Paul Eluard’s personal copy of L'Immaculée Conception

André Breton, Paul Eluard, Salvador Dalí, Paul Bonet
Éditions Surréalistes, Paris, 1930
Binding by Paul Bonet, 1941-42

Exhibited and Published:
Surrealism: Desire Unbound. London: Tate, 2001.
The Collection of Pierre Leroy. Sotheby’s. Paris. 2002

Pierre Leroy, Paris, France.
Sotheby’s, Paris. 26/6/2002. Lot 58.
Important Private European Collection, 2002-2017.


1929 and 1930 mark an extremely important moment in the history of Surrealism. The publication of André Breton’s Second Manifesto of Surréalism in December 1929 crystallises the trends. The group disintegrates: Vitrac, Queneau, Morise, Leiris and Desnos, the latter notably implicated by Breton, all leave. These departures are ‘compensated’ by new arrivals. Salvador Dalí, whose first Paris exhibition in November 1929 is prefaced by André Breton – ‘It is perhaps with Dalí that for the first time the windows of the mind are opened fully wide […] at the end of the day, everything depends on our power of voluntary hallucination.’ Dalí publishes La Femme Visible, dedicated to Gala, in 1930. Luis Buñuel, whose script for Un Chien Andalou, written with Dalí, is published in La Révolution surréaliste in December 1929, shows his new film L’Age d’or in a Parisian cinema – the presentation would be interrupted by right-wing extremists. René Char publishes Artine, decorated with an engraving by Dalí, in November 1930. To this we must add Alberto Giacometti, Victor-Brauner and Jacques Hérold.

During this transitional period, Surrealism re-considers which political attitude to adopt: to side with the communist party or the revolutionary movement. The revue published by the group changes its title: La Révolution surréaliste whose last edition publishes a large survey about love, becomes Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution – the two first editions appear in 1930. Breton aims to give a new breath of life to the movement. He insists on the necessity to take up collective practices again and seeks to renew, in theory and in practice, the concept of automatism.

On a more personal level, these two years were equally difficult for André Breton and Paul Eluard. Breton divorced his first wife, Simone, and had a complicated affair with Suzanne Muzard, alternating separations with reunions – she shared herself between André Breton and the philosopher Emmanuel Berl, whom she married in December 1929. It was she who answered for Breton in the survey on love in 1929: ‘I live. I believe in the victory of worthy love.’ Gala, Paul Eluard’s wife, left him for Salvador Dalí, whom they had been to visit in Cadaques during the summer of 1928. Elaurd’s response, in the same survey about love, was: ‘Worthy love kills.’ During the Spring of 1930, on the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle, accompanied by René Char, he met a young woman, Maria Benz, known as ‘Nush’, who would become his companion during the 1930s and 1940s.

Therefore, as much on a personal as a collective level, these two years were about disagreements, ruptures, weariness, resentment, urges and disillusions, in addition to great financial difficulties, for both Breton and Eluard. While the relationship between Breton and Aragon stretched ever thinner, the friendship linking Breton and Eluard was reinforced and renewed. René Char, very close to Eluard, would also bring in new blood, emotionally and poetically. During a trip to Avignon, in the spring of 1930, the three poets collectively wrote a volume of poems called Ralentir Travaux.

It was within this context that Breton and Eluard began thinking, during the summer of 1930, about a text ‘a quatre mains’ which would become L’Immaculée Conception. The book, Eluard said, was written in two weeks, ‘and even then,’ he explained, ‘we only really gave it our true free time. The knowledge that we had of each other made the work easier.’ This shared writing of course evokes the founding book of surrealism, Les Champs magnétiques, written by André Breton and Philippe Soupalt in 1919, and from this point of view, L’Immaculée Conception heralds a second key moment in the surrealist saga. As its distant predecessor written at the Hôtel des Grands Hommes, opposite the Pantheon in Paris, L’Immaculée Conception was also written in a hotel, the Hôtel de la poste, in Cernay-la-Ville, near Paris, where the two poets stayed for a fortnight in September 1930.

The title of the book obviously refers to the dogma, which the Catholic Church announced in December 1854 declaring that Mary, mother of Jesus, was exempt from the stain of original sin. The ‘blurb’ reproduces a photograph of the marble statue of the virgin of Lourdes which appeared to Bernadette Soubirous in 1922, presented as follows: ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’. This image, at the time, was widely published, and its reframing in this setting underlines the text’s anti-religious and anti-Catholic mission. Several phrases within the work can be read in relation to this purpose: the evangelical ‘bonne nouvelle’ (good news) in the epigraph indicating Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle, the street of the same name, or the ‘Jugement dernier’ (last judgement) inverted, for the last part of the book, into the ‘jugement originel’ (original judgement).

We are able to establish that this book, and in particular its outline, owe to the reading of the philosopher Hegel. The first part, ‘L’Homme’ (Man), divided into five sequences, is inspired by the section ‘Anthropology’ from Hegel’s Science of Geist. The ‘Possessions’, which are attempts to simulate mental illnesses, also follow Hegel’s notion of alienation, and are not concerned with ‘the absolute loss of reason’ but ‘a simple contradiction in reason which does not cease to exist within the person affected’. In this way, the aim of L’Immaculée Conception was to create a ‘science of poetry’, just as Hegel suggested a ‘science of Geist’. The book also refers to psychoanalysis, and notably to Otto Rank’s Trauma of Birth, which was published in 1928, and to Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.



