Authors: André Breton

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

French poet, novelist, and founder of the surrealist movement.

February 19, 1896

Tinchebray, France

September 28, 1966

Paris, France

Biography

The literary career of critic and poet André Breton, like those of many of his contemporaries, was a search for new forms of art. Originally a medical student, he entered the literary world in 1919 as cofounder of the magazine Littérature. Under his leadership, the magazine quickly became a major voice in the Dada movement. Breton became disenchanted with Dada, however, and in 1921 he officially founded the surrealist movement. His poetry and critical writings provide the major statements of literary surrealism. Breton’s three manifestos of surrealism (1924, 1930, and 1942) gave an aesthetic base to the movement. In his first manifesto, Breton announced his credo: “I believe in the final resolving of these two states of mind, dream and reality apparently so contradictory, in a kind of absolute reality, of sur-reality.” The poet’s insistence on narrow limits to the concerns of surrealism, however, ultimately proved too restrictive.

During the 1920s Breton embraced communist political ideology, and for a number of years he was its chief artistic spokesperson. He broke with communism in 1935, however, and his critical work Position politique du surréalisme (Political position of surrealism, 1935) states that propagandistic and didactic aims defeat artistic impulses. Breton took refuge in the United States from 1940 until 1946, and while there he wrote the Prolégomènes à un troisième manifeste du surréalisme ou nont (Prolegomena to a third manifesto of surrealism or not, 1942), in order to defend his movement from charges that it was an old-fashioned and outmoded remnant of a past epoch. However, the promised third manifesto was never issued to the public.

André Breton with Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1938.

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Breton’s poetry, like his critical writings, is marked by his determination to promulgate the principles of surrealism—namely, to overthrow all traditional values based on reason in a “revolution” of rethinking reality, which would include exploring the unconscious and admitting the supreme importance of “desire.” His early medical training in Freudian psychology led to a reliance on poetry written at the prompts of the subconscious, unformed and unshaped by any conscious effort on the part of the writer; it was often, in fact, composed by several surrealists working simultaneously. Other paths to the new knowledge were through dreams and experiments in the occult.

In 1928 Breton published his only true novel, Nadja (1928; Nadja, 1960), a story of consuming love (always of great importance to the surrealists) in which the beloved Nadja possesses occult powers and finally goes insane. The action is marked by coincidence, another element important to surrealist expression. Although he was lionized in his later years, Breton’s importance as an innovator lies in his poetry and in the influential criticism he wrote during the 1920s and 1930s.

Author Works Poetry: Mont de piété, 1919 Clair de terre, 1923 (Earthlight, 1993) L’union libre, 1931 (Free Union, 1982) Le revolver à cheveux blancs, 1932 L’air de l’eau, 1934 Fata morgana, 1941 (Fata Morgana, 1982) Pleine marge, 1943 Young Cherry Trees Secured against Hares = Jeunes cerisiers garantis contre les lièvres, 1946 (bilingual) Ode à Charles Fourier, 1947 (Ode to Charles Fourier, 1969) Poèmes, 1948 Poésie et autre, 1960 Signe ascendant, 1968 Selected Poems, 1969 (Kenneth White, translator) Poems of André Breton, 1982 (translated by Jean-Pierre Cauvin and Mary Ann Caws; includes Free Union, Fata Morgana, and other selected poems) Nonfiction: Les pas perdus, 1924 (The Lost Steps, 1996) Manifeste du surréalisme: Poisson soluble, 1924, 1929 Manifeste du surréalisme, 1924 (Manifesto of Surrealism, 1969) Légitime défense, 1926 Le surréalisme et la peinture, 1928, 1945, 1965 (Surrealism and Painting, 1972) L’immaculée conception, 1930 (with Paul Éluard; The Immaculate Conception, 1990) Ralentir travaux, 1930 (with René Char and Paul Éluard; Slow under Construction, 1990) Deuxième manifeste du surréalisme, 1930 (Second Manifesto of Surrealism, 1969) Les vases communicants, 1932 (The Communicating Vessels, 1990) Point du jour, 1934, 1970 (Break of Day, 1999) Qu’est-ce que le surréalisme?, 1934 (What Is Surrealism?, 1936) Position politique du surréalisme, 1935 Au lavoir noir, 1936 (with Marcel Duchamp) L’amour fou, 1937 (Mad Love, 1987) Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme, 1938 (with Paul Éluard) Prolégomènes à un troisième manifeste du surréalisme ou non, 1942 Arcane 17, 1944 (Arcanum 17: With Aperturese, Grafted to the End, 1994) Situation du surréalisme entre les deux guerres, 1945 Les manifestes du surréalisme, suivis de Prolégomènes à un troisième manifeste du surréalisme ou non, 1946, 1955 Yves Tanguy, 1946 (English translation, 1946) La lampe dans l’horloge, 1948 Martinique, charmeuse de serpents, 1948 (Martinique: Snake Charmer, 2008) Flagrant délit: Rimbaud devant la conjuration de l'imposture et du truquage, 1949 Entretiens, 1913–1952, 1952 (with André Parinaud et al.) La clé des champs, 1953 (Free Rein, 1995) Farouche à quatre feuilles, 1954 L’art magique, 1957 (with Gérard Legrand) Manifestes du surréalisme, 1962 (Manifestoes of Surrealism, 1969) Flagrant délit, 1969 Perspective cavalière, 1970 (Marguerite Bonnet, editor) What Is Surrealism? Selected Writings, 1978 (Franklin Rosemont, editor) Lettres à Aube, 1938–1966, 2009 (Jean-Michel Goutier, editor) Long Fiction: Les champs magnétiques, 1920 (with Philippe Soupault; The Magnetic Fields, 1985) Nadja, 1928, 1963 (English translation, 1960) Drama: S’il vous plaît, pt. 1920 (with Philippe Soupault; If You Please, 1964) Edited Texts: Anthologie de l’humour noir, 1940, 1966 (Anthology of Black Humor, 1997) Bibliography Balakian, Anna. André Breton, Magus of Surrealism. Oxford UP, 1971. A biography by an expert in surrealist art and literature. Balakian, Anna. Surrealism: The Road to the Absolute. 3rd ed., U of Chicago P, 1986. Updated with a new introduction. A critical history of surrealist literature. Benedikt, Michael, editor. The Poetry of Surrealism: An Anthology. Little, Brown, 1974. With introduction, critical notes, and translations. Breton, André. Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism. Translated by Mark Polizzotti, Paragon House, 1993. A collection of interviews with Breton. Carrouges, Michel. André Breton and the Basic Concepts of Surrealism. Translated by Maura Prendergast, U of Alabama P, 1974. A combined biography and introduction to surrealism. With bibliographic references. Caws, Mary Ann. André Breton. Twayne Publishers, 1971. An excellent beginner’s text with an emphasis on practical analysis of individual works. Caws, Mary Ann. Surrealism and the Literary Imagination: A Study of Breton and Bachelard. Mouton, 1966. Stresses the literary and philosophical affinities between these two intellectual giants and highlights their common interests. Perceptive comments on Bachelard often uncover aspects of Breton normally left unexamined. The French texts are left untranslated. Polizzotti, Mark. Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995. A thorough biography of the artist and poet, highlighting his lifelong adherence to surrealist principles even at the expense of personal relationships. With an extensive bibliography and index.

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