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Andre Breton was a French artist, born in 1896, and dying in 1960. Breton was hugely influential in the world of art and intelligentsia in France at the beginning of the 20th century. He was a friend of Tristan Tzara, founder of the Dada movement, and he himself was a founder member of the ‘surrealist’ movement, and wrote the first surrealist manifesto in 1924. But, Breton never seemed content in art only, and was passionately political. This essay will describe his eclectic presence France.
Breton’s first love was for experimental art and writing. Early in his life he became influenced by the school of the theatre of the absurd, notably Alfred Jarry, author of the ‘Ubu’ plays, and his immediate circle. This initial introduction to experimental, Avant garde art stayed with Breton. He went on to develop automatic writing, and through surrealism attempted to gain access to parts of the human psyche that were unencumbered, unmediated by reason, and by the veneer of society. He was, in short, and artistic rebel, fighting against what he saw as the mediocrity of the world and its art.
This rebellion was not, for Breton, merely artistic. Like many artists and writers that were coming into prominence between the two world wars, they viewed existing society as failed and as oppressive, and looked to change it. This initially led Breton to combine the themes of self-realisation that he found in thinkers and poets such as Arthur Rimbaud, with the politics of Karl Marx, and to eventually join the French Communist party. In later life, he became a supporter of the end of French colonialism, and supported the emancipation and independence of Algeria.
For Breton, then, looking at this very cursory overview of his life and interests, art and politics were very much part of the same processural change; he wanted to revolutionise the way that writing and art represented human experience, and in so doing he wanted to change that very world. By experiment in representation, he clearly desired experiment in society itself.
It is easy to consider art apart from life, and apart from politics, particularly when that art is as experimental as surrealism. However, they share, as Breton demonstrates, a goal; to change the way that the world is. This is a pretty big goal, and is, arguably, yet to be met.
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