Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Andre Breton (19/2/1896-28/9/66) - Revolutionary, Poet and founder of Surrealism.

" In the world we live in everything militates in favour of things that have not yet happened, of things that will never happen again"

It is living and ceasing to live that are imaginary solutions. Existence is elsewhere"

"No one who has lived even for a fleeting moment for something other than life in its conventional sense and has experienced the exaltation that this feeling produces can then renounce his new freedom so easily."

"Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all" - Quotes by Andre Breton

Aptly described by playwright Eugene Ionesco as "one of the four or five great reformers of modern thought", Andre Breton (1896-1966) was the founder and prime mover of Surrealism, the most influential artistic and literary movement of the 20th century. Poet and theorist, artistic impresario anti-fascist and political agitator, Breton was a man of paradoxical character: inspiring one moment, crushingly tyrannical the next; embracing friends like Brunuel, Dali, Duchamp, Miro, Man Ray, Aragon and Eluard, only to exile them as enemies later. From its emergence from Dada after World War I through its culmination in the 1960s, here is his  Surrealist world.
André Breton was born  into a working-class family on February 18, 1896, in Tinchebray, a small town in Normandy, France, although his family relocated to a Parisian suburb soon after. He excelled in school and developed literary interests quite early. Breton read the French Decadents, such as Charles Baudelaire, J.K. Huysmans, Stephane Mallarme, and the German Romantic writers, all of whom informed his early thoughts on Avant-Gardism. By 1912, Breton had a cultivated knowledge of Contemporary art and begun to study Anarchism as a political movement. While he loved the French Decadent artists, such as Gustave Moreau, he began to separate himself from their belief in "art for art's sake," in favor of art that appealed to the masses.In 1916, Breton joined the group of artists associated with the subversive Dada movement in Paris, including Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray.
But he  moved away from Dadaism, which itself began during World War One as an irrational, nonsensical expression of anti-war rhetoric and along with Louis Aragon and Phillippe Soupault, Breton  in 1919 co-founded a journal called Littérature to showcase the first surrealist writing. His definition of surrealism was summed up as:" psychic automation in its pure state, by which one  proposes to express - verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner - The actual functioning of thought."  In 1924, he published Le Manifeste du Surréalisme (The Manifesto of Surrealism), a document announcing the new movement's embrace of all forms of liberated expression and its rejection of social and moral conventions.
Breton studied medicine and psychiatry and showed a particular interest in mental illnesses.His early interest was in being a psychoanalyst and met Freud in Vienna in 1921. During the first world war Breton served in the neurological ward in Nantes,as a nurse but never qualified as a psychoanalyst. But  no doubt this experience laid the foundations for his theories on the concept of the unconsciousness. His first poems, Decembre and Age, were written while he worked there.He developed a passion for psychiatric art, which informed his interest in Dada, and later surrealism. Here he met the devotee of Alfred Jarry, Jacques Vache whose anti-social attitude and disdain for established artistic tradition influenced Breton considerably. Vaché committed suicide at the age 24 in 1919. Somewhat later Breton conducted his first experiments with the insane at a psychiatric center in aint-Dezier. He drew pictures of their dreams and committed their free associations to paper in order to nalyse the patients by Freudian methods. In 1919 he published a slim volume Les Chants magnifique, consisting of texts developed together with Phillipe Soupalt  by the free association method that is automatically.
He married Simone Kahn in 1921 and while they lived in Paris he amassed a massive collection of artwork, photographs and books. He went on to marry a further two times.
His Surrealist Manifesto, the first of three, was produced in 1924. This explained his definition of surrealism and sought to highlight the importance of dreams and the merging of realities in an absurdist way,which outlines surrealist preoccupations and is considered to be the beginning of the Surrealist Movement. It also established Breton as the spearhead of Surrealism, a role he would maintain for the entire duration of the movement. Breton credited several contemporaries in the work including Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard and others.And he became associated with a number of writers including Benjamin Peret, Antonin Artaud,
Robert Desnos Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard also associated with the Dadaist Tristan Tzara.

