André Breton (1896-1966); biography, surrealism and famous works

André Breton (1896-1966) was a famous French writer and poet, essayist, critic, and editor best known as one of the founders of Surrealism. He was born in Normandy, France. His family were not wealthy. He studied medicine and psychiatry in Paris, but World War I interrupted his studies and he did not complete his training. During the war he worked in a neurological ward for soldiers with ‘shell-shock’ (i.e. post-traumatic stress syndrome) in a hospital in Nantes. There he began exploring the potential of psychoanalysis to unlock the creative side of the psyche. One of his patients was an eccentric young writer, Jacques Vache, whom Breton later credited as a major influence, describing him as the spiritual son of Alfred Jarry.

After the war, Breton returned to Paris and became involved with several Dada artists and writers. In 1919 he co founded the journal Littérature with Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault. Breton and Soupault were particularly interested in a procedure they called automatic writing which, inspired by Sigmund Freud’s notion of free association, they thought would provide a window into the operations of the unconscious. Together they published a novel utilising this method, Les Champs magnetiques (1920), translated as “The Magnetic Fields” (1985) almost incomprehensible by traditional standards of writing, this novel signalled a departure from Dada because it was active rather than reactive. It proved highly influential and soon a great number of artists began experimenting with this technique, including visual artists like André Masson and musicians like Edgard Varèse.

In 1924, Breton published the first of three manifestos for Surrealism, which served to define the movement as a revolution in the arts. Breton’s Manifeste du surréalisme (1924; Surrealist Manifesto) defined Surrealism as “pure psychic automatism, by which it is intended to express…the real process of thought. It is the dictation of thought, free from any control by the reason and of any aesthetic or moral preoccupation”. Because of his outspoken attitude and doctrinal approach he frequently ‘excommunicated’ people from the movement for not agreeing with his vision of how things should be  Breton was known as the ‘Pope of Surrealism’. Breton joined the Communist Party in 1927, but was expelled in 1933. His sympathies never deviated from Marxism, however, and his work continued to explore the dialectic. He travelled to Mexico in 1938, ostensibly for a conference on Surrealism at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. There he got to meet the great socialist artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo as well as the exiled Leon Trotsky, with whom he wrote yet another manifesto, this time for revolutionary art.


Breton’s other works includes Un Cadavre (1924; A Corpse), Les Pas perdus (1924; “The Lost Steps”), Légitime Défense (1926; “Legitimate Defense”), Le Surréalisme et le peinture (1926; “Surrealism and Painting”), Nadja (1928; “Nadja”), Deuxième Manifeste du surréalisme (1930; “The Second Manifesto of Surrealism”), L’Union libre (1931; “Free Union”), Le Message automatique(1933; “The Automatic Message”), Qu’est-ce que le surréalisme? (1934; “What is Surrealism?”), Position politique du surréalisme (1935; “Political Position of Surrealism”), Anthologie de l’humour noir (1940; “Anthology of Black Humor”), Entretiens (1952; “Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism”) and La Clé des champs (1953; “The Key to the Fields”).

He returned to France at the outbreak of World War II and once more volunteered his services in the medical corps. After France’s surrender, however, the Vichy government banned his writings and declared him an enemy of the state. He escaped from France to Martinique, where he met Aimé Cesaire. He returned to France in 1946. He was an outspoken critic of France’s involvement in Algeria and was one of the signatories of the Manifesto of the 121 written to protest against the Algerian War. Surrealism continued after the war, but its influence declined. It was succeeded by Situationism in France and Abstractionism in the US.

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