Collecting Ghostly Things: André Breton and Joseph Cornell
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Collecting Ghostly Things:
André Breton and Joseph Cornell

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 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]

Fig 1. Sabine Weiss, André Breton, 42 rue Fontaine, June 1955. Courtesy of Sabine Weiss.
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Fig 1.

Sabine Weiss, André Breton, 42 rue Fontaine, June 1955. Courtesy of Sabine Weiss.

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Ghosts in Things

Cornell saw ghosts in things, much like Breton, who, in his seminal essay on surrealist objects, made clear the surrealist desire to see through the manifest content of objects to the "latencies" within, as he explained using the Freudian terms with which he launched the movement.3 But whereas Breton crowded his study with eclectic things from around the world, which included art by his friends, masks and statues from Oceania and the Pacific Northwest, as well as found and natural objects of both high and negligible value, Cornell collected smaller things, such as bouncing balls, bottles, old toys, corks, pipes, stamps, and maps, grouping them with care into the shadow-box displays he made, pairing them with found images that referred to the skies and stars, including human "stars" like movie stars, ballerinas, and Medici princes and princesses. Cornell transformed cigar boxes, valises, carrying cases, and medicine chests into personalized collections that resembled Breton's, but on a smaller scale.

Using non-Freudian terminology appropriate to Cornell, Anna Dezeuze notes how Cornell dramatized "the complex negotiations of public and private meaning through everyday objects"; hers is an argument that I expand here to include Breton's similar approach.4 For Breton, "private meaning" always had an explicitly psychological dimension, even when he transitioned from the predominantly Freudian perspective that shaped the first decade of the surrealist movement to a more ethnographic focus, partly in response to his own collection and collecting practices. Breton's collection, which crowded and surrounded his desk, helped shape the surrealist movement in a way that James Clifford appropriately identifies with structural anthropology and its concern with "the human spirit's 'deep' shared springs of creativity."5 As Clifford explains in his foundational essay on surrealism and collecting in The Predicament of Culture: "Surrealism's subject was an international and elemental humanity, 'anthropological' in scope. Its object was Man" (243). What I seek to show here is the extent to which this view of surrealism so accurately summarized by Clifford emerged directly as a result of collecting over a lifetime, from Breton's growing tendency to think through his own objects, which over time came from increasingly distant parts of the globe.

Cornell never saw Breton's apartment in Paris because he...


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