                                 Breton third on left pictured will fellow Surrealists

His second Manifesto came in 1930 but the third was never published. After writing his Manifestos he published poems and novels throughout the 1920s and 30s. His most acclaimed novel, from 1928, is Nadia, believed to be a semi-autobiographical story of his relationship with a mad woman who was a patient of Pierre Janet. It begins with the question “Who Am I” and ends with “beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.”L'Amour Fou (Mad Love), published in 1937, is a poetic meditation on obsessive love.
Anxious to combine the themes of personal transformation found in the works of Arthur Rimbaud with the politics of Karl Marx, Breton joined the French Communist Party in 1927.The revolutionary aspiration is at the very source of Surrealism,it is not by accident that one of the movement’s first collective texts, written in 1925, is called “Revolution First and Always.” That same year, the desire to break with Western civilization led Breton to investigate the ideas of the October Revolution, for example, Trotsky’s  essay  Lenin. .In 1933 however Breton and Eluard were expelled from the party due to nonconformist behaviour. 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  fellow surrealists—in a pamphlet which said, among other things, that surrealists were "pedrasts". Breton slapped Ehrenburg several times on the street, which resulted in the  surrealists being expelled from the Congress.He also criticised Stalins repression of public opinion, and quoted from Lenin (1905) ; " Everyone is free to say and write whatever he pleases; freedom of the press must remain unimpeded."
Breton considered everything else reactionary, " Whether we move in the realm of politics or of art, there are always these two forces; the refusal to accept conditions as they are and the irresistable need to change them, on the one hand, there must be lasting loyalty to the moral precepts that have stood for progress. No one can suppress these forces for years, or fight against them in the name of messianic idea of what the Soviet Union is doing."
Now the break with the Soviet Union was official, Lenin and Trotsky had become the new heroes of the movement, not Stalin. A Militant Federation of Revolutionary Intellectuals , by a group that included Breton, Eluard and Peret. It was called Contre-Attaque and its aim was class struggle and the nationalisation of the means of production.
In April 1938 Breton accepted a cultural commission from the French government to travel to Mexico with his wife the painter Jacquline Lamba. After a conference  about surrealism, Breton told a story about 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". They stay with Guadalupe Marin, Diego Rivera's previous wife, and meet the Kahlo-Riveras. When Breton sees Kahlo's unfinished "What the Water Gave Me", the metaphorical self-portrait of what life had given her - floating on the water of her bathtub - he immediately labels her an innate "surrealist", and offers to show her work in Paris.

                                              Frida Kahlo's - What the Water Gave Me                                       

Immediately he circumscribed her as one part the essence of the surrealist movement and wrote an essay to her „a strip of silk around a pump”. This label of surrealism of the work of Frida Kahlo is one of the “mistakes” that have been continued between the massive public with respect to their classification and understanding.In her own words she said " They thought I was a surrealist , but I was not, I never painted my dreams, I only painted my own reality."
Visiting Mexico also provided the opportunity to meet Leon Trotsky. Breton and other surrealists traveled via a long boat ride from Patzcuaro to the town of Frongaricuaro. He Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo were among the visitors to the hidden community of intellectuals and artists. Together, Breton and Trotsky wrote a manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art (published under the names of Breton and Diego Rivera) calling for "complete freedom of art", a call to arms, pens and brushes addressed to radical artists and writers. It denounced fascism and Stalinism, two dictatorships suffocating artistic expression as they were drowning workers’ opposition in blood. It was also a comment on the role of art and culture in class society, it contains  this famous passage:
The revolution must, from the very start, establish and assure an anarchist regime of individual liberty for cultural creation.  No authority, no constraint, not the slightest trace of commandment! On this issue Marxists can march hand in hand with anarchists…. 
The result was a manifesto that would be of  great importance for both Trotsky and  Breton . Communist and Surrealist met on their common ground of their reaction to Stalinism and their interest in the revolutionary function of art.

