André Breton - Biography and Legacy
French Theoretician and Writer
Biography of André Breton
André Breton was born in a small village, 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.
While Breton forged his early aestheticism, he studied medicine, completed basic military training and, in 1915, was assigned to work in a military hospital in Nantes. His first poems, Decembre and Age, were written while he worked there as a nurse. It was during this time that he met his mentors, Guillaume Apollinaire and Jacques Vache, who were both admitted to the hospital for war wounds. Breton's hatred of war led him to an intense investigation of Sigmund Freud's psychotherapeutic practices. He developed a passion for psychiatric art that tapped into the subconscious, which informed his interest in Dada, and later, Surrealism. In 1919, Breton began a correspondence with Tristan Tzara, who was formulating early Dada theories in Zurich. The two finally united forces in Paris in 1920.
When Breton arrived in Paris, he was in his mid-twenties and already an established author and editor of an avant-garde magazine, Litterature. While Tzara penned his Manifestation Dada, Breton promoted journalism and live "happenings" as the ultimate statements against the bourgeoisie. Dada performances were not recorded, so the bulk of the campaign only exists today in print, as flyers, posters, manifestos, handbills, and magazines. During this time, Breton organized many readings and events. He, along with other artists, published open letters, newspaper interviews, press releases, and advertisements. They took advantage of the media to disseminate their theories and to attack the idea of art making as an elitist practice.
Because Dada was originally associated with German Expressionism, many French critics disliked it, thus Breton worked to tie this new movement to French literary communities. Dada faded in 1924 due to personal differences between Breton and Tzara. This paved the way for Breton's Surrealism. The Surrealist Manifesto interpreted Breton's experiments with psychic automatism, which became popular in America when he brought exhibitions featuring Surrealist artists to New York.
Late Years and Death
During the 1930s, artists within the Surrealist movement became polarized, some favoring political activism over commercial success. Artists such as Max Ernst, René Magritte and Salvador Dalí pursued furthered connections between dreams and art practice. Breton, who rejected fascism, advocated for political responsibility and consequently many Surrealists followed his cue. Interestingly, many women affiliated with Surrealism, such as Lee Miller and Meret Oppenheim, followed Breton, for his exploration of sexual identity themes at the time.
Breton traveled Europe during the onset of World War II, lecturing against repression of intellectual freedom. Notably, he spent the summer of 1939 with Roberto Matta at his country house, where Matta painted the pieces that would visually introduce automatism to America. Breton again worked as a medic when the war broke out, finally fleeing to New York in 1941. For the next several years, Breton lectured at Yale and other universities about automatism, politics and Surrealism. His influence on the New York School became clear as painters like Pollock and Motherwell applied his theories to their art practices.
When the war was over, Breton continued to write and traveled the world, finally returned to Paris. In the 1940s and 50s, Breton primarily worked on essays and poems, including Arcane 17 (1945), mythological prose set in Canada. He also published Constellations (1959), a suite of poems inspired by Joan Miró's gouache paintings of the same name. He also collected art, especially that of Indigenous peoples. His collection remained intact until 2003, when the Atelier de Breton was dismantled and sold at auction. Some of his collection remains at the Centre Pompidou. The Dossier Dada, an archive Breton built of press clippings and publications related to these various art movements, can be found at Kunsthaus Zurich.
The Legacy of André Breton
The legacy of André Breton is wide reaching and continues to this day. 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.