Description‘Isn’t the real significance of a work, not the meaning we think we give it, but the meaning it is likely to take in relation to what surrounds it?’1
A carved whale bone, a box of mumified cicadas, an Egyptian amulet, a Tatanua mask, a fossilized sea-urchin, a painting by Joan Miró, a Mayan doll, pebbles from the bed of a river, a painting by Francis Picabia, an Iriquois mask, a box of butterflies… André Breton’s collection, selected according to a bizarre whim, a paradoxical order, combines personal memories with the respect due to occult powers, the laws of magnetism or the vagaries of chance. André Breton’s ‘wall’ challenges the modern art museum, like the still warm heart of a high energy reactor.
I. A selfportrait
Breton’s ‘wall’ as we know it dates from after World War II. There are no documents to record its existence in the fourth floor appartment at 42 rue Fontaine in the 9th arrondissement, where the poet had moved to on 1 January 1922. The first photographs record Alain Jouffroy’s visit to Breton in 1960.2 The photos were taken by Sabine Weiss in the third floor appartment in the same building, which Breton had moved to in 1949, a move explained by Breton’s need to find an extra bedroom for his daughter Aube arriving from the United States.
These first photographs of the ‘wall’ are evidence of its mobility. The Papua New Guinea shields are missing, while Picabia’s painting (Le Double Monde, 1929) hangs to the right of Miró’s Tête (1927). The dating of certain objects confirms that the composition of the ‘wall’ dates from the mid-1950s at the earliest. The paintings by Jean Degottex (Pollen noir) on the upper part of the wall and René Duvillier (Fleur d’écume) date from 1955. A pebble (Souvenir du paradis terrestre) is dated 1953 by Breton himself.
The objects composing the ‘wall’ map Breton’s travels. Jacqueline Lamba recalls that in 1938, at the end of their stay in Mexico, her luggage was crammed with masks, pottery, decorated frames, dolls, whistles, ex-votos, sugar skulls, wooden boxes, and other Mexican popular art objects acquired by Breton. In the United States during the war years, another of his travelling companions, Claude Lévi-Strauss, recalls that they would frequent the antique shop of Julius Carlebach, a specialist in primitive art objects, Katchina dolls, Eskimo masks and sculptures from the North Pacific Coast.3
The ‘wall’ encapsulates the history of surrealism. The three paintings dominating the wall recall the three artistic phases of the movement: Picabia’s Le Double Monde (1919) recalls its dadaist ‘prehistory’ ; Miró, described by Breton in 1925 as ‘the most surrealist of us all’4, represents its flowering; while Degottex’s Pollen noir (1955) marks the renewal of automatism in postwar surrealist painting.
Those familiar with surrealism and its images are sure to look for the woman hidden in this forest of symbols and objects. In its geometric centre they will find a photograph of Elisa, the last of Breton’s companions.
Those interested in genealogy will enjoy comparing the descriptions of Breton’s studio with his descriptions of Guillaume Apollinaire’s lair: ‘You tack between bookshelves, rows of African and Oceania fetishes, paintings of the most revolutionary kind, like a sailing ship driven by a strong wind towards the adventurous horizons of the mind’.5
As if echoing these words, James Lord has described André Breton’s studio as follows : ‘I have rarely found myself in such an extraordinary place. The room is quite large with a high window at one end. It is stuffed with an astonishing assortment of objects, paintings, sculptures, montages, etc. I have never seen so many things piled up in such a restricted space. And yet, what is most surprising is that it forms a harmonious whole’.6
II. Construction as manifesto
In the third issue of Révolution surréaliste7, Pierre Naville states that surrealist painting could not exist, since everything about it contradicts the revolutionary and collective values of the movement. Painting is doomed to perpetuate the myth of the genius and egotistical creation. Its material nature restricts it to private use, predisposes it to becoming the fetishised object of all sorts of speculations. André Breton, keen to defuse the violence of Naville’s attacks, embarked on the writing of Surréalisme et la peinture in order to refute his arguments. Beyond their immediate target (painting) Naville’s attacks expressed surrealism’s enduring suspicion towards the modern western conception of the work of art as represented by painting. The repeated calls for a collective form of art, the supposed model of non-european art, perpetuates the suspicion introduced by Naville. Its repercussions are still present in Breton’s ‘wall’, which becomes a subversive gesture, a critical counterpoint to the current values of our museums. Thanks to the complex and highly ambiguous term ‘magic’, Breton has summed up his critical and programmatic project, aimed at a new definition of the work of art. Because of the recurrent use of the term by Breton in the postwar years he was accused many times of witchcraft and constantly suspected of obscurantism. These accusations bypassed the fact that, for Breton himself, L’Art magique was highly problematic. It took several years between his first drafts and the final publication of the work (co-written with Gérard Legrand), during which time he wrestled with the term ‘magic’ which he wanted to use for its critical dimension, its dialectical opposition to a form of rationalism considered stifling, while wishing to dispel any link to superstition. Breton’s attitude towards this form of ‘magic’ is clarified by an anecdote. In 1934 he presented to Roger Caillois the case of Mexican ‘jumping beans’. The beans leapt wildly around the table. The reactions triggered by this spectacle reflected clearly distinct positions. Caillois, adopting a ‘scientific’ attitude, suggested the beans should be dissected. Breton, preferring to enjoy the mystery rather than dissipating it by looking for a cause, was resolutely opposed to dissecting the beans. Finally, Caillois reproached Breton for choosing the ‘option of intuition, poetry, art – and their privileges’.8 Such divergent points of view led to an irreparable break between the two men.
