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André Breton

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André Breton
André Breton
Breton in 1924
BornAndré Robert Breton
(1896-02-19)19 February 1896
Tinchebray, France
Died28 September 1966(1966-09-28) (aged 70)
Paris, France
Period20th century
Genrepoetry, essays, novels, aesthetics
Literary movementSurrealism
Notable works
Simone Kahn
(m. 1921; div. 1931)
(m. 1934; div. 1943)
(m. 1945⁠–⁠1966)

André Robert Breton (French: [ɑ̃dʁe ʁɔbɛʁ bʁətɔ̃]; 19 February 1896 – 28 September 1966) was a French writer and poet, the co-founder, leader, and principal theorist of surrealism.[1] His writings include the first Surrealist Manifesto (Manifeste du surréalisme) of 1924, in which he defined surrealism as "pure psychic automatism".[2]

Along with his role as leader of the surrealist movement he is the author of celebrated books such as Nadja and L'Amour fou. Those activities, combined with his critical and theoretical work on writing and the plastic arts, made André Breton a major figure in twentieth-century French art and literature.


André Breton was the only son born to a family of modest means in Tinchebray (Orne) in Normandy, France. His father, Louis-Justin Breton, was a policeman and atheist, and his mother, Marguerite-Marie-Eugénie Le Gouguès, was a former seamstress. Breton attended medical school, where he developed a particular interest in mental illness.[3] His education was interrupted when he was conscripted for World War I.[3]

During World War I, he worked in a neurological ward in Nantes, where he met the Alfred Jarry devotee Jacques Vaché, whose anti-social attitude and disdain for established artistic tradition influenced Breton considerably.[4] Vaché committed suicide when aged 23, and his war-time letters to Breton and others were published in a volume entitled Lettres de guerre (1919), for which Breton wrote four introductory essays.[5]

Breton married his first wife, Simone Kahn, on 15 September 1921. The couple relocated to rue Fontaine No. 42 in Paris on 1 January 1922. The apartment on rue Fontaine (in the Pigalle district) became home to Breton's collection of more than 5,300 items: modern paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, books, art catalogs, journals, manuscripts, and works of popular and Oceanic art. Like his father, he was an atheist.[6][7][8][9]

From Dada to Surrealism[edit]

Breton launched the review Littérature in 1919, with Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault.[10] He also associated with Dadaist Tristan Tzara.[11]

In Les Champs Magnétiques[12] (The Magnetic Fields), a collaboration with Soupault, he implemented the principle of automatic writing. With the publication of his Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 came the founding of the magazine La Révolution surréaliste and the Bureau of Surrealist Research.[13] A group of writers became associated with him: Soupault, Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard, René Crevel, Michel Leiris, Benjamin Péret, Antonin Artaud, and Robert Desnos.

Eager to combine the themes of personal transformation found in the works of Arthur Rimbaud with the politics of Karl Marx, Breton and others joined the French Communist Party in 1927, from which he was expelled in 1933. Nadja, a novel about his imaginative encounter with a woman who later becomes mentally ill, was published in 1928. Due to the economic depression, he had to sell his art collection and rebuilt it later.[14][15]

In December 1929, Breton published the Second manifeste du surréalisme (Second manifesto of surrealism), which contained an oft-quoted declaration for which many, including Albert Camus, reproached Breton: "The simplest surrealist act consists, with revolvers in hand, of descending into the street and shooting at random, as much as possible, into the crowd".[16][17]

In reaction to the Second manifesto, writers and artists published in 1930 a collective collection of pamphlets against Breton, entitled (in allusion to an earlier title by Breton) Un Cadavre. The authors were members of the surrealist movement who were insulted by Breton or had otherwise opposed his leadership.[18]: 299–302  The pamphlet criticized Breton's oversight and influence over the movement. It marked a divide amidst the early surrealists. Georges Limbour and Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes commented on the sentence where shooting at random in the crowd is described as the simplest surrealist act. Limbour saw in it an example of buffoonery and shamelessness and Ribemont-Dessaignes called Breton a hypocrite, a cop and a priest.[19]

After the publication of this pamphlet against Breton, the Manifesto had a second edition, where Breton added in a note: "While I say that this act is the simplest, it is clear that my intention is not to recommend it to all merely by virtue of its simplicity; to quarrel with me on this subject is much like a bourgeois asking any non-conformist why he does not commit suicide, or asking a revolutionary why he hasn't moved to the USSR".[20]

