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.