Was it necessary to get to this point? The difficulties faced by Breton when he was writing his Art magique suggest a subtle approach to the problem. For him ‘magic’ has got a simple ‘use value’, it is a polemical tool with many facets. A work acquires a ‘magical’ dimension when its meaning dominates, exceeds and opposes its ‘formal’ dimension, its realisation as a ‘beautiful’ object. The ‘magical’ work is neither particularly ‘beautiful’ nor ‘true’. Evoking the obects and works which he brings together in his work, Breton states: ‘Considered as aesthetic objects these works present very variable qualities’.9 While the museum promotes ‘unique’ and authentic works of art, Breton does not hesitate to integrate into his ‘wall’ tourist knick-knacks. 10
While the museum celebrates the cult of the individual and the solitary genius, or the avant-garde’s fearless questioning of traditional values, ‘magic’ art defends the merits of collective action and poetry. If the term was not liable to misunderstanding (including for surrealism itself), the term ‘religious’ would readily replace ‘magic’ to qualify the art promoted by André Breton. Modern art is identified with a secular process, with a formalist approach which leads to the autonomous work of art. On the contrary, ‘magic art’ turns the work into a bridge between the different elements of a unified cosmos. Declaring that ‘we are in touch with every part of the universe’, Novalis (quoted by Breton) defines the function of art as linking things with each other in order to assert a belief in the continuity of the world. Breton dreams his ‘wall’ as a microcosm and weaves a cloth of complex meanings and harmonies. The aim of Breton’s collecting activity is to hunt down works and objects capable of linking the real and the imaginary, leading him for example to collect stones from the bed of the River Lot and transform them into a « Souvenir du paradis terrestre ».
The magical work is also ‘religious’ insofar as, like the ‘naïve’ and the ‘madman’, the sorcerer or the shaman, it draws from a common source of universal values.
In the context of the museum, that temple of culture, the ‘wall’ celebrates the virtues of ignorance and madness. A painting by the Douanier Rousseau (Nature morte aux cerises, ca 1907) is symptomatically placed in the exact centre of the wall. In L’Art magique, Breton praises ‘the “simplicity” of [the Douanier] Rousseau, a simplicity which protected him against the prohibitions on which we commonly model ourselves, and transformed him into the primitive “son of the sun” that Rimbaud and Lautréamont had hoped to find at the cost of a radical revolt and that Gauguin – perhaps more naively – had gone in search of in the Polynesian Islands’.11
The ‘naive’, the ‘madman’ or the shaman bring back from their exploration of the depths ‘shared by all men’12 a poetry which they share with their community in the form of myth. For André Breton this mythical quest was the main objective of postwar surrealism. After the New York exhibition (First Papers of Surrealism, 1942), the exhibition he curated in 1947 at the Maeght Gallery in Paris was organised around a room with twelve ‘altars’ dedicated to ‘a being, a category of beings or an object likely to be endowed with mythical life’.
Among the objects collected by Breton, those from Oceania best embody the qualities of ‘magic’ art: an unfettered creation, a ‘collective’ and mythical art. Promoted as art that ‘opens the sluice-gates of our emotions’13, Oceanic art is, par excellence, associated with ‘the marvelous, with all it entails of surprise and splendour, and a dazzling view of something other than what we know, which the visual arts have never revealed with the same success’.14 The great number of Oceanic objects on the wall (79) testify to their importance within the surrealist poetic pantheon.