In 1935, there was a conflict between Breton and the Soviet writer and journalist Ilya Ehrenburg during the first International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture, which opened in Paris in June. Breton had been insulted by Ehrenburg — along with all fellow surrealists — in a pamphlet which said, among other things, that surrealists shunned work, favouring parasitism, and that they endorsed "onanism, pederasty, fetishism, exhibitionism, and even sodomy". Breton slapped Ehrenburg several times on the street, which resulted in surrealists being expelled from the Congress.[21] René Crevel, who according to Salvador Dalí was "the only serious communist among surrealists",[22] was isolated from Breton and other surrealists, who were unhappy with Crevel because of his bisexuality and annoyed with communists in general.[14]

In 1938, Breton accepted a cultural commission from the French government to travel to Mexico. After a conference at the National Autonomous University of Mexico about surrealism, Breton stated after getting lost in Mexico City (as no one was waiting for him at the airport) "I don't know why I came here. Mexico is the most surrealist country in the world."

Trotsky and Breton in Mexico 1938

However, visiting Mexico provided the opportunity to meet Leon Trotsky. Breton and other surrealists traveled via a long boat ride from Patzcuaro to the town of Erongarícuaro. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were among the visitors to the hidden community of intellectuals and artists. Together, Breton and Trotsky wrote the Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art (published under the names of Breton and Diego Rivera) calling for "complete freedom of art", which was becoming increasingly difficult with the world situation of the time.

World War II and exile[edit]

Breton was again in the medical corps of the French Army at the start of World War II. The Vichy government banned his writings as "the very negation of the national revolution"[23] and Breton escaped, with the help of the American Varian Fry and Hiram "Harry" Bingham IV, to the United States and the Caribbean during 1941.[24][25] He emigrated to New York City and lived there for a few years.[3] In 1942, Breton organized a groundbreaking surrealist exhibition at Yale University.[3]

In 1942,[26] Breton collaborated with artist Wifredo Lam on the publication of Breton's poem "Fata Morgana", which was illustrated by Lam.

Breton got to know Martinican writers Suzanne Césaire and Aimé Césaire, and later composed the introduction to the 1947 edition of Aimé Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal. During his exile in New York City he met Elisa Bindhoff, the Chilean woman who would become his third wife.[14]

In 1944, he and Elisa traveled to the Gaspé Peninsula in Québec, where he wrote Arcane 17, a book which expresses his fears of World War II, describes the marvels of the Percé Rock and the extreme northeastern part of North America, and celebrates his new romance with Elisa.[14]

During his visit to Haiti in 1945–46, he sought to connect surrealist politics and automatist practices with the legacies of the Haitian Revolution and the ritual practices of Vodou possession. Recent developments in Haitian painting were central to his efforts, as can be seen from a comment that Breton left in the visitors' book at the Centre d'Art in Port-au-Prince: "Haitian painting will drink the blood of the phoenix. And, with the epaulets of [Jean-Jacques] Dessalines, it will ventilate the world." Breton was specifically referring to the work of painter and Vodou priest Hector Hyppolite, whom he identified as the first artist to directly depict Vodou scenes and the lwa (Vodou deities), as opposed to hiding them in chromolithographs of Catholic saints or invoking them through impermanent vevé (abstracted forms drawn with powder during rituals). Breton's writings on Hyppolite were undeniably central to the artist's international status from the late 1940s on, but the surrealist readily admitted that his understanding of Hyppolite's art was inhibited by their lack of a common language. Returning to France with multiple paintings by Hyppolite, Breton integrated this artwork into the increased surrealist focus on the occult, myth, and magic.[27]

Breton's sojourn in Haiti coincided with the overthrow of the country's president, Élie Lescot, by a radical protest movement. Breton's visit was warmly received by La Ruche, a youth journal of revolutionary art and politics, which in January 1946 published a talk given by Breton alongside a commentary which Breton described as having "an insurrectional tone". The issue concerned was suppressed by the government, sparking a student strike, and two days later, a general strike: Lescot was toppled a few days later. Among the figures associated with both La Ruche and the instigation of the revolt were the painter and photographer Gérald Bloncourt and the writers René Depestre and Jacques Stephen Alexis. In subsequent interviews Breton downplayed his personal role in the unrest, stressing that "the misery, and thus, the patience of the Haitian people, were at the breaking point" at the time and stating that "it would be absurd to say that I alone incited the fall of the government". Michael Löwy has argued that the lectures that Breton gave during his time in Haiti resonated with the youth associated with La Ruche and the student movement, resulting in them "plac(ing) them as a banner on their journal" and "t(aking) hold of them as they would a weapon". Löwy has identified three themes in Breton's talks which he believes would have struck a particular chord with the audience, namely surrealism's faith in youth, Haiti's revolutionary heritage, and a quote from Jacques Roumain extolling the revolutionary potential of the Haitian masses.[28]

