The strength of the surrealist movement can be attributed in large part to one man, French poet André Breton, who helped found the movement after World War I in France. Surrealism was a reaction to Dadaism, which was itself a reaction to the “logic” that dadaists believed had caused the war. Surrealism, however, sought a more constructive way to rebel against rational thought than the more negative Dadaism. Drawing on the psychoanalytic studies of Sigmund Freud, the surrealists tried to expand the mind’s potential by reconciling the apparently contradictory states of dream and reality. In a series of sometimes dangerous experiments, Breton and others attempted to put themselves in a hallucinatory state, in which they believed they could tap directly into their subconscious minds and extract pure thoughts, untainted by the conscious mind and its rational constraints. Since the surrealists prized individual revelation over conscious forms, themes varied among the poets, although many wrote about some form of love or nature.
While Breton and Phillipe Soupault wrote The Magnetic Fields, considered by many to be the first truly surrealist text, in 1919, it was not until 1924, when Breton published his Manifesto of Surrealism, that the movement was officially founded. Breton ruled the group like a dictator, and his strict adherence to surrealist principles led to many expulsions and defections from the group. Nevertheless, the surrealists, who also included Paul Eluard and Robert Desnos, flourished for the next two decades, until the outbreak of World War II. Although the majority of the group’s members were poets, some tried their hand at prose as well. Breton’s novel Nadja was one of the most successful attempts. Surrealism inspired related movements in painting, sculpture, drama, and film, and has had a lasting influence on the creative arts as a whole.
Louis Aragon (1897–1982)
Louis Aragon was born October 3, 1897, in Paris, France. As one of the leading proponents of Dadaism and Surrealism, Aragon helped Breton and others to inspire creative freedom in the arts. Like many other surrealists, Aragon’s poetry was initially published in the journal Litterature, which Aragon helped found and edit with Breton and Soupault. However, Aragon’s most famous works are his novels, including Paris Peasant. Aragon and the other surrealists joined the French Communist Party in 1930. Although the surrealists left the party five years later after witnessing Stalin’s bloody atrocities, Aragon rejoined the party, renounced Surrealism, and produced mainly political works for several years. He attempted to write other works later in his career, but at that point, most critics only knew him for his politically oriented fictions. Aragon died December 24, 1982, in Paris.
André Breton (1896–1966)
Although he had help founding the Surrealism movement, in many ways André Breton acted alone. Born February 19, 1896, in Tinchebray, France, Breton was a medical student when he was drafted into World War I. There he served in the psychiatric wards, where he began his studies in neurology and psychology. Disillusioned by the horrors of war, Breton joined the dadaists at the war’s end but left to start the surrealist movement, which he saw as a more constructive response to the war than Dadaism. He experimented avidly with automatic writing and other self-induced hypnotic and hallucinatory states attempting to reach the subconscious mind. Although he had founded and edited the journal Litterature with Aragon and Soupault in 1919, it was not until 1924 that he published his first of three manifestos of Surrealism. In the first manifesto, he laid out the rules that would-be surrealists should follow to tap into their subconscious. Breton was the movement’s main promoter and he ran the group with a dictator-like control, expelling anyone who did not play by his rules. With his influence, surrealist painters like Dalí achieved greater recognition through exhibitions. In 1930, Breton led the surrealists in joining the French Communist Party, although they did not stay long once they saw the atrocities Stalin was committing in the name of communism. When World War II broke out, Breton was interrogated by the Nazis over his activities, at which point he moved...
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