Isn’t that surreal? What André Breton did for art, today

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Breton’s ‘Egg in the church or The Snake’, date unknown, collage on paper | Via theartstory.org

October 15, On This Day

André Breton in 1924 | Via Wikimedia Commons

Known quite literally as one of the primary founders of Surrealism as a concept, André Breton is a celebrated and highly influential French poet, essayist, critic, and editor, who lived from 1896–1966.

In an indelibly iconic move for the world of art, almost a century and exactly 97 years ago today, on October 15, 1921, Breton published his very first ‘Surrealist Manifesto’ with the Éditions du Sagittaire in Paris (he went on to publish the second in 1929, and wrote his third not issued during his lifetime).

He defined defined surrealism as “pure psychic automatism”. Its definition proposes: “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 thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” He is once believed to have declared, “Surrealism is based on the belief in the omnipotence of dreams, in the undirected play of thought.”

Breton’s Manifeste du surréalisme, Éditions du Sagittaire | Via Wikimedia Commons

The manifesto was inspired by the writings of eminent psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and championed free expression outside the constraints of reason and morality. This manifesto, it is written, had an immediate impact on peers such as Wifredo Lam and Max Ernst, and would later influence the works of Jackson Pollock.

Breton is also the author of celebrated books such as Nadja and L’Amour fou. Combined with his critical and theoretical work for writing and the plastic arts, he was a major figure in 20th-century French art and literature. Interestingly, in the late 1920s, Breton had joined the French Communist Party and became a lifelong Marxist, committed to fighting the rise of fascism. For years, he lived in exile, and even organized a groundbreaking surrealist exhibition at Yale University in the US. Eventually, he returned to Paris and decided to embrace anarchism explicitly.

Today, the artist’s works are held in the collections of the Tate Gallery in London, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others. Breton was also an avid collector of art, ethnographic material, and unusual trinkets. His collection spanned over 5,300 items: modern paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, books, art catalogs, journals, manuscripts, and works of popular and Oceanic art.

Breton’s collection at Centre Georges Pompidou | Via Wikimedia Commons

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