William & Mary

"Collecting Ghostly Things: André Breton and Joseph Cornell"

Dean Conley also gave a presentation at the June 2017 St. Andrews Joint Degree Symposium, in Scotland.An article by Dean Conley appeared in the April 2017 issue of MODERNISM / modernity. In lieu of an abstract, the journal provides this excerpt:

The collection André Breton left behind at his death in 1966 was unified by ghostliness, surrealism's hauntedness, which grew out of the early experiments with automatic trances in Breton's apartment in 1922–23 and was later embodied in the surrealist propensity to see qualities of life in things, that, having been used and handled, were believed to have led former lives (fig. 1).1 Breton identified intimately with the ghostliness he found in things because he believed the objects he loved housed hidden impulses, memories akin to the dream traces human beings carry in their unconscious minds. Breton's collection served as his laboratory, both in Paris and later in New York, where he lived in exile Fig 1. Sabine Weiss, André Breton, 42 rue Fontaine, June 1955. Courtesy of Sabine Weiss.during World War II; it was the aesthetic theater within which he staged his most significant contributions to twentieth-century thought.2 His collected objects embodied and facilitated his belief in the importance of discovery and revelation. Joseph Cornell's miniature "collections," which his many boxes may be called as well, intrinsically display this shared characteristic of ghostliness, the haunting of the visible by the invisible. The objects Cornell prized and the manner in which he arranged them demonstrate a parallel worldview of things as ghostly companions capable of capturing and bringing to the surface hidden thoughts and feelings. This similarity between Breton's and Cornell's staging of objects has not received attention in Cornell scholarship before now. I will show here how compatible these two approaches to collecting were—on macro- and micro-levels—and how both collections were guided by ghostliness in a way that underscores their shared desire, typical of surrealism, to illuminate and understand the human condition. [End Page 263]

Citation: Kate Conley, "Collecting Ghostly Things: André Breton and Joseph Cornell," Modernism/modernity, 24:2 (2017): 263-282. 10.1353/mod.2017.0021