                                            Breton, Riviera and Trotsky            

At the start of the 1940s Breton had returned briefly to work in the medical wards in French hospitals but when the Nazis invaded and occupied France he fled to America along with his friends Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst. He lived in New York City at this time, and managed a Surrealist exhibition at Yale in 1942.In 1945 he married Elisa Bindhorf in Reno, Nevada.
He returned to Paris after the war 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 Breche, 1961–1965). In 1959, he organized an exhibit in Paris.
 Breton’s anarchist sympathies manifested more clearly in the postwar years.By the end of World War11 the surealist group led by Breton had decided to explcitly embrace anarchism. In the 1947 book Arcanum 17, he describes the emotion he felt when, still a child, he discovered in a cemetery a headstone with the simple inscription, “Neither God Nor Master.”  Commenting on these words, he raises a general reflection:  “Above art and poetry, whether we wish it or no, flies a flag alternately red and black”—two colors between which he refused to choose."
From October 1951 to January 1953, the Surrealist group in Paris regularly contributed articles and leaflets to the journal Le Libertaire, the organ of the French Anarchist Federation. Their principal correspondent in the Federation was, at that time, the libertarian communist George Fontenis.  It was during this time that Breton wrote the flamboyant 1952 text entitled “La claire tour/The Light Tower,” which gives the libertarian origins of Surrealism:
Surrealism first came into being in the black mirror of anarchism, well before it defined itself, when it was nothing more than a free association among individuals rejecting spontaneously and outright the social and moral constraints of their timeBreton was consistent in his support for the francophone Anarchist Federation and he continued to offer his solidarity after the Platformists  around Fontenis transformed the FA into the Federation Communiste Libertaire. He was one of the few intellectuals who continued to offer his support to the FCL during the  Algerian War (1954-1962) when the FCL suffered severe repression and was forced underground. He sheltered Fontenis whilst he was in hiding. He refused to take sides on the splits in the French anarchist movement and both he and Peret expressed solidarity as well with the new FA set up by the synthesist anarchists, and worked in the Antifascist Committees of the 1960s alongside the FA. His apartment at la Rue Fontaine #42 became the heart of Paris’s anarchist writers and artists, and home to his collection of over 5000 artworks, manuscripts, African masks and objects of Oceanic art.
This interest and active sympathy for anarchism did not at all  lead Breton to renounce his adhesion to the October Revolution and the ideas of Leon Trotsky.  In an intervention on November 17, 1957, André Breton insisted and signed, " Against winds and tides, I am among those who still find, in the memory of the October Revolution, a high degree of that unconditional enthusiasm which I bore toward it in my youth and which implies total self-sacrifice."
Finally, in 1962, in an homage to Natalia Sedova Trotsky, who had just died, he hoped that one day history would  accord Leon Trotsky “not only justice…but will be called to accept, in all their vigor and amplitude, the ideas to which his life was given.”
During his lifetime, Breton produced a tremendous body of work that contained poetry, novels, criticism, and theory. Of his oeuvre, the collection of poems Mad Love (1937), the novel Nadja (1928) and the critical text Communicating Vessels (1932) are considered to be his most valuable contributions to the literary world.He published three books of poetry, in all Arcane 17 in 1945, and a further Surrealist work in 1953 called The key to the fields. He also mentored young surrealist writers and artists.
Andre Breton died in Paris on this day September 28th 1966 at the age of 70 and was buried in the Cimetière des Batignolles in Paris.He remains  one of the most outstanding literary representatives of surrealism, who tried to link art with revolutionary politics. Who with singlemindedness clung to his idea of Surrealism and the revolution of the mind.His rich contribution  to the idea of surrealism, art, and the meaningful poetry, that he left means his legacy lives on.After coming to New York during World War II, his ideas on Surrealism were essential to early Abstract Expressionists, like Arshile Gorky, Roberto Matta, and Yves Tanguy, as well as second generation Surrealists, like Joseph Cornell. He pioneered the concept of fusing art and culture, which became a basic tenet in Pop Art. Breton's use of the media as a tool of art practice also helped shape many contemporary artists who build personas as part of their work. In this way, he foresaw Performance Art, Fluxus, Conceptualism, and what has followed on from those movements. Perhaps above all, Breton's love of absurdist humor continues to inspire artists to the present day..
Here's a link to a previous post about him :-

Freedom of Love

(Translated from the French by Edouard Rodti)

