The mad love of surrealism
About the exhibition "Nadja, a surrealist itinerary", on view until 6 November at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen.
"Nadja", the literary masterpiece of surrealism, was born in Normandy. More precisely at the Ango manor, a jewel of the Italian Renaissance, where André Breton (1896-1966) chose to spend the summer of 1927 alone, on the plateau of Varengeville-sur-Mer. The author of the first "Manifesto of Surrealism", published in 1924 and applying to both literature and the plastic arts, needed to immerse himself in the intensity of a love affair he had had the previous autumn, the better to make it the subject of a novel. His wife, Simone, preferred to spend that year with friends in the South of France anyway: her husband's incessant love at first sight and other 'crazy love' stories were already beginning to bore her seriously... and they would divorce two years later.
The poet and theoretician of surrealism had probably not chosen the Normandy country by chance, even if he needed to isolate himself to devote himself to writing the novel he wanted to nourish with the traumatic intensity of his encounter with this mysterious Nadja, whose real existence was questioned for a long time. Lise Meyer, the woman with the blue gloves, spent the summer of 1927 at the Mordal manor house, where she received her friends, including André Breton. He fell madly in love with her (as usual) when he met her on the rue de Grenelle, at the Centrale surréaliste, with her hands gloved in blue. He wrote her fiery letters. The story goes that the elegant and brilliant young woman who would soon marry Paul Deharme, the broadcasting pioneer, would never give in to him," says Sylvain Amic, director of the Rouen Museum of Fine Arts and co-curator of the exhibition "Nadja, a Surrealist Itinerary," which runs there until November 6. Lise Meyer gave André Breton the famous sculpture of a bronze glove, whose photo will appear in the novel, alongside the many other illustrations, reproductions of works of art, drawings and photographs, which today allow visitors to wander through the exhibition, which was designed to give the "feeling of wandering and walking through the book".
Not far from Ango's manor house, also in the summer of 1927, Aragon was composing his "Traité du style", and the two men saw each other almost every day, even if the atmosphere between them was still rather stormy. Breton envied the ease and virtuosity of the poet's writing, with whom he had founded the journal "Littérature" in 1919. But he also envied his English mistress, the beautiful and provocative Nancy Cunard, who had so successfully flouted all the conventions of her petty-bourgeois milieu in order to gain her freedom, that she must be having a lot of fun playing at arousing the desire of such an easily seduced man.
Nevertheless, Breton writes, in this manor house of Ango "built around a large square courtyard flanked by a monumental dovecote", notes Marie Zawiska in her article published in L'Oeil. Between the cliffs and the changing sea of Varengeville, the journalist can only note that indeed, "the place seems ideal for taming one's pain, regaining strength, creating". In some versions of the real story, André Breton broke up with Nadja. He ran away. The power of this love made him run away. In other versions Nadja got tired of him after a week. In any case, she was committed to a psychiatric hospital from March 1927, and died there during the Second World War. Breton had always said: "Crazy love is at the centre of surrealist ethics in the sense that surrealism is not just a literary movement, it is a philosophy, a morality of existence".
He is a writer. So he necessarily needs to do something with this crazy adventure. He also needs fresh air and calm, far from Parisian society and artistic and political tensions. And he is all the better looked after here as he is the only guest in the house! The maître d'hôtel therefore rivals in his attentions to help him find inspiration, not hesitating, for example, to set up his office in the open air, in the shade of the vegetation.
In short, the man who so successfully advocated the poetic exploration of the unconscious by rehabilitating the imaginary and dreams found everything he needed to work here. Breton read Huysmans and enjoyed nocturnal hallucinations in the forest. The friend of Apollinaire and Tzara, who had co-written the famous poetic text "Les Champs Magnétiques" with Philippe Soupault in 1920, may not have imagined it yet, but "Nadja", one of the most beautiful love stories in literature, full of dazzling insights and published in 1928, was to become the most widely read work of Surrealism. Even if, alas, the version revised and corrected by Breton himself in 1962 expunged much of its spontaneity and freshness.
At least the young dancer and courtesan, freshly arrived in Paris after a childhood of poverty in the North of France, who dreamed of a career in theatre costume design and who meets a 30-year-old André Breton wandering royally through the Paris of the Roaring Twenties, selling her Derain painting to bail her out while fearing the power of her love for him, will have at least one of her wishes fulfilled: "You will write a novel about me", the woman who was called Léona Delcourt and called herself Nadja "because in Russian it is the beginning of the word hope, and only the beginning".
An autobiographical story, "Nadja" is in fact first of all a form of self-analysis in search of a description of what true love is. The novel ends with a third part devoted to Suzanne Muzard, the new woman with whom Breton falls in love at the end of 1927. So much for the memory of Nadja... But it is also a work that highlights Breton's highly innovative use of images in the narrative, in order to avoid any exercise in describing the places that make up the story. Hence this idea of an exhibition as a wandering. Paintings, sculptures, photographs and other documents give visitors to the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen plenty of time to wander around and meet Nadja, of course, but also the great actors of Surrealism, such as Paul Eluard, Max Ernst, Robert Desnos, Aragon, Man Ray, etc., while exploring the great themes of Surrealism, such as dreams and the unconscious.