The preponderance of ‘primitive’, Oceanic. Amerindian and African works on the wall is the sign of a radical questioning of the aesthetic and cultural values of the modern western world. The caricatural image to which certain individuals have all too often reduced Breton, does not take into account the rhetorical, dialectical dimension of his poetic or political models. The excesses and blindness to which he may have yielded, sometimes complicitously, were proportional to the forces he wanted to fight.
If the ‘wall’, by its form and its content, appears so irrepressibly opposed to the founding values of western culture, it is because never had the forces of cultural imperialism and those of the stupefying of the masses through degenerate consumer culture, appeared as threatening as in postwar France when Breton created the wall.
‘The development of civilisation and constant technical progress have been unable to totally eradicate from the human soul the hope of resolving the enigma of the world and redirect to its advantage the forces which govern it’.15 In the decades to come, the historical perspective of André Breton’s ‘wall’ will remind us that it was contemporary with colonial wars, the invention of television and the supermarket.
III. The wall as a magnetic field
André Breton developed his conception of the image in Signe ascendant, written in 1947. He repeatedly voiced his aversion for the word donc [therefore], which he referred to as that ‘most detestable word’. Donc implies a consequence, leading to a conclusion, the most effective lubricant of an argument. Donc fills the void that separates one work from the next on the walls of a museum, filling the space between an object and those surrounding it. In a museum each work heralds the next one. The donc which connects them is one of filiation and genealogy (works of the same artist, stylistic school or movement…). Work after work the museum unrolls its long ribbon of History, legitimised by its ‘scientificity’. André Breton rejects such a vision of art, which tends to transform works into documents illustrating the stages in a ‘progression’. The ‘wall’ is the stinging denial of such a conception of art. Against science it promotes the arbitrary nature of poetry. At the heart of the temple of donc, it promotes comme [like], ‘the most exciting word we have’, declared Breton in Signe ascendant.16
The surrealist comme challenges its everyday meaning. Rather than a means of comparison, it underlines difference and disparity. It is the agent of a polarisation of the terms and object which it brings together. It magnetises the space crossed by a shower of sparks, the electric arc of a relationship which defies rationality.
A bosom like a cabinet, teeth like a flock of sheep. (Note: examples taken from quotations used by Breton to illustrate his poetic use of comme. ‘Ta gorge triomphante est une belle armoire’, by Charles Baudelaire ; ‘Tes dents sont comme un troupeau de brebis remontant du lavoir’, Song of Songs.)
The first ‘spark’ of comme dates from 1913. In the April issue of his journal Nord-Sud, Pierre Reverdy recorded an exchange he had just had with Breton : ‘The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be created from a comparison but from the bringing together of two more or less distant realities. The more distant and just the relations between the two realities brought together, the more powerful the image – the more emotive power and poetic reality it will have’.17
Six years later, the image of the ‘spark’ is used by Paul Valéry responding to Breton’s gift of Mont de piété : ‘Monsieur V […] is surprisingly pleased with your anthology, who would have thought so? Is he becoming mad like the young men of Littérature ? But believe it or not, he is very much at ease between Mallarmé and Rimbaud, the two poles of your universe. It’s because of comparisons. He sees himself closing the chain of electricity, and points his loaded finger towards the other body, in the expectation of sparks’.18
André Breton takes up the image of the ‘spark’ in a text written in 1921 for the exhibition of Max Ernst’s collages (at the Sans Pareil bookshop in Paris). For him the collages possess the ‘marvelous quality […] of bringing together two distant realities, and producing a spark’.19
This sparkling quality is characteristic of surrealist works. The works of Giorgio De Chirico were among the first to explode in a shower of sparks.20 Juxtaposing the emblematic forms of classical culture (arcades, roman buildings) with the symbols of modernity (locomotives, stations…), or fusing disparate objects (a rubber glove and the copy of an antique sculpture in Chant d’amour), his paintings create ‘certain unexpected combinations which awaken in us a new feeling of joy and surprises’.21 Les Champs magnétiques also resemble electric arc generators. Written jointly by André Breton and Philippe Soupault, the text juxtaposes incoherent sentences, the meeting of two subjective voices, challenging the lightning conductor of reason.
