(b Tinchebray, 19 Feb 1896; d Paris, 28 Sept 1966). French writer. While still an adolescent he came under the influence of Paul Valéry and Gustave Moreau, who for a long period were to influence his perception of beauty. From that time on, his poetic creation interrelated with his reflections on art, which like Gide’s were conditioned by a moral code. He considered that it is not possible to write for a living, but only from interior necessity; in the same way, painting must always derive from an irrepressible need for self-expression. These criteria guided Breton both in his dealings with the Surrealist group (of which he was the uncontested leader) and in his articles on painting, collected in editions of Le Surréalisme et la peinture (first published in 1928).
Breton’s family were of modest means. He was educated in the modern section of a lycée, without any Latin or Greek, and had embarked on a study of medicine when he was called up to serve in World War I. During this period he was drawn to poetry by his fascination with Arthur Rimbaud. His meeting with the aesthete Jacques Vaché temporarily dulled his interest in Rimbaud, and instead he turned to Guillaume Apollinaire, whose advice and friendship were a significant influence on him. Through Apollinaire he came into contact with Marie Laurencin, Derain, De Chirico and Picasso, and became friendly with the French poet and novelist Philippe Soupault. The review Littérature (1919–24), which he edited with Soupault and Louis Aragon, welcomed the newest talent. It then became a convert to Dada, contributing to the success of Duchamp, Picabia, Max Ernst, Arp and Man Ray. In an attempt to overcome the purely negative phase of Dada, Breton tried to organize a vast congress in Paris in 1921. Considering that Paul Valéry and Apollinaire had both in turn failed in their own missions, Breton wanted to define the constants of the modern spirit. The opposition of Tristan Tzara caused the initiative to fail. As a result Breton abandoned Dada, intending to concentrate on the writing of poetry.
By this time Breton’s interest in Surrealism had led him to investigate automatic writing and the importance accorded to the subconscious by Freud; he had already collaborated with Soupault on Les Champs magnétiques which appeared in Littérature in 1919. The dominance of Freud was seen in the Manifeste du surréalisme—Poisson soluble, which followed in 1924 and dealt with the psychic origins of the poetic image rather than with painting. However, the review La Révolution surréaliste (1924–9) opened the debate on this subject with an article by Max Morise, ‘Les Yeux enchantés’, which called for a plastic form for Surrealism, and which prompted a reply from Breton extending over several issues of Le Surréalisme et la peinture in La Révolution surréaliste. His first axiom in this was that ‘The eye exists in a primitive stage’. The second, that a painting must open on to something else, beyond its appearance. Third, painting is a transcription of an ‘interior model’. With these premises, he examined the activity of certain painters, including Picasso, De Chirico, Ernst, Man Ray, André Masson, Miró, Yves Tanguy and Arp, who were also represented in the first Surrealist group exhibition, La Peinture surréaliste, organized by Breton in 1925. He joined the French Communist Party in 1927.
In Le Second Manifeste du surréalisme (1929), Breton designated each creative individual to search for the ‘state of mind in which life and death, reality and the imaginary, past and future, the communicable and incommunicable, the heights and depths, cease to be perceived as contradictory’. It condemned any deviation from this collectively adopted line of adhesion to historic materialism, while preserving the autonomy of art, and sharply criticized some early members of the movement for failing to maintain expected standards. automatism was no longer the sole criterion of Surrealism. With Nadja (1928), he invented a new type of narrative, relating the strangest encounters, the inexplicable coincidences of his life. As a guarantee of its authenticity, he provided photographic illustrations, thus inaugurating a new genre which he continued with Les Vases communicants (1932), L’Amour fou (1937) and Arcane 17 (1945). Each work explores a particular aspect of the relationship between the conscious state and dreams, highlighting the objects and discoveries that create a capillary network connecting the two states.
Breton’s aesthetic philosophy, developed along with his discoveries of Dalí, Victor Brauner, Oscar Domínguez and Roberto Matta, rested on several intangible convictions. Aesthetic feeling is manifested by ‘a puff of wind on the temples’. It is linked to eroticism. ‘First one must love’, he said. ‘There will always be time afterwards to analyse the reasons.’ He proclaimed that ‘convulsive beauty’ was suspended in this movement, the role of the spectator being to disguise and to reveal it in turn. His interest in art and cult objects from the Pacific Islands and America helped him develop a practised eye, to recognize their considerable artistic worth, and in turn to contribute to their re-evaluation in the context of the Western world. In the same way he became enthusiastic about the work of self-taught artists and that of the mentally ill, whom he considered paradoxically as a reservoir of mental health, providing a key to freedom.
Breton left Europe in 1941, travelling first to the West Indies and then to the USA; he lived in New York and shared his Surrealist principles with David Hare, Gorky, Enrico Donati, Wifredo Lam, and the British painter Gordon Onslow-Ford (b 1912). He returned to Paris in 1946 and occupied himself for a long period on the completion of L’Art magique (1957, with Gérard Legrand), in which he discussed his long-held view of art as the vehicle of magic in archaic societies, and the crisis of magic transmitted in a more or less occult fashion by Leonardo Bosch, Dürer and Grünewald, up to the visionary world of Goya, Fuseli, Blake, Charles Méryon and Victor Hugo, to culminate in the works of Moreau and Gauguin; and finally the rediscovery of magic in Surrealism. In 1959, Breton’s 22 parallel prose pieces, Constellations, were published with gouaches by Miró. The last edition of Le Surréalisme et la peinture appeared in 1965, and contained all his ideas on the artists participating in the Surrealist spirit, such as the French painters Pierre Molinier (1900–76), Jacques Herold (b 1910) and Toyen, and the Swedish painter Max Walter Svanberg.
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press