Surrealism For Sale, Straight From The Source; André Breton's Collection Is Readied for Auction
By ALAN RIDING
Published: December 17, 2002
In photographs André Breton is rarely seen smiling. As the founder and undisputed leader of the Surrealist movement, he evidently took himself seriously. Between the 1920's and 1950's he alone defined the rules of Surrealism and tolerated no challenge to his authority. He encouraged rebellion against prevailing artistic and social norms, but artists and poets who fell out of his favor were summarily expelled from the movement.
On the other hand, he must have had loads of charisma.
Over the years, in addition to the artworks he bought, notably primitive sculptures from Oceania, hundreds of paintings, drawings, photographs and books were given to him by friends, followers and little-known artists seeking his blessing. When Breton died at 70 on Sept. 28, 1966, his small apartment at 42 Rue Fontaine in the Pigalle district of Paris was a veritable treasure trove. He had lived there since 1922. His heirs -- his widow, Elisa, and his daughter from an earlier relationship, Aube -- decided to touch nothing. ''My stepmother lived there, and it was her family environment,'' Aube Breton Elléouët, 67, explained. ''For 35 years we looked for an answer to what could be done with this collection. My father had never expressed himself on the subject.''
Now, two years after Elisa Breton's death, with the French government unwilling to buy the collection, the largest single record of the Surrealist movement is to be sold next spring at the Hôtel Drouot-Richelieu, where Paris auctions are held. One measure of the size of the sale is that the auction house, CalmelsCohen, plans at least six catalogs to cover the 5,300 lots. The auction, from April 1 to 18, is expected to raise $30 million to $40 million.
Books, which account for 3,500 of the lots, include some dedicated to Breton by Freud, Trotsky and Apollinaire as well as art catalogs and journals. Among the 500 lots of manuscripts are originals of some of Breton's writings as well as records of Surrealist ''games'' and experiments. Modern art is represented by 450 paintings, drawings and sculptures and 500 lots of photographs. And there are 200 examples of popular art and 150 works of primitive art, mainly from Oceania. (A description of the collection is online at breton.calmelscohen.com.)
To compensate for the inevitable dispersal of the collection, the entire contents of 42 Rue Fontaine have been recorded digitally and will be made available through a CD-ROM. ''Everything,'' explains a news release by Jean-Michel Ollé and Jean-Pierre Sakoun, who prepared the database. ''Paintings, objects, photos, manuscripts, books. Everything from the least important to the most, the historic and the everyday, the private and the public.''
The principal item not included in the auction is what is known as Breton's Wall, literally the cluttered wall behind his desk that was featured in many photographs and came to be considered a work of art -- the art of collecting -- in its own right. The wall was given by Mrs. Breton Elléouët to the National Museum of Modern Art at the Georges Pompidou Center in lieu of death duties owed to the government by the Breton estate.
The wall's shelves are crowded with dozens of Oceanic sculptures as well as Inuit objects and pre-Hispanic figures from Mexico. On the wall itself are paintings, engravings and drawings by the likes of Francis Picabia, Alfred Jarry, Roberto Matta, Jean Arp, Marcel Duchamp, Picasso, Joan Miró and Wassily Kandinsky. And tucked among them is the odd personal item, like a photograph of Elisa Breton.
Yet the collection to be sold in the spring reveals more about Breton's approach to art, since it includes not only major works, but also lesser works by long forgotten artists and even objects that Breton bought at auctions and flea markets or simply found while out strolling.
''My father had as much passion for a piece found on the bank of a river as for an important painting in his collection,'' Mrs. Breton Elléouët said.
Still, the auction will not lack important works, notably ''Danseuse Espagnole'' or ''Spanish Dancer,'' by Miró, Matta's ''Poster for Arcane 17,'' Magritte's ''Woman Hidden in a Forest,'' an untitled work by Arshile Gorky and ''Danger, Dancer,'' a painting on a photograph on glass by Man Ray. It also includes scores of less valuable works by equally famous artists, among them Picasso, Picabia, Arp, Duchamp, Max Ernst, Wilfredo Lam, Victor Brauner and André Masson. More than 100 original prints by Man Ray dominate the photography collection.
