma Femme à la chevelure de feu de bois
Aux pensées d'eclairs de chaleur
A la taille de sablier
Ma femme à la taille de loutre entre les dents du tigre
Ma femme à la bouche de cocarde et de bouquet d'étoiles de dernière grandeur
Aux dents d'empreintes de souris blanche sur la terre blanche
A la langue d'ambre et de verre frottés
Ma femme à la langue d'hostie poignardée
A la langue de poupée qui ouvre et ferme les yeux
A la langue de pierre incroyable (...)

(in 'Ma Femme à la Chevelure de Feu de Bois')

André Breton was born in Tinchebray (Orne), the son of a shopkeeper. He spent his childhood on the Brittany coast and started early on to write poems – he knew the poet Paul Valéry while still young. Breton studied medicine and later psychiatry, and in 1921 met Freud in Vienna. He never qualified but during World War I he served in the neurological ward in Nantes and made some attempts to use Freudian methods to psychoanalyze his patients, whose disturbed images he considered remarkable. Among Breton's friends was Jacques Vaché, a wounded, rebellious soldier, who declared art to be nonsense. Vaché died of an opium overdose in 1919 in a hotel room with another young man. His ideas, expressed in Lettres de guerre (1919), continued their life in the Dadaist movement.

Breton joined first in 1916 the Dadaist group, but after various quarrels continued his march forward: "Leave everything. Leave Dada. Leave your wife. Leave your mistress. Leave your hopes and fears. Leave your children in the woods. Leave the substance for the shadow. Leave your easy life, leave what you are given for the future. Set off on the road." He turned then to Surrealism and cofounded with Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault the review Littérature. Very important for his literary work were his wartime meetings with Apollinaire.

Manifeste du surréalisme came out in 1924. Influenced by psychological theories, Breton defined Surrealism as "pure psychic automatism, by which an attempt is made to express, either verbally, in writing or in any other manner, the true functioning of thought. The dictation of thought, in the absence of all control by reason, excluding any aesthetic or moral preoccupation." In the Second Manifesto Breton stated that the surrealists strive to attain a "mental vantage-point (point de l'esprit) from which life and death, the real and the imaginary, past and future, communicable and incommunicable, high and low, will no longer be perceived as contradictions."

Breton and his colleagues believed that the springs of personal freedom and social liberation lay in the unconscious mind. They found examples from the works of such painters as Hieronymus Bosch and James Ensor and from the writings of Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry – and from the revolutionary thinking of Karl Marx. The Surrealist movement was from the beginning in a constant state of change or conflict, but its major periodicals, La Révolution surréaliste (1924-30) and Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution (1930-33), channeled cooperation and also spread ideas beyond France.

In the 1930s Breton published several collection of poems, including Mad Love (1937), a defence of an 'irrational' emotion of lovers, which used the Cinderella myth. Humor was an essential part of the Surrealists' activities and Breton also edited in 1937 an anthology on l'humour noir, which featured such writers as Swift, Kafka, Rimbaud, Poe, Lewis Carroll, and Baudelaire. "When it comes to black humor, everything designates him as the true initiator," Breton wrote on Swift. His prose has been more highly rated than his poetry, and among his masterworks from the 1920s is Nadja (1928), a portrait of Breton and a mad woman, a patient of Pierre Janet. The title refers to the name of a woman and the beginning of the Russian word for hope. Breton's first-person narrative is supplemented by forty-four photographs of places and objects which inspire the author or are connected to Nadja. In Les Vases communicants (1932, The Communicating Vessels) Breton explored the problems of everyday experience, dreams, and their relationship to intellect. "Anyone who has ever found himself in love has only been able to deplore the conspiracy of silence and of night which comes in the dream to surround the beloved being, even while the spirit of the sleeper is totally occupied with insignificant tasks", he wrote. "How can we retain from waking life what deserves to be retained, even if it is just so as not to be unworthy of what is best in this life itself?"

From 1927 to 1935 Breton was a member of the French Communist Party. Although he broke with the party in disgust with Stalinism and the Moscow show trials, he remained committed to Marxism. In his critique of the Surrealists in 1933, Ilya Ehrenburg called them deviants, pederasts and onanists (among other things). As a result, Breton slapped Ehrenburg in the 1935 Paris Congress on Franco-Soviet cultural ties. In Nadja Breton said: "Subjectivity and objectivity commit a series of assaults on each other during a human life out of which the first one suffers the worse beating."

