André Breton

"The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd." —Breton

Andre Breton's 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism brought together some of the most creative and original minds of the 20th century; his Nadja was made into a moody and erotic vampire film which bears little resemblance to the original book, but is still pretty cool. Breton envisioned an art which would smash all restrictions, including moral taboos and hypocrisies. If in the end Surrealism didn't bring about the utopia Breton hoped for, it nevertheless has had a profound and lasting impact on modern art and on our understanding of the artistic process. Any time you see a symbolic "dream sequence" in any art form — or a video or film which eschews plot for imagery — chances are it has been influenced by Surrealism.

To understand Breton and his milieu, you must understand the First World War. The first war fought with modern weaponry, World War I exceeded anything before it for sheer bloody savagery. Legions of soldiers charged into machine gun fire; those who survived found themselves in the enemy's trenches and locked in bloody bayonet combat. Chlorine and mustard gas wafted over grim tableaux of barbed wire and corpses; 20,000 men might die for a 100 yard gain, only to lose it next week at the cost of another 30,000 lives. All the old ideas of chivalry and honorable warfare died convulsing and gasping in the mud, at Ypres and Verdun and a whole host of other battlefields.

During all this, Breton saw duty as a hospital orderly, most of it at an Army psychiatric hospital. There he encountered mentally ill soldiers and was exposed to the theories of Freud, whose ideas of the subconscious and dream states would be of pivotal importance in the Surrealist movement. Most importantly, he developed a profound contempt for the organized, proper social order which had inflicted this "cesspool of mud, blood and idiocy" upon the world, and for the forces of reason which had encouraged this long madness. For many victims of The Great War, the only escape was into private realities of chaos and delerium. The mapping of the turbulent backstreets of the mind would become the central preoccupation of Surrealism.

In 1919 Breton, with his friend Philippe Soupault, composed the first Surrealist work, The Magnetic Fields. Written using "automatic writing," it is an attempt to map the unconscious world. Breton sought to present "a land whose flora and fauna were instantly recognizable, and especially whose structure... had only to be revealed." Ultimately, in his utopian vision, people would learn to cross over at will between this world and the unconscious one, and "every idea in the world would be shattered." Like its close relative Dada, Surrealism saw logic and reason as barriers, not tools, to a greater understanding of reality. It used techniques like automatic writing, trance states and self-hypnosis in an effort to dredge up material from the deepest corners of the mind. These ideas would become fashionable almost fifty years later, as an entire generation experimented with psychedelics and other mind-altering substances in an effort to "free their minds."

Breton, like many of his fellows in the movement, thrived on controversy. He was quite proud of a skit he and Soupault performed at the Salle Gaveau, which ended with the audience throwing tomatoes and eggs at the stage. "What could be more exhilarating, for the young men we were," asked Breton in 1952, "than to be constantly faced with scorn, not to say actual fury?" The split with Dada began when Jacques Riviere, editor of the prestigious Nouvelle Revue Francaise, published a piece entitled Reconnaissance a Dada (Thanks to Dada.) Riviere's mainstream publication represented everything Breton hated; he had no interest in being part of a movement which the bourgeois art world accepted or lauded.

Breton's Manifesto struck a resonant chord with many artists in postwar Europe. Throughout the Continent artists declared themselves (or were declared) Surrealists: at various times, the Surrealists included Rene Magritte (Belgium), Antonin Artaud (France), Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel (both of Spain). Unfortunately, Surrealism would soon find itself entangled in various Byzantine conflicts; at various times Dali, Buñuel and others would be accepted and rejected by Breton for personal or other failings. Breton's attempt to link Surrealism to Communism was probably the final nail in the coffin. The untrammeled and unrestricted flow of ideas mixed with Communist Party discipline like oil and water. By 1935 Breton had broken with the Communist Party but the damage had already been done; by the early 1950s most of the prewar Surrealists had either opted for Stalinism or gone on to other things. Breton would live until 1966, but Surrealism would never again retain its position. Still, Surrealism would remain highly influential on a number of artists (notably H.R. Giger), writers (British horror writers Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker come immediately to mind), and filmmakers (Alan Parker's The Wall, David Lynch's Eraserhead and just about anything by Dario Argento).

All quotations from Andre Breton, Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism. Breton Bibliography and Selections of Breton's Poetry

Commentary by Kevin Filan, Thursday, July 7, 1998.