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As part of the current re-evaluation of Surrealism, an exhibition looks at André Breton’s works as well as the furnishing of his mind

André Breton: artist, writer, collector, at the Beaubourg

For some time now at the Centre Pompidou a certain, probably temporary, pause in the exploitation of the historical vein of exhibitions, has stimulated the imagination, encouraging unexpected approaches to twentieth century art. This summer (and due homage should be paid to Beaubourg) we find André Breton, with the works he loved and with which he surrounded himself in his lifetime – an inductive, private viewpoint which looks askance at a whole era and not just Surrealism. We talked about it to Isabelle Monod-Fontaine who is the curator of the exhibition, together with Agnés de la Beaumelle and, naturally, Dominique Bozo, the director.

How did the idea of the exhibition come about?

Isabelle Monod-Fontaine: Breton interested us particularly because he did not just have a theoretical relationship with the works, but he chose them, possessed and collected them, he surrounded his everyday life with them. Through the works which belonged to him we can try to follow his gaze – a gaze which is physical as well as abstract. That is why we go beyond Surrealism, including the whole of his formative period in the show – the period during which he met Apollinaire, by whom he was greatly influenced, the time when he was attracted by both Gustave Moreau and by Rousseau; when he began working for Jacques Doucet as artistic adviser, Breton had the chance to buy works by contemporaries such as De Chirico and Miró. At the time he had already got to know Picabia, Duchamp and Picasso; it was he, after all, who pushed the tailor-collector to buy the “Demoiselles d’Avignon”.

What kind of works are exhibited and what were your criteria?

There’s everything: paintings, drawings, sculpture and a beautiful collection of objects in general, and primitive objects in particular, collected from when he was young, with a preference for things from Oceania. It is said that Breton bought the first one with the money he was given for passing his school-leaving examinations and this interest never left him. In the exhibition we have Eskimo objects, Indian objects (from India and America), and natural objects such as stones and crystals. The works are exhibited according to a chronological criterion: the formative years (up to 1924) the major productive period (1924 - 1939) with the writing of Le surréalisme et la peinture in 1928; and his American exile, a difficult time but with a wealth of new encounters and interests. Breton returned to France in 1946 and we follow him up to his death in 1966; in this last period we emphasise his effort to comu up with new ideas, and his interest in Simon Hanta, for whose first one-man show in Paris Breton wrote a preface, and Jean-Paul Riopelle, artists whom we do not usually associate directly with Breton.

What connection is there in Breton’s books between writing and vision?

They are inseparable. In the partly autobiographical books, in which Breton talks about his encounters and the places he lives, as “Nadja”, not only are works of art present through verbal evocation, but images accompany the text physically with photographs. Therefore, although our aim is above all to exhibit the works, there is a wealth of documentation in the form of books, manuscripts (some of them illustrated by the author, such as Arcane 17) accompanied by signed collages, photographs, correspondence with artists, intimate traces of a profound relationship with art which can help to reconstruct his aesthetic history. We have tried to give an impression of the studio in which Breton lived, surrounded by paintings, sculptures and objects of all kinds, by a moving photographic montage which follows the lay-out of the works, changing as the years go by. The street is another central element in the author’s life – rather more difficult to reproduce without falling into banality, but present in the exhibition in any case. Breton never tired of walking; for him the city, his encounters with others, but also with objects or simply words, was very important. We hope that this exhibition will be the opportunity to give a lively depiction of Surrealism as it developed, from a rather more unusual standpoint compared to the historical panorama that we saw in the great exhibition organised in Milan two years ago, for example. This is a principle which can be applied to other writers, collectors or dealers: in 1984, in fact, Agnés de la Beaumelle and organised the show on Kahnweiler, basing ourselve on the donation made by Louise and Michel Leiris. In fact, it is a fascinating way of looking at this century.

And it is also a way of bringing works of art closer to people, presenting them as the result or testimony of a development which is not just theoretical but also biographical, the concrete expression of real choices made?

Yes, and in the case of Breton and Kahnweiler, we consider these choices to be exemplary. Already at twenty-two or twenty-three, Breton had great perspicacity; nothing important escaped him and he showed the same curiosity, the same sensitivity throughout his life. One should point out that he did miss some things: for example, in the United States he did not note Pollock, who had only just begun. He did not admit post-war abstract art, and he justified this theoretically. He had great regard for Cubism; he was fascinated by Picasso’s and Braque’s work, by the earliest collages and by constructions made before 1914; but the warmed-up Cubism of the 1920s did not interest him.

Can André Breton’s aesthetics be considered relevant today? After surrealism, has there ever been such a tight bond between visual arts and literature?

That’s true, it is very difficult to judge one’s own age, and art today is surrounded by text, even to excess, although the texts do not always have any real literary or poetic value.

Does the exhibition consider the political question?

Fairly rapidly, just as we evoke what Breton loved rather than what he rejected. The case of Dalí is significant for our way of working: Breton followed the work of the great Catalan artist from 1929 to 1933/4; he then distanced himself because of political differences. The exhibition therefore does not include works by Dali after 1934. Breton’s attitude remains, however a lesson in culture and openness, even though he is often presented as someone who spent his time rejecting things. In reality, the violence of his delusions and his rejections was nothing but a consequence of the passion he felt for art and his extreme desire to welcome new experiences. And that cannot be said for everybody.

“André Breton - La beauté sera convulsive” is at the Centre Georges Pompidou, from 25 April to 26 August.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘André Breton: artist, writer, collector, at the Beaubourg'