Born: Tinchebray, France
“Love is when you meet someone who tells you something new about yourself.”
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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.
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.