Again in 1965, at the exhibition L’Écart absolu, Breton tracks down the appearance of this spark : ‘harmony of opposing tensions… like those of the arc and the lyre according to Heraclitus. Poetry occurs when the mind throws a bridge between extremes through analogy’.22
‘Spark’, ‘absolute disparity’, these are the only laws that Breton’s ‘wall’ obeys. Its chance organisation vies with a poetic necessity that can only be arbitrary. Similarities and differences transform the ‘wall’ into a vast magnetic field.
A giant’s bone, the fragments of a mummy, a two-headed cat, bezoars, a sea-cucumber, a pebble, vases, engravings, a thermometer, sixeen miniature paintings… compose the cabinet of curiosities of Pierre Borel (1620-1671), a doctor from Castres. Similar collections existed throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, in ‘hundreds, if not thousands’. 23 They testify to the emergence of occult knowledge within official culture, of a popular science until then controlled by the Church’s authority. Christophe Pomian reminds us that ‘cabinets of curiosities’ are named less after the nature of the objects they contain than after the ‘science’ which determined their content and meaning. Popular science weaves together a network of analogies, correspondences and similarities between all things, allowing us to pass from the visible to the invisible, turning the cabinet of curiosities into a miniature world in which each object is related to others according to affinities of origin, matter, or structure. Rationalism was to condemn the ephemeral age of ‘curiosity’. Montaigne saw it as ‘everywhere depraved’24, while for Pascal, ‘curiosity is mere vanity’.25 Descartes fought it in the name of ‘Method’, that of rational knowledge. In his Recherche de la vérité, he set up a dialogue between the follower of ‘curiosity’ and that of the new science. Epistemon, representing the former, is keen on ‘human machines, ghosts, illusions, in a word all the marvelous effects linked to magic’.26 Eudoxus represents modern science in its Cartesian version. The arguments they exchange oppose the rule and the arbitrary, the banal and the strange, certainty and doubt, rationality and passion.
The opposition between science and ‘curiosity’ prefigures the dialogue between Breton’s ‘wall’ and the modern art museum. The similarity of Breton’s studio with the Kunst und Wunderkammer is based on the bizarre, underlining the links with doubt (assumed non-knowledge) and passion.
As shown above, the caution with which Breton treats the notion ‘magic’ proves to what extent his appeal to irrational powers is to be considered as a rhetorical device. His ‘cabinet of curiosities’ has nothing of Pierre Borel’s microcosm. A creation of the modern age, Breton’s ‘wall’ has had to renounce its cosmological dream in favour of a subjective exploration which has become the Holy Grail of the modern artist. Marcel Duchamp is a pioneer here. His Boîte-en-valise or ‘portable museum’ prefigures the modern ‘curiosity of the self’. Its disparate contents (a miniature urinal, a typewriter cover, drawings, a window covered in glossy leather panels…) mark the transformation of the Wunderkammer from a cosmological to a subjective dimension. Following Joseph Cornell, a new generation of artists have created their egotistical museums. Traveling in Italy in 1952, Robert Rauschenberg assembled his Thirty Scatole Personali (Thirty personal boxes), filled with animal bones, insects, feathers, stones, shells, twigs, mirrors, clock parts, creating a miniature autobiographical world. At the end of the 1950s George Brecht placed in the compartments of his Cabinet (1959) a magnifying glass, two porcelain cups, a yo-yo, a bottle filled with pink liquid, a bell, an egg cup, a miniature statue of liberty… Daniel Spoerri was the first to create this new type of ‘cabinet’ or museum which was to proliferate. In 1977 he exhibited his first ‘Sentimental Museum’ at the Pompidou Centre, a museum ‘of fetishistic art relics, a gallery displaying objects as witnesses of the history of art’. It included among other objects, ‘Brancusi’s nail clippers, Ingres’s violin, Edith Piaf’s dress, or Aristide Bruant’s hat as seen in Lautrec’s lithograph, the newspaper hat worn by Severini to paint…’27 The Musée sentimental, like Breton’s studio, claims to be a critique of the scientific pretensions of the modern museum : ‘It does not organise objects scientifically, but interweaves the stories linked to it in a round of images, visions and speculations as presented in myth, popular stories and legends […] Such primitive, atavistic traits seem totally irrelevant to scientific thought. But Daniel Spoerri’s Sentimental Museums, like Harald Szeemann’s Museums of Obsession, are based on good reasons, demonstrating that on the one hand modern scientific and rational thought is not as free from fetishism as it would wish to be […] and on the other hand that it is just as functional to use objects as fetishes, relics or amulets, as to consider them from a technical perspective’.28 The antimuseum of postwar avantgardes is the deliberately derisory temple of a subjective position which overturns the contested values of the modern art museum. The Musée sentimental is contemporary with the international development of modern art museums, with a ‘darwinian’ history of art, progressive and formalist, that tends to become dogma.