While in Mexico on a lecture tour with Jacqueline Lamba, Breton socialized with Leon Trotsky, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo. With Leon Trotsky  he founded the Fédération de l'Art Revolutionnaire Independant, and produced a paper on the civil liberties of an artist. Manifesto: Towards A Free Revolutionary Art was first published in in French in July 1938; the Spanish, English, and Russian translations came out in the same year. Though Breton had different opinions with Trotsky about art, he followed the thoughts of the Russian revolutionary in the writing of the Manifesto and ignored his flirtantions with his wife. At a picnic into the Mexican countryside Breton stole some votive paintings from a local church. Kahlo was bored with Breton's endless theorizing.

When the Nazis occupied France, Breton fled to the United States with Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst. He held there a broadcasting job and arranged a surrealist exposition at Yale in 1942. On a boat ride to Martinique in 1941 Breton met the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and discussed with him artistic creation. Lévi-Strauss criticized that Breton's definition of a work of art as the spontaneous activity of the mind opens the question of the aesthetic value of the work. Breton answered that he is "hardly interested in establishing a hierarchy of surrealist works (contrary to Aragon who once said: "If you write dreadful rubbish in an authentically surrealistic manner, it is still rubbish") – nor, as I have made clear, a hierarchy of romantic or symbolist works." (in Look, Listen, Read, by Lévi-Strauss, 1997)

During the war Breton wrote three poetic epics in which he dealt with the theme of exile. After WW II Breton traveled in the Southwest and the West Indies and returned to France in 1946. He soon became an important guru of a group of young Surrealists. In the 1940s and 1950s Breton wrote essays and collections of poems, among them Arcane 17 (1945), a mythological work set in Canada. Breton's last poetical work, Constellations (1959), paralleled a series of poems with Joan Miro's gouaches. André Breton died in Paris on September 28, 1966. His three-room studio at 42 Rue Fontaine became a research center, preserved by his third wife Elisa. Breton's daughter Aube from his marriage to Jacqueline Lamba decided to put his books, drawings, paintings, sculptures, photographs, and other items on the market in 2003 after the French government did not buy the personal collections.

Surrealism: A movement in visual arts and literature between World Wars I and II. Much used technique among Surrealists was automatic writing. The later influence of Surrealism can be seen in the works of such authors as Eugéne Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and other writers of the Theater of Absurd, the French writers of the nouveau roman of the 1950s and '60s. Breton's influence was wide and left impact on psychoanalysis and feminism through Jacques Lacan, on politics via Herbert Marcuse, on criticism through Roland Barthes - just to mention a few important names. - For further reading: André Breton by J. Gracq (1948); André Breton by C. Mauriac (1949); Philosophie de surréalisme by F. Alquié (1955); Le vrai André Breton by P. Soupault (1966); Surrealism and the Literary Imagination by M.A. Caws (1966); André Breton: Arbiter of Surrealism by C. Browder (1967); André Breton by J.H. Matthews (1967); André Breton: Magus of Surrealism by A. Balakian (1971); André Breton by M.A. Caws (1971); Les critiques de notre temps et Breton by M. Bonet (1974); André Breton and the Basic Concepts of Surrealism by M. Carrouges (1974); André Breton: Naissance de l'aventure suréaliste by M. Bonnet (1975); Breton: Nadja by Roger Cardinal (1987); Andre Breton: Sketch for an Early Portrait by J.H. Matthews (1986); Revolution of the Mind by Mark Polizzotti (1995); André Breton by Mary Ann Caws (1996); Andre Breton: The Power of Language by Ramona Fotiade (1999); Surreal Lives by Ruth Brandon (1999).  Suom.: Runosuomennoksia valikoimassa Tulisen järjen aika (1962) ja Tuhat laulujen vuotta, toim. Aale Tynni (1974.  See also: Guillaume Apollinaire

Selected works:

