Andre Breton
Biography of Chief Art-Theorist of Surrealism Movement.

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Andre Breton in 1920, aged 24

Andre Breton (1896-1966)


Early Life
The Road to Dada and Surrealism
The Surrealism Movement
Political Activist
America During World War II
Returns to Paris

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An important figure in French painting and an original member of Paris Dada, the French poet, writer and critic Andre Breton is best known as the leading theorist, spokesman or "High Priest" of the Surrealism movement, from its launch in 1924 until his death in 1966. As well as writing the official Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) - dedicated to his friend Apollinaire who had first coined the name Surrealisme in 1917 - Breton was the creative force behind the movement's two main journals The Surrealist Revolution (1924-9) and Surrealism at the service of the Revolution (1930-33). Resident in Paris until 1941, he fled to America for the period 1941-46, joining a number of other expatriate Surrealist artists in New York, where they became an important influence on Jackson Pollock (1912-56), Robert Motherwell (1915-91), and other abstract painters of the so-called New York School. His writings also influenced the development of Pop Art, while his use of the media as an instrument of art anticipated contemporary art movements like Fluxus, as well as new creative forms such as Performance Art and even Conceptualism.



Early Life

Andre Breton was born in Tinchebray, Normandy, although not long afterwards he moved to Paris with his family. He was an excellent pupil at school, excelling in literary subjects which gave him an excellent grounding in contemporary culture, including modern art, notably the Symbolism and Decadent art of Gustave Moreau. He was also interested in politics, becoming attracted to left-wing anarchism, which steered him away from the idea of "art for art's sake," towards the sort of art that might appeal to the masses. It was also in his late teens that Breton began collecting artworks and other objects.

In 1914, as war approached, Breton began training as a medical nurse. In 1915, after completing his military training, he was posted to a military hospital in Nantes, where he nursed the wounded Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) - France's most influential art critic. Apollinaire was an especially brilliant propagandist who counseled Breton in how to promote his favourite artists. Another patient who had an important influence on Breton, was the writer Jacques Vache, whose anti-establishment attitude extended to all forms of fine art. As it was, Vache committed suicide shortly after the war, and his war-time correspondence with Breton and others was detailed in the book Lettres de Guerre, published in 1919, for which Breton wrote a lengthy Introduction. Breton's experiences as a neurological nurse in Nantes prompted him to undertake an intense study of Freudian psychotherapy, during which he developed a liking for a type of psychiatric art (or art brut) involving the subconscious.

The Road to Dada and Surrealism

Breton's interest in subconscious creativity, further reinforced by Apollinaire's insistence that artists should explore "interior universes", led Breton in the direction of Dada - the anti-art movement that erupted in neutral Switzerland. In late 1918 he started corresponding with the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara (1896-1963), who - along with the sculptor Jean Arp (1886-1966) and film-maker Hans Richter (1888-1976) - was one of the Dadaist leaders in Zurich. Eventually, in 1920, Breton and Tzara joined forces in Paris, where Breton had just launched the avant-garde magazine Litterature, with Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault. In September 1921 he married his first wife, Simone Kahn. Meanwhile, as a left-wing Dada activist, he devoted a huge amount of energy to propagandizing the numerous Dadaist "Happenings" and other cultural events. This promotional activity included open letters to newspapers and journals, press releases, interviews, and advertisements, as well as posters, handbills, flyers, manifestos, and brochures. He also staged a number of readings and other artistic workshops. However, Dada - as championed by Tristan Tzara - remained firmly anti-art, which gave Breton little opportunity to explore his interest in psychotherapy and associated issues like "automatic painting". Eventually, this caused Breton to quit Dada and launch his own movement, "Surrealisme".



The Surrealism Movement

Thus Breton became the founder and chief spokesman of the most enduring of all modern art movements, and a major influence on modern artists during the inter-war years. Although bubbling for some time, Surrealism was officially launched in 1924 with the publication of Breton's Surrealist Manifesto. The main idea of the movement was to release the creative energy of the unconscious mind. Following the example of pioneers like Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) - whose works, like The Uncertainty of the Poet (1913, Tate, London), Song of Love (1914, Museum of Modern Art, New York), and The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914, Private Collection), presented an enigmatic, surreal world - Surrealist artists sought to combine dream and reality into a super-reality. The Manifesto explained Breton's exploration of psychic automatism in art, which he described as the heart of the new movement. All this was followed in 1925 by the first Surrealist exhibition at the Galerie Pierre in Paris, along with the publication of numerous other articles and books on Surrealism, including the magazine La Revolution Surrealiste, edited by Breton, which ran from 1924 to 1929.

