Break-up brings surreal sadness

March 28, 2003

As the studio and archive of surrealist poet André Breton go under the hammer, Dawn Ades deplores the destruction of a unique collection.

The final curtain on a long drawn-out quest to save a unique collection and archive is about to fall - a tragedy for international scholars and others interested in the history of the surrealist movement.

Next week, the art collection, library and archive formed by the poet and leader of the movement, Andre Breton, will come up for auction in Paris.

The sale, which has caused anger and disbelief in many quarters, will disperse the contents of the studio/apartment where Breton lived from 1922 until his death in 1966.

Watched over by his widow, Elisa Breton, until she died in 2000, the studio had remained more or less intact for 80 years. But sustained attempts by Elisa Breton and the Actual association, formed to support surrealism after Breton's death, to create a foundation to preserve the archive and collection, failed. The political will necessary to find a solution to preserve the collection has been sadly lacking, despite petitions that have circulated for many months and a late flurry of protests by French intellectuals including Jacques Derrida, Michel Butor and Jean Ristat.

Notwithstanding Elisa Breton's willingness to give scholars and researchers access, the precise nature of the collections in Breton's studio remained a mystery, and the massive catalogue prepared for the sale is no substitute for a thorough inventory.

There are rumours, for instance, of disposals before the sale of items such as the unpublished autobiography of the poet, polemicist and nephew of Oscar Wilde, Arthur Cravan, associate of the Dadaists and husband of Mina Loy, who disappeared in 1918. Such manuscripts are of immense value from a scholarly perspective but also have a rarity value that highlights the conflict between commerce and scholarship. Breton recognised the public interest in his personal archive by bequeathing many of his letters to the Biblioth que Jacques Doucet. But there remain numerous manuscripts and other materials whose fate is uncertain.

The case for keeping the studio intact rests on the character of the whole.

This collection is unique because of its creator and its place in the history of the most influential intellectual and artistic movement of the mid-20th century. Inscribed in these paintings, objects, sculptures, drawings, photographs, photo-montages, letters, books and manuscripts is the living history of surrealism. The library is a record of Breton's huge curiosity, scholarship, political affiliations and poetic tastes and thus of surrealism itself; the manuscripts are priceless documents of surrealist activities, debates, quarrels and ideas; the collection an unrivalled accumulation of western and non-western art and of the found and chosen objects that were such an integral part of surrealist life. There is a link back to Apollinaire, one of the first to harbour ethnographic as well as modern works of art. The abolition of cultural and artistic hierarchies, the exercise of chance, the pursuit of poetry in the everyday, all core ideas in surrealism, are visibly present within the contents of Breton's studio.

The sale, instigated by Breton's daughter for reasons that remain disputed, has also caused annoyance for more mundane reasons. The great auction houses are furious that the booty has gone to a relatively obscure dealer, CalmelsCohen, and will go under the hammer at Drouot-Richelieu, an auction house used by individual dealers. The poet Yves Bonnefoy writing in Le Monde last month protested at the vulgarity of the department-store style enterprise that has produced catalogues of more than 2,300 pages, listing 500 lots of manuscripts, 3,500 lots of books, 200 works of "folk art", 150 Oceanian and American objects, 450 works of modern and naive art, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, collages and photo-montages, and about 500 lots of modern photographs. But it is scholarship that will really suffer.

While private collectors and souvenir hunters will soon mass in Paris and museums will anxiously consult their acquisition budgets, a huge international community of artists, writers, poets and scholars is still desperately attempting to find an alternative.

Collections are always being gathered and then dispersed. This was not a static collection in Breton's lifetime; he regularly bought and sold objects, and some of the greatest pictures by, for example, de Chirico, Picasso, Braque and Dali once in his collection are long gone. After Elisa Breton's death, the Centre Pompidou accepted in partial lieu of taxes a "wall" from Breton's studio, which included works by Giacometti, Arp, Klee, Miró, Victor Hugo and numerous found and chosen objects from all over the world. This gives something of a taste of the original collection, but the whole would have been far more than a snapshot of an evolving collection at the collector's death.

No one would claim that the studio/apartment could or should be preserved in aspic. It would have been too small for public access and too crowded and vulnerable. Every available surface was filled with paintings, objects, photographs, masks and books, juxtaposed in a magical visual clutter outside any conventional taxonomy.

In the gallery of the studio was an even more extensive collection of paintings. I remember the curator conjuring paintings by the Mexican artist Alberto Gironella from this mysterious space behind the scenes. Among the treasures were a sculpture by Giacometti, a glass painting by Man Ray, paintings by Arp, Miró, Brauner, Magritte, katchina dolls from the Hopi, Eskimo and North West Coast masks, Mexican trees of life and curios of all kinds.

The character of the collection could have inspired a modern and imaginative solution on a par with those that set up the Maison Victor Hugo, the Musée Picasso or the Brancusi studio now re-housed at the Centre Pompidou. The new History of Art Library in the former Bibliothèque Nationale might have provided a refuge.

It is strange that a country that famously values so highly its intellectuals, writers and artists should allow such a unique collection to be dispersed so abruptly. The failure to keep this collection and archive together may be in part ascribed to the awkward relationship between surrealism and the state. Surrealism was violently opposed to nation, monuments, fake celebrity and commercial values, and its most complete record, in Breton's studio and archive, may not appeal to a national heritage lobby. There are probably other local and fiscal reasons for the failure to preserve the studio, but surrealism's refusal to toe a party line and famously to declare "Neither your war nor your peace" in 1939 is a timely and awkward reminder of its relevance today.

Once the contents of Breton's studio are dispersed, however, an entire intellectual and aesthetic world will be gone for ever. As Bonnefoy wrote:

"Breton did not assemble objects, he recognised presences, if necessary he revived or created them, he restored dignity to them, together they became, in his home, a living community in whose curved mirror the future society Breton dreamed of was sketched out."

Dawn Ades is director, Arts and Humanities Research Board Centre for Studies of Surrealism and its Legacies, University of Exeter.

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