Defining Surrealism: Relations between Nadja, Photography and the Surrealist Movement

Seminar Paper, 2013

25 Pages, Grade: Gut


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 A Definition of Surrealism and Breton’s influence on the Surrealist Movement

3 The relations between Nadja, Photography and Surrealism
3.1 Breton’s photos
3.2 Nadja’s drawings

4 Categorizing Nadja: Literary Genre and the evidentiary value of photography

5. Conclusion

6 Bibliography

7 Appendix

1 Introduction

“Surrealism especially has entered our everyday language; we talk of ‘surreal humour’ or a ‘surreal plot’ to a film. This very continuity means that it is difficult to place them at one remove from us in ‘history’.” (Hopkins 2004: Introduction)

Defining Surrealism has become, as Hopkins’s statement illustrates, a very challenging task due to its wide prevalence in contemporary speech and language, which makes it difficult to isolate Surrealism historically and to distinguish between its intended meanings within certain historical epochs. As the following section will outline, Surrealism has been continuously influenced and shaped from generation to generation and has therefore been marked by different characteristics throughout history. The long historical chronology (cf. Aspley 2010: XV) of the surreal has indeed caused a lot of confusion with regard to the usage of the term, which should always be contextualized within the respective examined epoch in order to “grasp” its intended “spirit”.

This research paper aims at examining and defining the early twentieth century Surrealist Movement more closely, which has been described in the Manifeste du surréalisme in 1924 by André Breton, who seems to be widely acknowledged as the father of Surrealism. After a brief theoretical section outlining a short historical chronology of Surrealism and commenting on Breton’s influence on the Surrealist Movement in 20th Century France, chapter 3 will present an analysis of Nadja (1928), one of Breton’s most important surrealist novels forming the “climax of the literary movement of Surrealism in France”[1] (Reents 2009: 31). The analysis will be carried out from a predominantly photographic angle to examine how photography relates to the concept of the surreal and how it helps define Surrealism in Breton’s time.

However, as will be mentioned along with Bate’s (2003: 95) theory of “emptiness” and the “absence of events” in front of several photographed buildings, it will be necessary to consider various photos in Nadja within the given textual context and not as autonomous or separate visual material. Only then it seems to be possible to discover the strange and surreal touch pertaining to these pictures, which, on their very own, seem to fail to capture the events that are connected with them in Nadja, events that have led, as Breton himself states in the novel, the author back to the buildings.

The second, maybe more important part of chapter 3 will focus on some of Nadja’s drawings, on which Breton has attempted to comment and which seem to imply elements of the unconscious since they create enigmas that can “only be proposed by someone who does not master the answer, because his message is a compromise-formation in which his unconscious takes part” (Bate 2003: 22). The fact that some of these drawings cannot be thoroughly, or only later be explained by Nadja herself[2] suggests that they might indeed be most relevant in connection with the unconscious and the concept of the surreal - these drawings deserve particular attention in the paper.

Before summing up the major results of the analysis, chapter 4 will finally raise the genre question of Nadja due to uncertain speculations around Nadja’s existence noticed by Aspley (2010: 344) and discuss the reliability of the documentary value of Breton’s photography and Nadja’s drawings.

2 A Definition of Surrealism and Breton’s influence on the Surrealist Movement

In order to develop a more holistic and precise idea of the notion of the surreal, one needs to contextualize the Surrealist Movement historically and explore the various possible definitions that it has adopted over the years. As Bate (2003: 3) points out, “surrealism developed and changed with the events in its time, it was a movement, so any framing of surrealism must recognize these shifts.”

As the main body of this paper will illustrate, a discussion of Breton’s photos and Nadja’s drawings cannot possibly be mastered without reference to the historically defined notion of surrealism in Breton’s time. For this reason, this section of the paper aims at delivering a brief historical description of the development of the surreal and mentions Breton’s particular influence on the Surrealist Movement, which, according to Hopkins (2004: 4), is clearly “ideas-driven, constituting attitudes in life, rather than schools of painting or sculpture.”

