Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Happy birthday, surrealist André Breton

André Breton
It is the birthday of French writer André Breton (1896), who is remembered as one of the founders of the Surrealist movement in literature. As a medical student, Breton became interested in psychiatry. During World War I, he served in a neurological ward. He met Sigmund Freud in 1921 in Vienna.

However, his work on Surrealism began before meeting Freud. In 1916, he was part of the Dadaists, an avant-garde arts movement that embraced intuition, irrationality, and nonsense over logic and reason. Soon, though, Breton broke with Dadaism to embrace a new approach to art. "Leave everything," he wrote. "Leave your wife. Leave your mistress. Leave your hopes an fears. Leave your children in the woods. Leave the substance for shadow. Leave your easy life. Leave what you are given for the future. Set off on the road."

Breton and others began to explore automatic writing, a process of writing from the subconscious without a conscious awareness of the content. The idea had been around for decades, but Breton further defined it and expanded it. Breton sought to explore the true nature of thought through psychic automatism. He wrote his first Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) to define the movement. "I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality [sur = "on", "above" in French], if one may so speak,"  he wrote.

Later, Breton wrote The Second Manifesto of Surrealism (1930, in which he said that surrealists sought to reach a mental vantage point from which "life and death, the real and the imaginary, past and future, communicable and incommunicable, high and low, will no longer be perceived as contradictions.

During World War II, Breton had to get out of occupied France because the Vichy government banned his writing. With the help of American journalist Varian Fry and American diplomat Harry Bingham, Breton went to the United States along with artists Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp. He settled in Canada for a time and continued writing. He went to Mexico to visit exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky and collaborated with him to write the Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art. After the war, Breton returned to France and continued to write and involve himself in politics. He eventually embraced pure anarchism. Breton died in 1966.

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