Later life[edit]

Breton in the 1960s

Breton returned to Paris in 1946, where he opposed French colonialism (for example as a signatory of the Manifesto of the 121 against the Algerian War) and continued, until his death, to foster a second group of surrealists in the form of expositions or reviews (La Brèche, 1961–65). In 1959, he organized an exhibit in Paris.[14]

By the end of World War II, André Breton decided to embrace anarchism explicitly. In 1952, Breton wrote "It was in the black mirror of anarchism that surrealism first recognised itself."[29] Breton consistently supported the francophone Anarchist Federation and he continued to offer his solidarity after the Platformists around founder and Secretary General Georges Fontenis transformed the FA into the Fédération communiste libertaire (FCL).[14][29]

Like a small number of intellectuals during the time of the Algerian War, he continued to support the FCL when it was forced to go underground, even providing shelter to Fontenis, who was in hiding. He refused to take sides in the politically divided French anarchist movement, even though both he and Péret expressed solidarity to the new Anarchist Federation rebuilt by a group of synthesist anarchists. He also worked with the FA in the Anti-Fascist Committees in the 1960s.[29]

André Breton died at the age of 70 in 1966, and was buried in the Cimetière des Batignolles in Paris.[30]


Breton as a collector[edit]

Breton was an avid collector of art, ethnographic material, and unusual trinkets. He was particularly interested in materials from the northwest coast of North America. During a financial crisis he experienced in 1931, most of his collection (along with that of his friend Paul Éluard) was auctioned. He subsequently rebuilt the collection in his studio and home at 42 rue Fontaine. The collection grew to over 5,300 items: modern paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, books, art catalogs, journals, manuscripts, and works of popular and Oceanic art.[31]

French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss endorsed Breton's skill in authentication based on their time together in 1940s New York.[15]

After Breton's death on 28 September 1966, his third wife, Elisa, and his daughter, Aube, allowed students and researchers access to his archive and collection. After thirty-six years, when attempts to establish a surrealist foundation to protect the collection were opposed, the collection was auctioned by Calmels Cohen at Drouot-Richelieu. A wall of the apartment is preserved at the Centre Georges Pompidou.[32]

Reconstructed wall of Breton's studio at the Centre Pompidou

Nine previously partly unpublished manuscripts, including the Manifeste du surréalisme, were auctioned by Sotheby's in May 2008.[33]

Personal life[edit]

Breton married three times:[14]


