Breton’s homophobia

I’ve mentioned surrealist leader André Breton’s homophobia before, so I decided to investigate.

Apparently most of what is known of Breton’s dislike of homosexuality stems from round table discussions that were held in the years 1928 – 1932, long before Kinsey or Masters and Johnson began their clinical surveys. Participants included many of surrealism’s best known figures: Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Antonin Artaud, Benjamin Peret, Jacques Prevert, Marcel Duhamel, Yves Tanguy, Pierre Unik, etc…. Their findings were partly published in the surrealist magazine La Révolution surréaliste. For those of us without access to those magazines (and that is 99.999% of us) there is an English translation available from Verso books with the title Investigating Sex: Surrealist Discussions 1928-1932, which publishes verbatim accounts of all of these round table discussions.


Surrealist Discussions 1928-1932, page 5, an illustration of many Surrealists', and especially Breton's apparent homophobia. This excerpt from the first session on January 27, 1928.

Quoting from both sides (pro and contra):

André Breton said:

“I accuse homosexuals of confronting human tolerance with a mental and moral deficiency which tends to turn itself into a system and to paralyse every enterprise I respect.”

Pierre Unik states:

“From a physical point of view, I find homosexuality as disgusting as excrement …”

André Breton concludes:

“I am absolutely opposed to continuing the discussion of this subject. If this promotion of homosexuality carries on, I will leave this meeting forthwith.”

Some surrealists came to the defense of homosexuals, most notably Raymond Queneau who states:

“It is evident to me that there is an extraordinary prejudice against homosexuality among the surrealists.

I’d like to investigate further who was pro and who contra, but I am running out of time here.

11 thoughts on “Breton’s homophobia

  1. Pingback: Book of the month #3 « Jahsonic

  2. Paul Rumsey

    Dali to Breton “….if I dream tonight that you and I are making love, I shall paint our best positions in the greatest of detail first thing in the morning.”
    Breton froze and, pipe clenched between his teeth, murmured angrily “I wouldn’t advise it, my friend.”

  3. jahsonic

    I totally agree Nurse,

    But the sad reality is the one of Brokeback Mountain.

    What intrigues me about the book though, is the frank and uninhibited discussion of sex by people who did not care to stay anonymous. Many revulsions and attractions are of course totally visceral, and many of us, including myself, are afraid to speak directly about these “transgressions”, preferring to allude to them via cultural artifacts. These surrealists called things by name and put a name to them. Strange.

    Paul: That is so funny. I never used to care for Dali until I found his total subversiveness and very rock-and-rollish attitudes to art. I’ve also very intrigued by his Hitler paintings.

  4. Michael

    Why is it so surprising that there were men in the 1920s who were homophobic? Or are you just surprised that they expressed it so openly.
    Rene Crevel was a homosexual and an active member of the surrealist group in Paris when these discussions were taking place and I have not heard anywhere that he was treated badly or was the object of prejudice.

    In 1930, Dali wrote about an incident on a train where a male passenger strategically positioned a magazine “in such a way that the girl was presented with the sight of his penis, erect, complete and magnificent.” He goes on to express his disgust that this man was discovered and ejected from the train for “one of purest and most disinterested acts a man is capable of performing in our age of corruption and degradation.”

    I don’t find it surprising that unacceptable attitudes towards sexuality were expressed back then. Would they still express them today? Who knows?
    I don’t see it negating other things they wrote or said.

    As for “I am antipathetic to André Breton as a person “. Did you know him as a person? Or are you just going on what other people have written? Most people are complex creatures. For some reason, Breton is treated as one dimensional ogre.
    And, anyway, it was Breton the person that wrote the books.

  5. jahsonic

    Dear Michael,

    Thanks for your comment.

    I do not find the fact of homophobic men in the 1920s surprising, I just don’t expect them in artistic milieux.

    As to your question on my antipathy to Breton. No, I did not know him as a person, but I have deeply felt sympathies for Georges Bataille who was expelled by Breton from the Surrealists. But I suspect that this is not the only reason. My antipathy is prejudiced, visceral and irrational, fed by Breton’s homophobia, misogyny, political incorrectness and tyrannical traits

    I enjoyed the article you wrote on Surrealism and Black music and made reference to it here:

    Fee free to add to that page.


  6. ombresblanches


    as I told before, Breton’s remarks are inexcusable. But here you make a factual error. Breton couldn’t expel Bataille from the Surrealist movement, as the latter never belonged to it. You certainly refer to the mutual insults (started by Breton) in Breton’s second surrealist manifesto and in the tract “Cadavre” which consisted mostly of texts by expelled Surrealists like Desnos, Prévert and Leiris (plus Bataille’s text). Interestingly, Breton and Bataille would collaborate a couple of years later in the political group Contre-Attaque. After WWII Bataille would (critically) engage with Surrealism and defend Breton from Sartre’s criticism, which he deemed unfair. He even stopped to write for “Les Temps modernes” for this reason. Though the relationship between the two men would never become really amical, I think the least one can say that it was defined by great mutual respect in these years. I understand your feelings about Breton, but I don’t believe that it is historically justified to pit these two writers against each other.

  7. jahsonic

    Ooops, my mistake,

    Thanks for your clarifications. I have an article on Cadavre:

    My respect for Breton as a cultural archeologist and my visceral antipathy remains the same.

    Interestingly, Breton’s attitude towards homosexuality is voiced by many of my students (I teach Dutch to youngsters who learn a profession such as electrician, plumber and mechanics who come from a working class background), I just would not expect these attitudes from an “intellectual”.

    Thanks again for setting me straight here.

  8. pleasure.child

    This homophobia is misunderstood. The surrealists abhor the choice, seen as a ‘back-door’, to escape the abominable, impossible tension between man and woman. The deity that is Eros to the surrealists thrives on this tension and the manifold postures it throws up. The surrealists embrace their own misogyny, as did Sade, and hold it up as that which is most natural, and the giver of life. Homosexuality is thus seen as an act of cowardice.

  9. Juliano

    WOW! I have only found out about this!! And like some naive child my eyes went SO wide. here’s me that have doen a fine art BA, and was into Abstract Expressionism, and Surrealism, AND am gay and I knew nothing of the Surrealist Movement’s homophobia!
    Am I now surpised as the shock clams down? Well, when you consider that many of them looked on Freud as some kind of prophet or god it is hardly surprising I suppose they would NOT conform to growing psychiatric authority like the little sheeple they were and UN-boldly condemn ‘homosexuality’ as a ‘disease’.
    I wont condemn the whole of surrealism though–Dali seems to have put bretton in his place in a really amusing way, and there would be others neither part of that ugly mindset nor under Freud’s paternal authority!

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