“It was in the black mirror of anarchism that surrealism first recognized itself.”
It’s impossible to tell the full story of Andre Breton in a crisp little essay, so instead here are some salient details. Breton studied medicine and psychiatry, which led to his service in the French medical corps during the First and Second World Wars. He married three times, was kicked out of the communist party, and slapped the shit out of the journalist Ilya Ehrenburg at the International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture. His apartment at la Rue Fontaine No.42 became the hub for Paris’s anarchist writers and artists, and home to his collection of over 5000 artworks, manuscripts, African masks and objects of Oceanic art.
But we’re talking about Andre Breton because he wrote the Surrealist Manifesto. It was 1924, not that long ago. IBM was founded that year, Vladimir Lenin died, and France had finally begun to withdraw their troops from Germany after WWI. It was a time of post-war disillusionment and frantic change in the art world. Cubism had melded time and space and the Dadaists were burning out in a flurry of chaotic stage plays by Tristan Tzara.
Surrealism was already at root in the culture, the inversion of moral tradition and the dissatisfaction with reality. But it took an anarchist psychiatrist to put it into words. Andre Breton looked back to childhood, where “the absence of any known restrictions allows … the perspective of several lives lived at once”—unedited, unfiltered expression of imagination. He mined Freud, examining dream-states as a place of pure ability and event, unchained by logic. It’s a long read, by turns analytical, conversational, and obscure. But after 7800 words Breton arrived at a definition for a new form of art. Expression without judgment or control, almost frightening in its simplicity:
SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism 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. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.
This definition created a movement. Artists shook off their aesthetic training, their politics, their inhibition. The surrealists explored uncharted subconscious worlds, and laid the foundation of postmodern art.
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Reed Enger, "André Breton, A psychiatrist releases his mind and invents Surrealism," in Obelisk Art History, Published March 03, 2015; last modified October 12, 2022, http://www.arthistoryproject.com/artists/andre-breton/.
I could spend my whole life prying loose the secrets of the insane. These people are honest to a fault, and their naiveté has no peer but my own.
The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.
I’d like to find and lose the philosopher’s stone. Make love and never lose control. Remove a great number of living beings with impunity. Afterward resuscitate a very small number of the dead.