André Breton was born on February 18, 1896, in Tinchebray, France. After a brief medical career and military service in World War I, he settled in Paris and joined the city's artistic avant-garde. In the early 1920s he became one of the founders of the Surrealist movement. He wrote a Surrealist manifesto encouraging free expression and the release of the subconscious mind, followed by the novel Nadja and volumes of essays and poetry. He died in Paris in 1966.
Early Career and Influences
André Breton was born into a working-class family on February 18, 1896, in Tinchebray, a small town in Normandy, France. As a young man, he attended medical school, taking a particular interest in the study of mental illness. When his education was interrupted by his service in World War I, he worked in the psychiatric wards of military hospitals. He also read the writings of famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, whom he would meet in 1921.
Breton was also interested in the work of Symbolist poets like Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire, and in the political theory of Karl Marx. He soon came into contact with other aspiring writers who shared his interests, including Guillaume Apollinaire. In 1916, Breton joined the group of artists associated with the subversive Dada movement in Paris, including Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray.
The Surrealist Movement
By the early 1920s, however, Breton had shifted his allegiance to another group of intellectuals who would become known as the Surrealists. In 1924, he published Le Manifeste du Surréalisme (The Manifesto of Surrealism), a document announcing the new movement's embrace of all forms of liberated expression and its rejection of social and moral conventions. The Surrealists were fascinated by the fine line between reason and irrationality, especially as manifested in dreams, erotica and mental disorders. They encouraged writers and artists to adopt spontaneous means of expression such as free association and a stream-of-conscious method called "automatism."
Breton was one of the co-founders of Littérature, an influential journal that featured the first written example of automatism, titled Les Champs magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields). He also promoted visual artists such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Max Ernst by reproducing their work in the journal La Révolution Surréaliste (The Surrealist Revolution).
In the 1920s and '30s, Breton composed two more Surrealist manifestos and other texts about Surrealism, including Les Vases Communicants (The Communicating Vessels) and Qu'est-ce le que le Surréalisme? (What is Surrealism?). He also wrote poetry and fiction. His most famous novel, Nadja (1928), is a fantastical love story between the narrator and a mysterious, possibly insane, woman. L'Amour Fou (Mad Love), published in 1937, is a poetic meditation on obsessive love.
Breton's commitment to Marxism led him to join the French Communist Party in 1927. Although he left the party in 1935, he remained dedicated to Marxist philosophy. In 1938, he traveled to Mexico, where he and revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky collaborated on "Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art," which examines art's connection to social upheaval.
Travels and Later Work
Breton emigrated from France in 1941 in order to escape World War II. He lived in New York City for several years, and in 1942, he organized a groundbreaking exhibition of Surrealist art at Yale University. After his return to Paris in 1946, Breton published more poetry collections and essays on Surrealism.
Breton married three times, to Simone Kahn, Jacqueline Lamba (with whom he had a daughter named Aube) and Elisa Claro. In his later years, he divided his time between a country house in southwest France and an apartment in Paris. He died in Paris on September 28, 1966.
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