Notably absent is any work by Giorgio de Chirico, the Italian Metaphysical painter, with whom Breton fell out. And a postcard-size collage and gouache is the only work in the sale by Salvador Dali, easily the most famous Surrealist painter, who was expelled from the movement by Breton. The auction also includes no book by the poet Louis Aragon, another friend turned foe. The evidence is clear: Surrealist rebels were expurgated from Breton's life.
Breton himself, while he dabbled with collages and wrote poetry of considerable merit, was most famous simply for being Breton. He was above all immensely curious, his early poetry and interest in psychoanalysis serving as a springboard for Surrealism's constant exploration of the connections between poetry and life, chance, love and sexuality. To describe Surrealism as a sect is to ignore its enormous influence, but Breton himself was very much its guru.
''I believe it is into my thought that I put all my daring, all the strength and hope of which I am capable,'' he wrote in a letter to the art collector Jacques Doucet in December 1924, shortly after publication of the Surrealist Manifesto. ''It possesses me entirely, jealously and makes a mockery of worldly goods.''
Certainly while Surrealism today is best remembered through the works of Dali, Magritte, Miró and Ernst, visual art was not central to Breton's vision of the movement. Yet he undoubtedly had an eye for innovative art: it was at his insistence that in 1924 Doucet bought one of the landmark works of 20th-century art, Picasso's ''Desmoiselles d'Avignon,'' now a jewel in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
As an inspiration for Surrealism, though, Breton was drawn principally to Oceanic art, which he described as ''one of the great lock-keepers of our heart.'' While African art was the rage in Paris at the time, he felt it was too linked to human rituals and animals. He preferred Oceanic art ''for its immemorial effort to express the interpenetration of the physical and the mental, to triumph over the dualism of perception and representation.'' Put more simply, he considered it more mystical.
''Oceanic objects were Breton's companions all his life,'' said Pierre Amrouche, an expert on primitive art who is an adviser to the Breton auction. ''It was his family, a tribe of which he was the chief. The very first object he acquired was an Easter Island piece bought when he was 15 with money he was given for good school results.'' (The most valuable Oceanic work in the auction is ''Uli,'' a four-foot-high wooden ancestor statue from the South Pacific island New Ireland, with a sale price estimated at $600,000 to $800,000.)
When Breton traveled to Mexico in 1938 to visit the exiled Trotsky, he discovered pre-Hispanic art. And when he was himself exiled in the United States during World War II, he further developed his interest in American Indian and Inuit art, which also joined his collection. From 1941 to 1945, with Ernst, Dali, Matta and other Surrealists also in exile, New York became the temporary capital of Surrealism, although Breton never felt at home there: he never bothered to learn English.
His own political views were always on the left, but he was a true militant only of Surrealism. He joined the French Communist Party in 1927 and, unaccustomed to taking orders, was soon horrified by its dogmatism. He finally resigned from the party in 1935 (this was the main cause of his rift with Aragon, who stayed in the party), but after the war he was a vocal critic of France's involvement in wars in Indochina and Algeria and an outspoken foe of Stalinism.
Although Surrealism survived the war, with Breton himself returning to Paris to preside over it, by the 1950's and 1960's it had been overtaken by new art movements. Yet when Breton died, while Surrealist paintings hung on the walls of museums around the world, it was at 42 Rue Fontaine that the soul of the movement resided. Works were frequently loaned for exhibitions, but repeated efforts by his widow and daughter to win government backing for creation of a Breton or a Surrealist foundation came to nothing.
After Elisa Breton's death in early 2000 and the transfer of Breton's Wall to the Pompidou, Mrs. Breton Elléouët decided to make an inventory of the collection. ''That's when we became involved,'' Laurence Calmels, a partner in CalmelsCohen, recalled. ''We arrived at 42 Rue Fontaine, where nothing had changed except 'the Wall.' Breton's desk was as he left it, his pipe, the bag of tobacco, the books. There were paintings on walls, but we found many covered in dust in a mezzanine. There were cartons of documents. He kept everything. It took three months to do the inventory.''
It was only then, convinced that she had no alternative, that Mrs. Breton Elléouët reluctantly chose to sell the collection. ''A few works have been sold to the Pompidou and the new Primitive Arts Museum,'' she said. ''As for the rest of the collection, during 35 years of representations we received not a single proposal or offer of help.''