André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto Turns 100 This Year

Peo­ple don’t seem to write a lot of man­i­festos these days. Or if they do write man­i­festos, they don’t make the impact that they would have a cen­tu­ry ago. In fact, this year marks the hun­dredth anniver­sary of the Man­i­feste du sur­réal­isme, or Sur­re­al­ist Man­i­festo, one of the most famous such doc­u­ments. Or rather, it was two of the most famous such doc­u­ments, each of them writ­ten by a dif­fer­ent poet. On Octo­ber 1, 1924, Yvan Goll pub­lished a man­i­festo in the name of the sur­re­al­ist artists who looked to him as a leader (includ­ing Dada Man­i­festo author Tris­tan Tzara). Two weeks lat­er, André Bre­ton pub­lished a man­i­festo — the first of three — rep­re­sent­ing his own, dis­tinct, group of sur­re­al­ists with the very same title.

Though Goll may have beat­en him to the punch, we can safe­ly say, at a dis­tance of one hun­dred years, that Bre­ton wrote the more endur­ing man­i­festo. You can read it online in the orig­i­nal French as well as in Eng­lish trans­la­tion, but before you do, con­sid­er watch­ing this short France 24 Eng­lish doc­u­men­tary on its impor­tance, as well as that of the sur­re­al­ist art move­ment that it set off.

“There’s day-to-day real­i­ty, and then there’s supe­ri­or real­i­ty,” says its nar­ra­tor. “That’s what André Bre­ton’s Sur­re­al­ist Man­i­festo was aim­ing for: an artis­tic and spir­i­tu­al rev­o­lu­tion” dri­ven by the rejec­tion of “rea­son, log­ic, and even lan­guage, all of which its acolytes believed obscured deep­er, more mys­ti­cal truths.”

“The real­is­tic atti­tude, inspired by pos­i­tivism, from Saint Thomas Aquinas to Ana­tole France, clear­ly seems to me to be hos­tile to any intel­lec­tu­al or moral advance­ment,” the trained doc­tor Bre­ton declares in the man­i­festo. “I loathe it, for it is made up of medi­oc­rity, hate, and dull con­ceit. It is this atti­tude which today gives birth to these ridicu­lous books, these insult­ing plays.” He might well have also seen it as giv­ing rise to events like the First World War, whose grind­ing sense­less­ness he wit­nessed work­ing in a neu­ro­log­i­cal ward and car­ry­ing stretch­ers off the bat­tle­field. It was these expe­ri­ences that direct­ly or indi­rect­ly inspired a wave of avant-garde twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry art, more than a few pieces of which star­tle us even today — which is say­ing some­thing, giv­en our dai­ly diet of absur­di­ties in twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry life.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Intro­duc­tion to Sur­re­al­ism: The Big Aes­thet­ic Ideas Pre­sent­ed in Three Videos

Europe After the Rain: Watch the Vin­tage Doc­u­men­tary on the Two Great Art Move­ments, Dada & Sur­re­al­ism (1978)

A Brief, Visu­al Intro­duc­tion to Sur­re­al­ism: A Primer by Doc­tor Who Star Peter Capal­di

The For­got­ten Women of Sur­re­al­ism: A Mag­i­cal, Short Ani­mat­ed Film

Read and Hear Tris­tan Tzara’s “Dada Man­i­festo,” the Avant-Garde Doc­u­ment Pub­lished 100 Years Ago (March 23, 1918)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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