French poet born at Tinchebray, Orne, in 1896. 'To me a picture is a window that looks out on something; the question is -- on what?' said Breton. Only an ardent, ascetic temperament like Breton's could organize and order a tendency capable of transcending art by denying it the power to give pleasure. Breton is primarily a poet, and once again (after Hugo, Baudelaire and Apollinaire), with Surrealism, the role of widening the field of knowledge has fallen to a poet. Breton began with Dada, that is to say, a cult of the irrational and an anarchical desire to destroy, and to undermine the conformism of logical, moral or artistic values. Out of Dada grew Surrealism. The Surrealists' desire to reach back to the very beginning of expression and know 'what is being contrived in the depths of man's mind, unknown to him' led them, under Breton's leadership, to study dreams and to seek in the drawings of children or the art of madmen the irrefutable evidence of that primordial spontaneity which they valued above all else. But Breton did not content himself with destroying; he reconstructed. The 'Pope of Surrealism', as he has been called, required of his followers a constant fight against artistic amorality, especially against attempts that could lead them to betray, to a greater or lesser degree, the supernatural faculties he recognized in them. This uncompromising attitude could be seen when he reproached Chirico for his abdication and renunciations; when he accused Max Ernst and Miró of having collaborated with the Ballets Russes, or when he censured Salvador Dali for his 'deviationism' and made the famous anagram 'Avida Dollars' out of Dali's name. The severity with which (in his writings, from Surrealism and Painting, 1928, to Birth and Prospests of Surrealism, 1941 he demanded of artists that they hew to a'straight line' both in their work and in their way of life, shows how highly he prizes the search for an expression that will be, above all, the reflection of the most secret aspirations of the subconscious in all its primitive creative force. Unlike Dada, Breton, in his unwearying search for the supernatural, did not disdain to resort to traditional data, as when he evoked the fabulous side of certain mythologies, or the monstrous divinities of antiquity or Negro art, making use of all their spells, miracles and enchantments. Then, painters like Giovanni di Paolo, Leonardo da Vinci, Hieronymus Bosch, Blake, Goya, Fuseli and -- to come closer to our own time -- Redon, Chagall, Picasso and others, are considered to be, in varying degrees, precursors of Irrationalism.
In exalting the role of the subconscious, Breton proposed to the painter the discovery of an element with unsuspected resources and shock power, an clement which, wherever it is given free rein, is capable of abolishing space and time. For only by starting from this abolition can one perceive, simultaneously, such contradictory notions as life and death, the past and the future, the real and the imaginary; and that, he felt, was what counted the most.