The central problem of Surrealism addressed by Hopkins in this sentence concerns, on the one hand, the Surrealists’ reluctance to restrict Surrealism to another typical “stylistic ‘ism’ in art history” (2004: 4) and, on the other hand, the sheer impossibility to narrow down Surrealism to one particular definition or epoch. Surely, surrealist thinking has been shaped over many years and has begun long before its description in Breton’s Manifeste du surréalisme in 1924.

Although Aspley (2010: XVIII) asserts that “the birth of Surrealism can be associated with the personal discovery of automatic writing by Breton in 1919 or with the publication of his first Manifeste du surréalisme five years later”, he provides a detailed chronology of famous paintings and literary works which seem to contain earlier traces of the surrealist mind-set.

While doing this, Aspley refers to some comments made by Philippe Soupault or Breton himself, the “self-appointed leader” (Bate 2003: 2f.) and definer of surrealism, to show that both authors have considered some of these earlier works surrealistic. Accordingly, while Soupault regards William Blake’s mystical poetic anthology Songs of Innocence (1789) as surrealistic, written by a poet who “lived in the supernatural” (Aspley 2010: XVI), Breton describes author Edward Young’s edition of Night Thoughts published as early as 1742 as “surrealist from beginning to end.” (Aspley 2010: XV) Many later works by Guillaume Apollinaire, to which the French poet refers with his own coined adjective “surréaliste” (2010: XVII) in 1917, connect even stronger with Breton’s elaborated definitions of Surrealism in 1924 and 1930.

It seems therefore in no way surprising that Surrealism was “a broad movement that attracted many participants” and that it was shaped so individually that the question, “who […] a surrealist [was], could be an open question even for Surrealists.” (Aspley 2010: VII) Historically developed and modified surrealist traces of painters and authors have contributed to a rather confused understanding of the word surreal, as Richardson (2006: 2) puts forward in Surrealism and Cinema: “Certainly, where people in the past might have said ‘how bizarre!’, they tend now to say ‘how surreal!’ Frequently the word seems to mean nothing, or simply denotes something that is slightly out of the ordinary.”

To grasp the spirit of the surreal, one should not merely consider Breton’s own definitions of Surrealism, but also bear in mind that “Surrealists are not concerned with conjuring up some magic world that can be defined as ‘surreal’.” Richardson (2006: 3) develops that surrealists are interested in “exploring the conjunctions, the points of contact, between different realms of existence.” Since he concludes with the idea that Surrealists aim at “broadening horizons” (Richardson 2006: 3), we may consider surrealist thinking as some type of transcendental mental activity. This notion of the broadening of horizons relates well to Breton’s first definition of the movement in 1924 of which he is considered to be the real founder:

«Automatisme psychique pur par lequel on se propose d’exprimer, soit verbalement, soit par écrit, soit de toute autre manière, le fonctionnement réel de la pensée en l'absence de tout contrôle exercé par la raison, en dehors de toute préoccupation esthétique ou morale.» (Breton 1924)

According to this first definition of Surrealism, Breton clarifies that the aim of surrealists is to describe in some manner the real way of thinking without considering aesthetic and moral aspects. Psychic automatism, as he proposes, constitutes the ultimate tool of description of the mental discoveries of a Surrealist by omitting all traces of reasoning in order to capture the most holistic and unmodified picture of the human mind. Therefore, the surrealist artist is interpreted by Breton “not so much [as an] aesthetic producer but [as] the ‘human explorer’ carrying out ‘investigations’.” (Hopkins 2004: 17)

However, Breton’s definition in his manifesto has continued to develop and has been modified after the first “purely intuitive epoch” from 1919-24 by a “reasoning epoch” (Bate 2003: 2) from 1925-34, which also seems to have left some traces in Breton’s Nadja that was published between these two epochs, as will be illustrated in the following section of this paper. This shift from the primary conviction that “thought is supreme over matter” to the view that matter is “supreme over mind” (Bate 2003: 2) reveals that Surrealists have realised, due to the “French colonial war against Marocco” (Bate 2003: 2) that Surrealism is much confronted with the reality of the “social and political world” and that it cannot be dealt with as an entirely autonomous and separate entity.

