By Paul Hammond
City Lights Books, 2000
The period spanning André Breton’s return to France in 1946 to his death in 1966 is too often dismissed by critics as a mere coda to the productive decades of the twenties and thirties. This attitude essentially obscures a third of Breton’s life, drawing a curtain over significant political, poetic, and critical contributions (see the content of Free Rein for a sampling of Breton’s work during these years). Constellations of Miró, Breton by Paul Hammond (published in 2000), which focuses on twenty-two poems written by Breton in 1958 to accompany a series of gouaches by the Catalan artist Joan Miró, is an important argument against this interpretation.
Hammond, editor of The Shadow and Its Shadow: Surrealist Writings on the Cinema, opens his narrative with Germany’s invasion of France in 1940 and follows the trail of two of the millions of people involuntarily displaced by the war: Breton and Miró. Breton and his family eventually made their way to the U.S. (by way of Martinique), while Miró went first to the island of Mallorca, then to Catalonia. It was in these two places that he created the remarkable series of artworks that were to inspire Breton years later.
Hammond places Breton’s poems deeply in the context of what can be called the esoterism of this last period of his work, although the significant political efforts of the Surrealists in these years are not ignored (see excerpt below). Along these lines, the distinction between “historic” and “eternal” Surrealism is taken up in a discussion of L’Art Magique, a major still-untranslated work of Breton, a book Hammond contrasts with the earlier Surrealism and Painting.
A piece by Breton which served as a companion to a 1959 exhibition of Miró’s works is included in the book, along with translations of all twenty-two poems. (Alternate translations of nine of the series appear in the Cauvin/Caws Poems of André Breton.) I highly recommend Hammond’s book for those seeking to comprehend Breton’s thought as a whole.
Excerpt from unnumbered chapter of Constellations of Miró, Breton: “In the Placelessness Where Interior and Exterior Merge”
The Surrealist Group was also busy politically, giving the lie to the tired cliché that they’d regressed into apolitical mysticism. (Breton campaigned, for instance, to save five Catalan anarchists, condemned to death for their part in the 1951 Barcelona Tram Strike, from Franco’s firing squads.) In 1954 the Algerian War between the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) and the colonizing French Army began, the Foreign Legion and paratroopers responding to FLN insurgency with a campaign of terror. Widespread protests against the war met with brutal state repression. By early 1956 France was a divided country and in the grip of fascist reaction. In May 1958 a military coup in Algiers, led by the right-wing generals Massu and Salan, brought about the collapse of the riven Fourth Republic. The ensuing referendum restored De Gaulle to power as president of the Fifth. The Surrealists had been founder members, in November 1955, of an Action Committee of French Intellectuals Against the War in North Africa. By April 1956 the anticolonialist common front—which Breton likened to the Resistance—had a membership of 600, a motley assortment of PCFers, anti-Stalinist Marxists, anarchists, Sartreans, Christians, and Surrealists. The crisis attending the Algiers putsch made publication of a review a priority, leading to Le 14 Julliet (The 14th of July), edited by Dionys Mascolo and the Surrealist Jean Schuster. (Together with Breton and Maurice Blanchot, the editors were to prepare the famous Déclaration sur le droit à l’insoumission dans la guerre d’Algérie, or “Declaration of the 121,” in September 1960.) When Breton settled down to write his Miró essay he was heavily committed to the antiwar campaign, and it is tempting to think that the actuality of political events in the autumn of 1958 resonated with those in the fascist France and Spain of the Constellations, tincturing his gloss on the prescience of the artist’s work. Ten years before, the privileged individual/mass subject for Breton had been the outsider artist/Citizen of the World. In 1958 we might argue that, among other possible permutations, it was Miró/the Algerian insurgents.