  • 1919: Mont de piété ["Mount of piety"]
  • 1920: S'il vous plaît – Published in English as: If You Please
  • 1920: Les Champs magnétiques (with Philippe Soupault) – Published in English as: The Magnetic Fields
  • 1923: Clair de terre – Published in English as: Earthlight
  • 1924: Les Pas perdus – Published in English as: The Lost Steps
  • 1924: Manifeste du surréalisme – Published in English as: Surrealist Manifesto
  • 1924: Poisson soluble ["Soluble fish"]
  • 1924: Un cadavre ["A corpse"]
  • 1926: Légitime défense ["Legitimate defense"]
  • 1928: Le Surréalisme et la peinture (expanded editions in 1945 and 1965) – Published in English as: Surrealism and Painting
  • 1928: Nadja (expanded edition 1963) – Published in English as: Nadja
  • 1930: Ralentir travaux ["Slow down, men at work"] (with René Char and Paul Éluard)
  • 1930: Deuxième Manifeste du surréalisme – Published in English as: The Second Manifesto of Surrealism
  • 1930: L'Immaculée Conception (with Paul Éluard) – Published in English as: Immaculate Conception
  • 1931: L'Union libre ["Free union"]
  • 1932: Misère de la poésie ["Poetry's misery"]
  • 1932: Le Revolver à cheveux blancs ["The white-haired revolver"]
  • 1932: Les Vases communicants (expanded edition 1955) – Published in English as: Communicating Vessels
  • 1933: Le Message automatique – Published in English as: The Automatic Message
  • 1934: Qu'est-ce que le surréalisme? – Published in English as: What Is Surrealism?
  • 1934: Point du jour – Published in English as: Break of Day
  • 1934: L'Air de l'eau ["The air of the water"]
  • 1935: Position politique du surréalisme ["Political position of surrealism"]
  • 1936: Au lavoir noir ["At the black washtub"]
  • 1936: Notes sur la poésie ["Notes on poetry"] (with Paul Éluard)
  • 1937: Le Château étoilé ["The starry castle"]
  • 1937: L'Amour fou – Published in English as: Mad Love
  • 1938: Trajectoire du rêve ["Trajectory of dream"]
  • 1938: Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme ["Abridged dictionary of surrealism"] (with Paul Éluard)
  • 1938: Pour un art révolutionnaire indépendant ["For an independent revolutionary art"] (with Diego Rivera)
  • 1940: Anthologie de l'humour noir (expanded edition 1966) – Published in English as: Anthology of Black Humor
  • 1941: "Fata morgana" (A long poem included in subsequent anthologies)
  • 1943: Pleine marge ["Full margin"]
  • 1944: Arcane 17 – Published in English as: Arcanum 17
  • 1945: Situation du surréalisme entre les deux guerres ["Situation of surrealism between the two wars"]
Cover of Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares with a photomontage by Marcel Duchamp, 1946
  • 1946: Yves Tanguy (monograph on Yves Tanguy)
  • 1946: Les Manifestes du surréalisme (Expanded editions 1955 and 1962) – Published in English as: Manifestoes of Surrealism
  • 1946: Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares – Jeunes cerisiers garantis contre les lièvres [Bilingual edition of poems translated by Edouard Roditi]
  • 1947: Ode à Charles Fourier – Published in English as: Ode to Charles Fourier
  • 1948: Martinique, charmeuse de serpents (with André Masson) – Published in English as: Martinique: Snake Charmer
  • 1948: La Lampe dans l'horloge ["The lamp in the clock"]
  • 1948: Poèmes 1919–48 ["Poems 1919–48"]
  • 1949: Flagrant délit ["Red-handed"]
  • 1952: Entretiens – Published in English as: Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism
  • 1953: La Clé des champs – Published in English as: Free Rein
  • 1954: Farouche à quatre feuilles ["Four-leaf feral"] (with Lise Deharme, Julien Gracq, Jean Tardieu)
  • 1957: L'Art magique – Published in English as: Magical Art
  • 1959: Constellations (with Joan Miró) – Published in English as: Constellations
  • 1961: Le la ["The A"]
  • 1966: Clair de terre (Anthology of poems 1919–1936) – Published in English as: Earthlight
  • 1968: Signe ascendant (Anthology of poems 1935–1961) ["Ascendant sign"]
  • 1970: Perspective cavalière – [Literally: Cavalier perspective"]
  • 1988: Breton : Oeuvres complètes, tome 1 ["Breton: The Complete Works, tome 1"]
  • 1992: Breton : Oeuvres complètes, tome 2 ["Breton: The Complete Works, tome 2"]
  • 1999: Breton : Oeuvres complètes, tome 3 ["Breton: The Complete Works, tome 3"]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lawrence Gowing, ed., Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists, v.1 (Facts on File, 2005): 84.
  2. ^ André Breton (1969). Manifestoes of Surrealism. University of Michigan Press. p. 26. ISBN 0472061828. Archived from the original on 2022-03-19. Retrieved 2020-10-29.
  3. ^ a b c d "André Breton". Biography.com. Archived from the original on 2017-05-06. Retrieved 2020-07-11.
  4. ^ Henri Béhar, Catherine Dufour (2005). Dada, circuit total. L'AGE D'HOMME. p. 552. ISBN 9782825119068. Archived from the original on 2022-03-19. Retrieved 2020-10-29.
  5. ^ Vaché, Jacques (1949). Lettres de guerre. André Breton (2ème publication ed.). Archived from the original on 2020-02-01. Retrieved 2019-06-10.
  6. ^ Reviewing Mark Polizzotti's Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton Douglas F. Smith called him, "[a] cynical atheist, the poet, critic, and artist harbored an irrepressible streak of romanticism."