His ‘fetish’ objects struggle against the fetishization of works complicit with the financial speculation of which they are the object. Fantasy, the arbitrary of egotism against ‘technique’, against the scientific model which governs the modern museum. The Musées sentimentaux testify to the critical relevance today of André Breton’s ‘wall’.
© Didier Ottinger, translation Elza Adamowicz
1.A. Breton, « La confession dédaigneuse », in Les Pas perdus, Œuvres complètes (OC), Paris, Gallimard, coll. « Bibliothèque de la Pléiade », tome 1, 1988, p. 198.
2. A. Jouffroy, « La collection d’André Breton », L’Œil, n° 10, octobre 1955, p. 32-39.
3. Mark Polizzotti, André Breton, Paris, Gallimard, 1999, p. 575.
4. A. Breton, Le Surréalisme et la peinture, Paris, Gallimard, 1965, p. 37.
5. A. Breton, Entretien radiophonique (1952) ; quoted by R.-C. Giraud, « André Breton, collectionneur », Jardin des arts, n° 67, mai 1960, p. 33.
6. J. Lord, Notes inédites pour Giacometti ; quoted by M. Polizzotti, op. cit., p. 705.
7. La Révolution surréaliste, n° 3, 15 avril 1925, p. 27.
8. R. Caillois, Lettre à André Breton, 27 décembre 1934, in Approches de l’imaginaire, Paris, Gallimard, 1974, p. 35.
9. A. Breton, L’Art magique, Paris, Éditions Phébus, 1991, p. 63.
10. Cl. Lévi-Strauss, interview with M. Polizzotti : ‘Breton had an instinct about objects he loved, and he sometimes made me appreciate things I otherwise wouldn’t have seen or appreciated. We once came upon an object that had obviously been made to be sold to whites; to my mind it had no cultural function, and therefore was not interesting. But Breton stopped short in amazement, and after a while I, too, understood that it was nonetheless very beautiful. He wasn’t a purist, or trained; but because of this he saw things that I didn’t’; quoted in M. Polizzotti, op. cit., p. 575.
11. A. Breton, L’Art magique, op. cit., p. 76.
12. A. Breton, « Flagrant délit », in La Clef des champs, OC, tome III, 1999, p. 261.
13. A. Breton, « Océanie », in La Clef des champs, OC, tome III, op. cit., p. 837.
14. Ibid., p. 838.
15. A. Breton, L’Art magique, op. cit., p. 61.
16. A. Breton, « Signe ascendant », in La Clef des champs, OC, tome III, op. cit., p. 768.
17. UA source of the ‘spark’ that Breton would come back to in Manifeste du surréalisme, when he states that ‘the value of the image depends on the beauty of the spark obtained’, OC, vol I, op. cit., p. 337-338.
18. Comment by Paul Valéry (26 juillet 1919) ; quoted in A. Breton, « Notes et variantes », OC, tome I, op. cit., p. 1093.
19. A. Breton, « Max Ernst », in Les Pas perdus, OC, tome I, op. cit., p. 245-246.
20. Breton possibly discovered Giorgio De Chirico’s paintings at the 1912-1913 Salon d’automne or Salon des Indépendants, or at the Paul Guillaume Gallery which showed works by the artist as early as 1914. In any case he saw a large number of paintings by de Chirico in Guillaume Apollinaire’s appartment which he frequented from 10 May 1916. (See : Chronology by Marguerite Bonnet, OC, tome I, p. XXV).
21. G. De Chirico, « La révélation », manuscript from the Paul Éluard collection, 1911-1912.
22. Quel ouvrage ? p. 444.
23. Krzysztof Pomian, Collectionneurs, amateurs et curieux : Paris, Venise : XVIe-XVIIIe siècle, Paris, Gallimard, 1987, p. 64.
24. Ibid., p. 77.
26. Ibid., p. 79.
27. A[ndré] K[amber], J[acqueline B[esson], « Le musée sentimental de Bâle », exhibition catalogue, Petit Musée sentimental autour de Daniel Spoerri, Paris, Musée national d’art moderne-Centre Georges Pompidou, 6 mars-6 mai 1990.
28. Bazon Brock, « Qu’est-ce que le Musée sentimental », ibid., p. 71.