André Breton’s Prominent Role in the Surrealist Movement

André Breton has defined himself as an important world figure, not just as an artist. His writing in the  Surrealism Surrealist field was ground breaking; however, he incorporated more of a philosophical stand point than an artistic one. He was the first to give a definition of the Surrealist's work and at the same time differentiate Surrealism from Dadaism. Like many people of this time period André Breton was very influenced by the new theories of  Freud and incorporated ideas of the human unconscious into the Surrealists philosophy. His Manifesto of Surrealism lead the movement as a whole until the start of World War II where the Surrealist movement underwent several changes. He was experimental at developing a connection between Surrealism and Communism until his visit to Russia in 1935. Although André Breton was not one of the greatest artists of the Surrealist movement, he was undoubtedly the most political and philosophical; he was the central figure of the Surrealists and was the movement's source of energy and inspiration.

André Breton was set on a path to become a doctor before he began his life long work as a Surrealist leader. He worked at a hospital in Nantes during World War I and was influenced by the terrible deaths and suffering he saw there. It was there that he met Jacques Vaché, a wounded soldier. Jacques made a dramatic impression upon young Breton when he said, "Art is stupidity."2 Jacques later became an "anti-hero" for the Surrealists when he committed suicide by taking an overdose of Opium and killing another patient of the hospital as well. Vaché influenced both Dadaists and Surrealists. Breton originally was a part of the Dadaist art movement. He once said, "Naturally we cannot believe in any possibility of ameliorating social conditions,"3 a statement that he would later completely reverse with his ideological revolutionary stance. He gave up his career as a doctor to devote himself to the work of an artist.

Breton became the leading factor of the Surrealist movement. He broke with Dadaism after realizing that it couldn't evolve to create the large scale change in French bourgeois culture that he wanted. Surrealism became the key to social revolution. He used the underlying principals of Freudian philosophy of the unconscious to attack and horrify the bourgeois. He wrote Les Champs Magnétique with Soupault which was hailed as "the first authentic Surrealist text." Also, his novel Les Vases Comunicants (1932) was a piece of art that emphasized Freud's essential role in Surrealist work with its vivid imagery and hazy boarder between reality and imaginary. Lewis Aragon, Breton’s long time friend and fellow Surrealist, described Breton as, "always giving the impression of being a majority of one."4 This authority Breton assumed provoked the change in France's intellectuals and artists from Dadaist to Surrealist philosophy, as well as the political changes that Surrealism underwent throughout the twentieth century.

The Surrealists, lead by Breton, went through a large period of change in 1926-27 when they began to identify themselves with a cause. As a result of the Rift war in Morocco they joined forces with the Communist Party. Breton was in favor of this and in 1927 he along with four others, Péret, Aragon, Eluard, Pierre Unik, officially joined the Communist Party.5 Together they published in the Surrealist magazine La Révolution Surrealist an article "Au Grand Jour" proclaiming the wonders of Communism. However, the political field wasn't Breton’s strong suit. If one didn't agree with Breton one was either kicked out or got out of the Surrealist movement. Many of the members of Surrealism changed during these years due to the large scale political change of the group. Breton’s best friend Aragon broke with the Surrealists to begin a career with the Communist cause without even notifying the Surrealist members. They found out when he published an article denouncing the Surrealists and declaring his new Communist position. Breton was unable to gain the Communist's approval of the Surrealist movement. In 1935 when the Communists were recruiting any one that wasn't fascist, they rejected the Surrealists who's objectives were very similar to their own. 

Breton had always admired Leon Trotsky and was thrilled when he had the opportunity to meet him while he was in exile in Mexico. Leon Trotsky was staying with Diego Rivera in Mexico, where he was later assassinated. Together, Trotsky and Breton created a manifesto in 1938 demanding freedom for art: "In the realm of artistic creation, the imagination must escape from all constraint…To those who would urge us…to consent that art should submit to a discipline which we would hold to be radically incompatible with its nature, we give a flat refusal … standing by the formula complete freedom of art."6  Breton also formed with Rivera an organization to support this manifesto, it was called Fédération internationale de l’art révolutionnaire indépendant (F.I.A.R.I.). Both the manifesto and the organization underlined the need for artists creative freedom. Breton was successful for a short time in creating an international organization. 

When Paris was taken over by the Germans in 1942 Breton was forced to New York where he hope to find support for Surrealism. This attempt failed and Breton's outrageous actions had begun to lose their effect  after the war. Surrealism's appeal diminished and Existentialism became an important movement in response to World War II. However, Breton maintained his position as Surrealist leader until his death in 1966. The group disbanded three years later: without Breton Surrealism was almost pointless.