André Breton was born in Tinchebray (Orne) the son of a shopkeeper. He spent his childhood on the Brittany coast and started early on to write poems - he knew the poet Paul Valéry while still young. Breton studied medicine and later psychiatry, and in 1921 met Freud in Vienna. He never qualified but during World War I he served in the neurological ward in Nantes and made some attempts to use Freudian methods to psychoanalyze his patients, whose disturbed images he considered remarkable. Among Breton's friends was Jacques Vaché, a wounded, rebellious soldier, who declared art to be nonsense. Vaché died of an opium overdose in 1919 in a hotel room with another young man, but his views, expressed in Lettres de guerre (1919), continued their life in the Dadaist movement.
Breton joined first in 1916 the Dadaist group, but after various quarrels continued his march forward: "Leave everything. Leave Dada. Leave your wife. Leave your mistress. Leave your hopes and fears. Leave your children in the woods. Leave the substance for the shadow. Leave your easy life, leave what you are given for the future. Set off on the road." He turned then to Surrealism and cofounded with Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault the review Littérature. Very important for his literary work were his wartime meetings with Apollinaire. His MANIFESTE DU SURRÉALISME was published in 1924. Influenced by psychological theories, Breton defined Surrealism as "pure psychic automatism, by which an attempt is made to express, either verbally, in writing or in any other manner, the true functioning of thought. The dictation of thought, in the absence of all control by reason, excluding any aesthetic or moral preoccupation." In the Second Manifesto Breton stated that the surrealists strive to attain a "mental vantage-point (point de l'esprit) from which life and death, the real and the imaginary, past and future, communicable and incommunicable, high and low, will no longer be perceived as contradictions."
Breton and his colleagues believed that the springs of personal freedom and social liberation lay in the unconscious mind. They found examples from the works of such painters as Hieronymus Bosch and James Ensor and from the writings of Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry - and from the revolutionary thinking of Karl Marx. The Surrealist movement was from the beginning in a constant state of change or conflict, but its major periodicals, La Révolution surréaliste (1924-30) and Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution (1930-33), channeled cooperation and also spread ideas beyond France.
In the 1930s Breton published several collection of poems, including Mad Love (1937), a defence of an 'irrational' emotion of lovers, which used the Cinderella myth. Humor was an essential part of the Surrealists' activities and Breton also edited in 1937 an anthology on l'humour noir, which featured such writers as Swift, Kafka, Rimbaud, Poe, Lewis Carroll, and Baudelaire. "When it comes to black humor, everything designates him as the true initiator," Breton wrote on Swift. His prose has been more highly rated than his poetry, and among his masterworks from the 1920s is NADJA (1928), a portrait of Breton and a mad woman, a patient of Pierre Janet. The title refers to the name of a woman and the beginning of the Russian word for hope. Breton's first-person narrative is supplemented by forty-four photographs of places and objects which inspire the author or are connected to Nadja. In LES VASES COMMUNICANTS (1932, The Communicating Vessels) Breton explored the problems of everyday experience, dreams, and their relationship to intellect. "Anyone who has ever found himself in love has only been able to deplore the conspiracy of silence and of night which comes in the dream to surround the beloved being, even while the spirit of the sleeper is totally occupied with insignificant tasks", he wrote. "How can we retain from waking life what deserves to be retained, even if it is just so as not to be unworthy of what is best in this life itself?"
From 1927 to 1935 Breton was a member of the French Communist Party. Although he broke with the party in disgust with Stalinism and the Moscow show trials, he remained committed to Marxism. In Nadja he had said: "Subjectivity and objectivity commit a series of assaults on each other during a human life out of which the first one suffers the worse beating." With Leon Trotsky, whom he met in Mexico, he founded in 1938 the Fédération de l'Art Revolutionnaire Independant, and produced a paper on the civil liberties of an artist. When the Nazis occupied France, Breton fled to the United States with Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst. He held there a broadcasting job and arranged a surrealist exposition at Yale in 1942. On a boat ride to Martinique in 1941 Breton met the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and discussed with him artistic creation. Lévi-Strauss criticized that Breton's definition of a work of art as the spontaneous activity of the mind opens the question of the aesthetic value of the work. Breton answered that he is "hardly interested in establishing a hierarchy of surrealist works (contrary to Aragon who once said: "If you write dreadful rubbish in an authentically surrealistic manner, it is still rubbish") - nor, as I have made clear, a hierarchy of romantic or symbolist works." (from Look, Listen, Read, by Lévi-Strauss, 1997)
During the war Breton wrote three poetic epics in which he dealt with the theme of exile. After WW II Breton traveled in the Southwest and the West Indies and returned to France in 1946. He soon became an important guru of a group of young Surrealists. In the 1940s and 1950s Breton wrote essays and collections of poems, among them ARCANE 17 (1945), a mythological work set in Canada. Breton's last poetical work, CONSTELLATIONS (1959), paralleled a series of poems with Joan Miro's gouaches. André Breton died in Paris on September 28, 1966. His three-room studio at 42 Rue Fontaine became a research center, preserved by his third wife Elisa. Breton's daughter Aube from his marriage to Jacqueline Lamba decided to put his books, drawings, paintings, sculptures, photographs, and other items on the market in 2003 after the French government did not buy the personal collections