Breton, André (1896–1966)

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BRETON, ANDRÉ (1896–1966)


Founder of surrealism.

André Breton, born in Tinchebray sur Orne in Normandy, was truly a Breton, displaying a deep sense of gloom and foreboding and a certain attraction to mysticism. In 1923, having welcomed Dada's founder, Tristan Tzara, to Paris, Breton and Philippe Soupault wrote the first surrealist text, Les champs magnétiques (Magnetic Fields) —an illustration of automatic writing, a technique aimed at unleashing the unconscious and recognizing repressed desires that have nothing to do with the world of logic. And in 1924, Breton wrote the Manifeste du surréalisme (Surrealist Manifesto), in which surrealism was defined in terms of its liberating quality. Down with the rational mind—the Celtic atmosphere was making itself felt in other forms. Although surrealism may have officially ended with Breton's death, Breton and surrealism endured together for at least forty-two years. Breton—leonine, massive, sure, rhetorically and visually gifted—was surrealism itself.

The forceful Surrealist Manifesto was produced simultaneously with the journal aptly called La révolution surréaliste (The surrealist revolution). In addition to continuing the experiment with automatic writing (and drawing), the journal also recounted dreams, considered the pathway to the unconscious. Breton eventually became disappointed with the techniques of automatism; notwithstanding, he was initially excited about them and they continue to be important in literature and art. What these techniques unleashed, apart from a remarkable series of writings and events, was a point of view that was recognizably that of a free spirit.

Breton's first wife, Simone Kahn, joined him in the early surrealist experiments, which included collective games. With his second wife, the artist Jacqueline Lamba, Breton had a baby girl, Aube, who grew up to be an artist known as Aube Elléouët. The Bretons fled France during World War II, thanks to Varian Fry's rescue mission for European intellectuals. They first took refuge in Marseille, then arrived in New York via Martinique.

Breton did not learn any English in America and remained isolated from New York artists and writers, entirely taken up with the affairs of his own group of surrealists. Perhaps his closest contact was with the abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell, whom he met through the Chilean artist Roberto Matta Echaurren and who translated the idea of automatism into the realm of the visual arts.

Breton's desire for political action is attested in Surréalisme au service de la révolution (1930; Surrealism at the service of the revolution), the successor journal to La révolution surréaliste. But his discussions with the "cell" of gas workers to which he was assigned did not lead to satisfaction on his part or comprehension on the part of the workers. Breton understandably felt the same sense of disappointment he had experienced when his long-desired encounter with Sigmund Freud led to no entrancing discussion of psychoanalysis or the role of dreams.

When Jacqueline left Breton for the American artist David Hare, Breton married a third time. With his new wife, Elisa Bindhoff, he traveled through North America and was particularly taken by Native American customs and art in the Midwest and on the Gaspé Peninsula of Canada. After the war, he returned with Elisa to Paris but found the atmosphere greatly changed. At the Sorbonne, Tzara and Breton argued publicly over politics and art, Tzara claiming that Breton, who had taken refuge in America, had run away from Europe when others were fighting in the Resistance. While others faced real barbed wire, Tzara maintained, the New York surrealist group was playing with the metallic grids of art stretched across their journal VVV: "Feel this with your eyes closed," the caption ran.

Surrealism stood accused of irrelevance. But Breton's poems and essays constitute an important legacy. His insuperably poetic prose style informs Les pas perdus (1924; The Lost Steps), Point du jour (1934; Break of Day), L'amour fou (1937; Mad Love), Arcane 17 (1944), and La clé des champs (1953; Free Rein). From the poet Pierre Reverdy Breton adapted the idea of the poetic image as that which weds opposites with great force and in a flash. In the poetic image one thing leads to another, day to night, life to death. All communicate their elements with one another, as in Breton's illustrative scientific experiment called Les vases communicants (1944; Communicating Vessels), the most theoretical of his essays. It was always his hope to reconcile opposites via the conducting wire leading from field to opposing field. This was surrealism's characteristic and optimistic way of dealing with the universe.

What Breton called "convulsive" beauty is a dynamic recognition of the "reciprocal relations linking the object seen in its motion and its repose." It is a point of view diametrically opposed to static perception, readying itself—in a constant state of expectation—for the encounter with the marvelous, an unexpected and splendid outlook and vision where perception and representation converge. Breton died in 1966, soon after many students and disciples of surrealism had gathered at Cerisy-la-Salle in Normandy to celebrate his ideas and his role as the undisputed leader of the movement. The goal of surrealism is to transform life, language, and human understanding, through what Breton called "lyric behavior," in which the observer is part of the scene observed, to liberate people from any limitation or constriction imposed by something outside them. In this respect, surrealism intended and still intends to remake the world.

See alsoDada; Surrealism.


Primary Sources

Breton, André. Mad Love. Translated by Mary Ann Caws. Lincoln, Neb., 1987. Translation of L'amour fou (1937).

——. Communicating Vessels. Translated by Mary Ann Caws and Geoffrey T. Harris. Lincoln, Neb., 1990. Translation of Les vases communicants (1955).

——. Free Rein. Translated by Michel Parmentier and Jacqueline d'Amboise. Lincoln, Neb., 1995. Translation of La clé des champs (1953).

——. The Lost Steps. Translated by Mark Polizzotti. Lincoln, Neb., 1996. Translation of Les pas perdus (1924).

Secondary Sources

Balakian, Anna. André Breton: Magus of Surrealism. New York, 1971.

Caws, Mary Ann. Surrealism and the Literary Imagination, Study of Breton and Bachelard. The Hague, 1966.

——. André Breton. New ed. New York, 1996.

———. The Surrealist Look: An Erotics of Encounter. Cambridge, Mass., 1997.

Caws, Mary Ann, ed. Surrealist Love Poems. Translated by Mary Ann Caws. London, 2001.

——, ed. Surrealist Painters and Poets. Cambridge, Mass., 2001.

——, ed. Surrealism. London, 2004.

Foster, Hal. Compulsive Beauty. Cambridge, Mass., 1993.

Krauss, Rosalind, Jane Livingston, and Dawn Ades. L'amour fou: Photography and Surrealism. Washington, D.C., 1985.

Lomas, David. The Haunted Self: Surrealism, Psychoanalysis, Subjectivity. New Haven, Conn., 2000.

Mundy, Jennifer, Vincent Gille, and Dawn Ades, eds. Surrealism: Desire Unbound. Princeton, N.J., 2001.

Polizzotti, Mark. Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton. New York, 1995.

Sawin, Martica. Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School. Cambridge, Mass., 1995.

Mary Ann Caws

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Breton, André (1896–1966)

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