  7. ^ "To speak of God, to think of God, is in every respect to show what one is made of.... I have always wagered against God and I regard the little that I have won in this world as simply the outcome of this bet. However paltry may have been the stake (my life) I am conscious of having won to the full. Everything that is doddering, squint-eyed, vile, polluted and grotesque is summoned up for me in that one word: God!" - André Breton, taking from a footnote from his book, Surrealism and Painting. Quotations by the poet: Andre Breton Archived 2020-02-12 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Gilson, Étienne (1988). Linguistics and philosophy: an essay on the philosophical constants of language. University of Notre Dame Press. p. 98. ISBN 978-0-268-01284-7. Breton professed to be an atheist...
  9. ^ Browder, Clifford (1967). André Breton: Arbiter of Surrealism. Droz. p. 133. Again, the atheist Breton's predilection for ideas of blasphemy and profanation, as well as for the "demonic" word noir, contained a hint of Satanism and alliance with infernal powers.
  10. ^ "Lost Profiles, Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism". www.citylights.com. Archived from the original on 2019-12-20. Retrieved 2019-06-11.
  11. ^ "Tristan Tzara Art, Bio, Ideas". The Art Story. Archived from the original on 2019-04-21. Retrieved 2019-06-11.
  12. ^ "Les Champs magnétiques (André Breton)". www.andrebreton.fr (in French). Archived from the original on 2022-03-19. Retrieved 2021-07-09.
  13. ^ ramalhodiogo (2012-07-24). "Bureau of Surrealist Research". Frequently Asked Questions. Archived from the original on 2019-12-21. Retrieved 2019-06-11.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g Polizzotti, Mark. (2009). Revolution of the mind : the life of André Breton (1st Black Widow Press ed., rev. & updated ed.). Boston, Mass.: Black Widow Press. ISBN 9780979513787. OCLC 221148942.
  15. ^ a b Douglas, Ava. "André Breton". www.historygraphicdesign.com. Archived from the original on 2019-02-12. Retrieved 2019-02-25.
  16. ^ André Breton, Œuvres complètes – I, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, p. 782–783.
  17. ^ Marguerite Bonnet notes that a very similar phrase already appeared in an article published in 1925 in number 2 of La Révolution surréaliste and that it had not, in its time, caught the attention. Marguerite Bonnet, André Breton, naissance du surréalisme, Librairie José Corti, Paris, 1975, p. 64–65.
  18. ^ Polizzotti, Mark (2009) [First published 1995]. Revolution of the Mind (Revised and updated ed.). Boston, MA: First Black Widow Press. ISBN 978-0-9795137-8-7.
  19. ^ Pascale Cassuto-Roux, "Appels aux meurtres surréalistes", in: Florence Quinche and Antonio Rodriguez (ed.), Quelle éthique pour la littérature ?, Labor et Fides, 2007, p. 65–66, (online Archived 2016-01-29 at the Wayback Machine), which refers, for the texts of the pamphlet Un Cadavre, to Tracts surréalistes et déclarations collectives (1922-1969), t. I (1922-1939), Le Terrain Vague, Éric Losfeld editor, 1980, p. 133–134 and 140–142.
  20. ^ André Breton, Œuvres complètes – I, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, p. 783. Quoted by Pascale Cassuto-Roux, "Appels aux meurtres surréalistes", in: Florence Quinche and Antonio Rodriguez (ed.), Quelle éthique pour la littérature ?, Labor et Fides, 2007, p. 66, online Archived 2016-01-29 at the Wayback Machine.
  21. ^ Abdelhadi, Jason (22 March 2016). "Breton vs Ehrenburg: A Détournement on the Boulevard Montparnasse". Peculiar Mormyrid. peculiarmormyrid.com. Retrieved 24 March 2024.
  22. ^ Crevel, René. Le Clavecin de Diderot, Afterword. p. 161.
  23. ^ Franklin Rosemont André Breton and the First Principles of Surrealism, 1978, ISBN 0-904383-89-X.
  24. ^ Schiffrin, Anya (2019-10-03). "How Varian Fry Helped My Family Escape the Nazis". NYR Daily. Archived from the original on 2020-07-11. Retrieved 2020-07-11.
  25. ^ "Emergency Escape: Vatican Fry". Americans and the Holocaust. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Archived from the original on 2020-07-26. Retrieved 2020-07-11.
  26. ^ André Breton, Fata Morgana. Buenos Aires: Éditions des lettres françaises, Sur, 1942.
  27. ^ Geis, T. (2015). "Myth, History and Repetition: André Breton and Vodou in Haiti". South Central Review. 32 (1): 56–75. doi:10.1353/scr.2015.0010. S2CID 143481322.
  28. ^ Löwy, Michael (19 July 2022). "The Founder of Surrealism Helped Inspire a Revolution in Haiti". Jacobin. Retrieved 2022-07-21.
  29. ^ a b c "1919–1950: The politics of Surrealism by Nick Heath". Libcom.org. Archived from the original on 3 April 2010. Retrieved 26 December 2009.
  30. ^ Art, Surrealism. "André Breton | Father of Surrealism". www.surrealismart.org. Archived from the original on 2018-01-16. Retrieved 2018-01-24.
  31. ^ André Breton, 42, rue Fontaine: tableaux modernes, sculptures, estampes, tableaux anciens. Paris: CalmelsCohen, 2003.
  32. ^ "Surrealist Art", Centre Pompidou - Art Culture Mus. 11 March 2010. centrepompidou.fr Archived 9 February 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  33. ^ "Nine Manuscripts by André Breton at Sotheby's Paris". ArtDaily.org. 20 May 2008. Archived from the original on 31 May 2013. Retrieved 28 March 2009.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]