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UBC Theses and Dissertations

In search of the primordial communists : André Breton, surrealism and the indigenous societies of North America Semerjian, Victor


During the 1920s and 1930s in Europe, Andre Breton was actively engaged in anti-colonial pursuits as a result of his commitment to socialist international revolutionary politics. That this was the case is evident in the numerous treatises and lectures in which Breton spoke out against imperialism and its oppression of non-Western peoples. During the same period, Breton also collected and displayed North American indigenous objects. When Breton was forced to flee to New York in the 1940s due to fascist persecution, he continued to engage in these practices. Rather than viewing these activities as separate and unrelated, this thesis intends to argue that one of the reasons North American indigenous objects were collected and evoked by Breton was because the societies that produced them occupied an exalted place within European socialist ideology. Certainly, there have been art historical studies devoted to the subject of Breton's aligning surrealism with socialist international revolutionary causes. Moreover, in the existing writings on surrealism and indigenous peoples, the attention paid to North American indigenous societies by Breton has been noted. However, in this latter discourse, Breton's interest in North American aboriginal groups, whether in Europe or in the United States and Canada, has been confined to issues of mythology, psychoanalysis, aesthetics and connoisseurship and, hence, the left wing political importance of these societies has been overlooked. Drawing upon the body of post-colonial critiques engaging the cooption and appropriation of other cultures by the West, this thesis will investigate the European socialist significance of North American indigenous societies and bring it to a discussion of Breton's collecting and display practices. Of particular importance in this matter are the writings of Frederick Engels in which ethnographic data on North American aboriginal peoples was used to offer "proof" that the first human communities existed in a state of primordial communism. What will be argued is that varied dimensions of these imaginary societies were evoked by Breton in left wing strategies during the 1930s and 1940s as part of an oppositional stand against bourgeois ideology, imperialism, fascism and war. To be sure, the collecting and exhibiting of indigenous objects brimming with socialist significance was not solely defined by political activism; these pursuits were as well bound up with issues of avant-gardism and so-alled "primitivism." In order to pursue this matter, this thesis will also draw upon analyses of modernism and the avant-garde in order to provide a clearer view of how and why certain North American aboriginal peoples were drawn into Breton's artistic and political international revolutionary avant-garde strategies at various moments and in differing geographic locales.

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