The first epoch, on the contrary, has largely been influenced by the previous Dada Movement, which showed an interest in the “irrational” (Hopkins 2004: 16) and which may be regarded as an anti-war movement by which Dadaists “counterposed their love of paradox and effrontery to the insanities of a world-gone-mad, as the First World War raged in Europe.” (Hopkins 2004: Introduction) Traces of the Dadaists’ chaotic, irrational and intuitive mind-set seem thus to have survived in Surrealism, even though Breton clearly rejected the Dada Movement by accusing it of its “taste for ‘scandal for its own sake’” (Hopkins 2004: 16) in order to establish and justify the new Movement based on his freshly defined concept of Surrealism.

It is the mixture between elements of the intuitive and the irrational mind-set in Nadja as well as the examination of Breton’s pictures and Nadja’s drawings from a surrealist perspective that will form the main areas of investigation of the following chapter to establish a more concise defining idea of the surreal in Breton’s time.

3 The relations between Nadja, Photography and Surrealism

3.1 Breton’s photos

As mentioned, an analytic discussion of Breton’s photos from a surrealist perspective in Nadja only seems to make sense within the embedded textual context of the author’s novel. Many pictures seem to accompany and support temporary flashback moments of Breton, which the author, according to Bate (2003: 88), more or less randomly describes “stumbl[ing] from scene to scene with ‘chance encounters’ structuring his path.” Bate concludes from this observation that “memory and its ‘chance’ return is […] what Freud dubbed the ‘return of the repressed’, one of the fundamental conditions for the uncanny to emerge” (Bate 2003: 88). Subject of the introductory passage of Breton’s novel are not photos but a detailed investigation of the author’s famous question “Qui suis-je?” (Breton 1998: 11), which raises a fundamental problematic understanding of identity, an uncertainty on which Breton comments with the assumption that what matters is the question “whom he haunts”: “en effet pourquoi tout ne reviendrait-il pas à savoir qui je « hante »?” (Breton 1998: 11) As Bate cites Breton, “the haunting other in the self […] is about ‘learning a mere fraction of what I have forgotten’” (Bate 2003: 88).

It seems tragically ironic that while Breton tries to find a logical answer to his question, he develops a complex, confused and uncertain mind-set about his personality and perception: « Il se peut […] que je sois condamné à revenir sur mes pas tout en croyant que j’explore, à essayer de connaître ce que je devrais fort bien reconnaître, à apprendre une faible partie de ce que j’ai oublié. » (Breton 1998: 12). According to this description, the author assumes that he may be condemned to restart where he has finished, to explore and to recognize what he should be able to recognize in order to become aware of a little part of what he had forgotten. Starting with efforts of reasoning and ending up in a pointless vicious circle of self-reflection, Breton seems to demonstrate his partly rational and partly intuitive way of thinking already in this first passage of Nadja, evoking the impression that traces of both the “intuitive” and “reasoning” epoch considered by Bate have influenced his writing process in the novel.


[1] Reents 2009: 31: „Den End- und Höhepunkt der Literatur-Bewegung des Surrealismus in Frankreich […] markier[en] […] zwei Texte, nämlich […] Louis Aragons Paysan de Paris aus dem Jahr 1926 und […] André Bretons Nadja von 1928.“

[2] Breton 1998: 126 :« Il y a lieu d'insister sur la présence de deux cornes d'animal, vers le bord supérieur droit, présence que Nadja elle-même ne s'expliquait pas […] Quelques jours plus tard, en effet, Nadja, étant venue chez moi, a reconnu ces cornes pour être celles d'un grand masque de Guinée […] »

Excerpt out of 25 pages


Defining Surrealism: Relations between Nadja, Photography and the Surrealist Movement
University of Graz  (Institut für Romanistik)
Allg. LW SE: Studien zur Literaturwissenschaft (Literatur und Fotografie)
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defining, surrealism, relations, nadja, photography, surrealist, movement
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Viktor Kocsis (Author), 2013, Defining Surrealism: Relations between Nadja, Photography and the Surrealist Movement, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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