Although never popular in Germany, Surrealism was a huge success in France and Belgium, attracting a wide range of painters and sculptors, whose works were showcased at a number of well-attended exhibitions throughout western Europe. The movement embraced abstract art by such painters as Joan Miro (1893-1983), Max Ernst (1891-1976), Francis Picabia (1879-1953), Yves Tanguy (1900-55), Andre Masson (1896-1987) and Jean Arp (1887-1966); as well as representational art by Salvador Dali (1904-89), Rene Magritte (1898-1967), Paul Delvaux (1897-1994), and Maurits Escher (1898-1972). Famous works of Surrealist sculpture were produced by artists liked Jean Arp, Salvador Dali, Henry Moore (1898-1986), Alberto Giacometti (1901-66), Man Ray (1890–1976), FE McWilliam (1909-92), Meret Oppenheim (1913-85) and the Pop artist Claes Oldenburg (b.1929).

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Breton remained at the centre of the movement, dictating what was acceptable and what was not. Earning little from his writing activities, he managed to make a living by disposing of most of his sizeable art collection, and by selling paintings from his art gallery.

Political Activist

As political tension escalated during the 1930s, the Surrealist movement became polarized between those who favoured political activism, and those who sought mainly commercial success. Another group focused exclusively on automatism and the link between dreams and art. Breton himself, being a committed Marxist, was highly political, joining the French Communist Party in 1927, from which he was then expelled in 1933. In 1938, while in Mexico on a government cultural mission, he met the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky (1879-1940), as well as the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and his wife Frida Kahlo (1907-54). Subsequently, Breton collaborated with Trotsky on the pamphlet Manifesto For an Independent Revolutionary Art, which called for complete freedom of art. The following year Breton travelled around Europe, advocating an end to repression of intellectual freedom.

America During World War II

In 1940, Breton rejoined the French Army as a medical nurse. Following the German Occupation, he managed to escape to New York, where he remained until 1946. While in New York, Breton and his expatriate artist friends proved to be a potent force. Assisted by the widespread American contacts of the proto-Surrealist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), and the German artist Max Ernst, who had just married the millionairess art collector and promoter Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979), they attracted new adherents to the Surrealism movement such as Dorothea Tanning, Frederick Kiesler, Enrico Donati, Arshile Gorky and Joseph Cornell. In addition, by lecturing at Yale and other universities and creative forums, and by staging Surrealist exhibitions with their ideas of automatism and intuitive creativity, Breton influenced several members of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism - notably the gesturalist Jackson Pollock whose early works and styles (like action-painting) contained several important Surrealist features. Indeed a good deal of American art of the mid-20th-century (including Pop-Art, Conceptual art, Performance and Assemblage) was inspired by Surrealism in one way or another.

Returns to Paris

After the war, in 1946, Breton returned to Paris, where he continued both his left-wing political activism and his ceaseless promotion of Surrealism. In addition he devoted more time to essays and poems. In 1959 he published Constellations (1959), a book of poetry inspired by Joan Miro's gouache paintings of the same name. Although the Surrealism movement was way past its prime, Breton was still regarded as its undisputed leader, and he promoted it through exhibitions and other media events, at every opportunity. He also continued collecting a wide variety of artifacts and artworks, including items of Oceanic art, and items of indigenous tribal art. When it was finally sold, in 2003, his collection numbered more than 5,300 objects, including paintings, drawings, sculptures, books, manuscripts, art catalogs, photographs, and trinkets.

Andre Breton died in Paris at the age of 70. His death signalled the end of the Surrealism movement, although it remains a popular idiom of contemporary art among artists everywhere.


Through his manifestos, essays, newspaper articles and editorials, as well as his curatorship of exhibitions, Andre Breton exerted a direct influence on first, Paris Dada, then on the emergence and evolution of Surrealism in France, Belgium and the United States. In America, as well as attracting a new generation of Surrealists, Breton's creative theories of automatism and intuitive art-making had a major impact on the abstract expressionist painting of the New York School. Lastly, his use of the media inspired numerous artists and forms of contemporary art, including Fluxus and Pop art, as well as Performance and Conceptual art.

Works and writings by Andre Breton are held in many of the best art museums and libraries in France and throughout the world, notably the Musee National d'Art Moderne, Pompidou Centre, Paris; and the Kunsthaus Zurich, which owns Breton's Dada Dossier and press archive.

• For biographies of other Surrealist artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more details of Surrealism, see: Homepage.

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