Le torrent automobile (Poème-assemblage) is one of the finest of a very small series of rare poèmes-objets or assemblages that the poet, writer and indomitable founder and leader of Surrealism, André Breton, created in the 1930s and 40s. These works, part assemblage, part-readymade, part poetry, saw the artist combine words and objects to create strange and unexpected juxtapositions, serving as a unique contribution to the concept of the Surrealist object which had come to prominence in the 1930s. As Breton stated: ‘The poème-objet is a composition which combines the resources of poetry and plastic art, and thus speculates on the capacity of these two elements to excite each other mutually’ (Breton, Surrealism and Painting, trans. S. Watson Taylor, London, 1972, p. 284). Indeed, it was the fascinating and often fantastical encounters and relationships between word and image that lay at the heart of Breton’s artistic outlook and his vision of Surrealism as a whole.
While sometimes Breton accompanied his poèmes-assemblages with a written interpretation, or used the words to illustrate the accompanying object, the present work remains inscrutable and brilliantly bizarre, serving as the epitome of Breton’s desire to attain the marvellous and absurd through chance discoveries and unexpected juxtapositions. The work consists of a three-line poem under which a pen-knife is affixed with string to the piece of card:
‘The speeding automobile made of candied sugar
Takes a sharp a long vegetal thrill
Spewing debris in the Corinthian way.’
Together the surreal imagery conjured in Breton’s lines combines with the potential meaning or symbolism of the knife to create a plethora of possible meanings. Added to this playful ambiguity is the inscription on the reverse, which dedicates the work to the Surrealist artist and for a short time, Breton’s lover, Valentine Hugo. The pair had enjoyed a short, tumultuous relationship which begun in 1931 and ended abruptly in 1932. They remained in the same Surrealist circles however, and this Poème-assemblage, which Breton gave to Hugo in 1934, serves perhaps as a poignant, conciliatory memento of their relationship.