My wife with the hair of a wood fire
With the thoughts of heat lightning
With the waist of an hourglass
With the waist of an otter in the teeth of a tiger
My wife with the lips of a cockade and of a bunch of stars of the last magnitude
With the teeth of tracks of white mice on the white earth
With the tongue of rubbed amber and glass
My wife with the tongue of a stabbed host
With the tongue of a doll that opens and closes its eyes
With the tongue of an unbelievable stone
My wife with the eyelashes of strokes of a child's writing
With brows of the edge of a swallow's nest
My wife with the brow of slates of a hothouse roof
And of steam on the panes
My wife with shoulders of champagne
And of a fountain with dolphin-heads beneath the ice
My wife with wrists of matches
My wife with fingers of luck and ace of hearts
With fingers of mown hay
My wife with armpits of marten and of beechnut
And of Midsummer Night
Of privet and of an angelfish nest
With arms of seafoam and of riverlocks
And of a mingling of the wheat and the mill
My wife with legs of flares
With the movements of clockwork and despair
My wife with calves of eldertree pith
My wife with feet of initials
With feet of rings of keys and Java sparrows drinking
My wife with a neck of unpearled barley
My wife with a throat of the valley of gold
Of a tryst in the very bed of the torrent
With breasts of night
My wife with breasts of a marine molehill
My wife with breasts of the ruby's crucible
With breasts of the rose's spectre beneath the dew
My wife with the belly of an unfolding of the fan of days
With the belly of a gigantic claw
My wife with the back of a bird fleeing vertically
With a back of quicksilver
With a back of light
With a nape of rolled stone and wet chalk
And of the drop of a glass where one has just been drinking
My wife with hips of a skiff
With hips of a chandelier and of arrow-feathers
And of shafts of white peacock plumes
Of an insensible pendulum
My wife with buttocks of sandstone and asbestos
My wife with buttocks of swans' backs
My wife with buttocks of spring
With the sex of an iris
My wife with the sex of a mining-placer and of a platypus
My wife with a sex of seaweed and ancient sweetmeat
My wife with a sex of mirror
My wife with eyes full of tears
With eyes of purple panoply and of a magnetic needle
My wife with savanna eyes
My wife with eyes of water to he drunk in prison
My wife with eyes of wood always under the axe
My wife with eyes of water-level of level of air earth and fire

The Spectral Attitudes

I attach no importance to life
I pin not the least of life's butterflies to importance
I do not matter to life
But the branches of salt the white branches
All the shadow bubbles
And the sea-anemones
Come down and breathe within my thoughts
They come from tears that are not mine
From steps I do not take that are steps twice
And of which the sand remembers the flood-tide
The bars are in the cage
And the birds come down from far above to sing before these bars
A subterranean passage unites all perfumes
A woman pledged herself there one day
This woman became so bright that I could no longer see her
With these eyes which have seen my own self burning
I was then already as old as I am now
And I watched over myself and my thoughts like a night watchman in an immense factory Keeping watch alone
The circus always enchants the same tramlines
The plaster figures have lost nothing of their expression
They who bit the smile's fig
I know of a drapery in a forgotten town
If it pleased me to appear to you wrapped in this drapery
You would think that your end was approaching
Like mine
At last the fountains would understand that you must not say Fountain
The wolves are clothed in mirrors of snow
I have a boat detached from all climates
I am dragged along by an ice-pack with teeth of flame
I cut and cleave the wood of this tree that will always be green
A musician is caught up in the strings of his instrument
The skull and crossbones of the time of any childhood story
Goes on board a ship that is as yet its own ghost only
Perhaps there is a hilt to this sword
But already there is a duel in this hilt
During the duel the combatants are unarmed
Death is the least offence
The future never comes

The curtains that have never been raised
Float to the windows of houses that are to be built
The beds made of lilies
Slide beneath the lamps of dew
There will come an evening
The nuggets of light become still underneath the blue moss
The hands that tie and untie the knots of love and of air
Keep all their transparency for those who have eyes to see
They see the palms of hands
The crowns in eyes
But the brazier of crown and palms
Can scarcely be lit in the deepest part of the forest
There where the stags bend their heads to examine the years
Nothing more than a feeble beating is heard
From which sound a thousand louder or softer sounds proceed
And the beating goes on and on
There are dresses that vibrate
And their vibration is in unison with the beating
When I wish to see the faces of those that wear them
A great fog rises from the ground
At the bottom of the steeples behind the most elegant reservoirs of life and of wealth
In the gorges which hide themselves between two mountains
On the sea at the hour when the sun cools down
Those who make signs to me are separated by stars
And yet the carriage overturned at full speed
Carries as far as my last hesitation
That awaits me down there in the town where the statues of bronze
and of stone have changed places with statues of wax Banyans banyans.

Link to Less Time - Andre Breton

Further reading :-

Breton, “Homage to Natalia Sedova-Trotsky,” in What is Surrealism, pp.306-308.

Surrealism- Uwe M. Schneede ; Harry N Abrams, New York,

Surrealism -Patrick Waldberg ; Thames and Hudson

dada; art and anti art - Hans Richter; Thames and Hudson

The Poetry of Surrealism: An Anthology, ed. Michael Benedikt (Boston & Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1974).

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