  • Mont de piété, 1919
  • Les Champs magnétiques, 1920 (with Philippe Soupault)
    - The Magnetic Fields (translated by David Gascoyne, 1985)
  •  Clair de terre, 1923
    - Earthlight (translated by Bill Zavatsky and Zack Rogow, 1993)
  •  Manifeste du surréalisme, 1924
    - Manifesto of Surrealism (translated by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, 1969)
    - Surrealismin manifesti (suom. Väinö Kirstinä, 1970)
  • Les Pas perdus, 1924
    - The Lost Steps (translated by Mark Polizzotti, 1996)
  • Poisson soluble, 1924
  • Un Cadavre, 1924 (André Breton, Louis Aragon, et al.)
  • Légitime défense - Legitimate Defense, 1926
  • Le Surréalisme et la Peinture, 1926
    - Surrealism and Painting, 1926 (translated by Simon Watson Taylor, 1972)
  • Nadja, 1928 (rev. ed. 1963)
    - Nadja (translated by Richard Howard, 1960)
    - Nadja (suom. Janne Salo, 2007)
  • Le Trésor des jésuites, 1929 (with Louis Aragon)
  • L’Immaculée conception, 1930 (with Paul Éluard) - The Immaculate Conception (tr.  Jon Graham, 1990)
  • Second manifeste du Surréalisme, 1930
  • Ralentir travaux, 1930 (with René Char and Paul Éluard)
  • Le Revolver à cheveux blancs, 1932
  • Les Vases communicants, 1932
    - The Communicating Vessels (translated by Mary Ann Caws & Geoffrey T. Harris, 1990)
  • Qu'est-ce que le surréalisme?, 1934
    - What Is Surrealism? (tr. anon. 1936; David Gascoyne, 1974)
  • L'Air de l'eau, 1934
  • Point du jour, 1934 (rev. ed. 1970)
    - Break of Day= Point du jour (translated by Mark Polizzotti & Mary Ann Caws, 1999)
  • Position politique du surréalisme, 1935
  • Notes sur la poésie, 1936 (with Paul Éluard)
  • L'Amour fou, 1937
    - Mad Love=L'amour fou (translated by Mary Ann Caws, 1987)
    - Hullu rakkaus (suom. Janne Salo, 2010)
  • Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme, 1938 (with Paul Éluard)
  • Manifesto: Towards A Free Revolutionary Art, 1938 (with Leon Trotsky)
  • Fata morgana, 1940
    - Fata Morgana (tr. 1969)
  • Anthologie de l'humour noir, 1940 (ed.)
    - Anthology of Black Humor (translated by Mark Polizzotti, 1997)
  • Arcane 17, 1945
    - Arcanum 17: With Apertures, Grafted to the End (translated by Zack Rogow, 1994)
  • Prolégomènes à un troisième manifeste du surréalisme ou non, 1946
  • Jeunes cerisiers garantis contre les lièvres, 1946 (bilingual edition, illustrated by Arshile Gorky)
    - Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares=Jeunes cerisiers garantis contre les lièvres (translated by Edouard Roditi, 1946)
  • Ode à Charles Fourier, 1947
    - Ode to Charles Fourier (translated by Kenneth White, 1969)
  • Yves Tanguy, 1947
  • Poèmes 1919-48, 1948
  • La Lampe dans l'horloge, 1948
  • Martinique, charmeuse de serpents, 1948
    - Martinique: Snake Charmer (translated by David W. Seaman, 2008)
  • Entretiens 1913-1952, 1952 (rev. ed. 1973)
  • La Clé des champs, 1953
    - Free Rein=Le clé des champs (translated by Michel Parmentier and Jacqueline d’Amboise, 1995)
  • Toyen: par André Breton, Jindrich Heisler, Benjamin Péret, 1953
  • Farouche à quatre feuilles, 1954 (with Lise Deharme, Julien Gracq, Jean Tardieu)
  • Adieu ne plaise, 1954
  • L’Art magique, 1957
  • Constellations, 1959
  • Le La, 1961
  • Manifestes du surréalisme, 1962 (contents: Preface à la réimpression du Manifeste; Manifeste du surréalisme; Poisson soluble; Avertissement pour la réédition du seconde Manifeste; Second Manifeste du surréalisme; Lettres aux voyantes; Position politique du surréalisme: extraits; Prolégomènes à un troisième Manifeste du surréalisme ou non; Du surréalisme en ses œuvres vives)
    - Manifestoes of Surrealism (translated by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, 1969)
  • Selected Poems, 1969 (translated by Kenneth White)
  • Perspective cavalière, 1970 (ed. Marguerite Bonnet)
  • What Is Surrealism?, 1978 (ed. Franklin Rosemont)
  • Poems of André Breton, 1982 (translated by Jean-Pierre Cauvin, Mary Ann Caws)
  • Lettres à Aube: 1938-1966, 2009 (ed. Jean-Michel Goutier)

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