Salvador Dalí. Original pencil drawing, which became the symbol of L’Immaculée Conception.
This was also the first book that Dalí illustrated.


Finally, the book is closely linked to the painter Salvador Dalí, through his illustrations and his ‘blurb’, which we will come back to, and to the research he published from 1929 on the ‘paranoiac-critical’ method. André Breton recalls this during his interviews with André Parinaud in 1952: ‘It is entirely in convergence with paranoiac-critical activity, as just described by Dalí, which led Eluard and me to write L’Immaculée Conception in collaboration. There is here, in effect, still some critical and systematic objectification of the exuberant associations and interpretations.’

The complex writing of L’Immaculée Conception could not be qualified as automatic writing. Breton recognised that much of the text arose from ‘directed thought’. After having thought up the outline for the work, sometimes with many hesitations – particularly for ‘Méditations’ – the two poets wrote most of the texts both in parallel and alternately. For certain sections they used extra-literary sources, which they ‘distorted’. The section called ‘Il n’y a rien d’incompréhensible’ (Nothing is incomprehensible), whose title reuses a phrase from Lautréamont, is made up from the inversion of a musical criticism article written by Gérard Bauer, ‘La musique sur les cimes’ (Music on the summits) which appeared in the journal L’Intransigeant on 11 September 1930. The section ‘Le Sentiment de la nature’ (The feeling of nature) is constructed from quotes borrowed from the late 19th century popularized science journal, La Nature – which was also used as a source by Max Ernst for many of the images in his collages. Finally, the section ‘L’amour’ (Love) owes much to the Kama Sutra, whose terms ‘congress’, ‘yoni’ and ‘lingam’ were replaced by the words ‘problem’, ‘window’ and ‘star’. We find, lastly, in the aphorisms of ‘Jugement originel’ a taste of the subverted proverbs which Paul Eluard and Benjamin Péret practised with in 152 proverbes mis au gout du jour in 1925 and of the inversion of the definitions which Breton and Eluard would use again in 1938 in the Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme.

André Breton and Paul Eluard were both great book lovers. They collected rare editions, the ‘great papers’ (a small number of copies of a book printed on rare papers, often with wide margins, and generally decorated with an original engraving, making up what is known as the ‘deluxe edition’). Often, they would add photographs, letters, drawings and original manuscripts to their copy and would have it bound by a bookbinding artist. Fortunately, Paul Eluard’s copy of L’Immaculée Conception has been kept, an example of one of these ‘livres ‘truffés’‘, which made them unique, but also very precious and very moving.

The copy is printed on a white Japanese mother of pearl paper – number 6 of 13. The print run was made up of three copies on Chinese paper, 100 on Dutch Van Gelder paper and 2,000 copies on ‘imponderable Sorel-Roussel’ paper. The book, which came out in November 1930, was published by Editions Surréalistes – that is to say self-published by the two authors – and was distributed by the editor and bookseller José Corti. The sale by subscription of ‘deluxe’ copies which all contained as frontispiece an engraving by Salvador Dalí, allowed the printing and engraving of the book to be financed.

The present copy was bound by Paul Bonet in 1941-42. To illustrate the cover, first and last plates, Paul Bonet used a drawing of a hand by Salvador Dalí, which is part of the ‘stuffing’ from Eluard’s copy. ‘The hand is shredded and bloody,’ the bookbinder noted, ‘wounds escape amongst golden stars, larval forms with women’s heads, yellow and green, with a white star on the face.’

On the half-title page is written, in Breton’s hand ‘Paul Eluard’s copy’, followed by a ‘delivery’ (dedication) in a fairly sombre tone, signed ‘André and Madame de Saint André (1560)’ – Suzanne Muzard?

‘To my dear Paul and to him alone to
use again in the sad game of glory
this hand of which I only wanted to make one
promise of great disaster. My fate
would contrast here forever with
his in the image of the ace of snow and the 9 of clubs
in four sheets of what was beautiful, of what was true,
the only card to beat would have been the world to beat
indistinctly for him and for me.’

To this Eluard added several documents in Salvador Dalí ’s hand: a pencil drawing of a hand, which Paul Bonet used for his binding and the original drawing of the frontispiece engraving present in the deluxe copies. This engraving by Dalí, of a troubling eroticism, features the silhouette of a male form standing behind a woman, one hand folded at the level of her waist with one finger erect. The woman, whose face is hidden behind her hair, seems to be directly inspired by a passage from ‘Jugement originel’: ‘Until new order, until the new monastic order, that is to say until the most beautiful young women adopt a cross-shaped décolleté: the two horizontal branches revealing the breasts, the foot of the naked cross at the bottom of the stomach, lightly burned.’ The hand with the erect finger is used again as a vignette under the title. This copy also includes the manuscript of the ‘blurb’ (a note which the editors of a book give to journalists) in Dalí ’s hand – and thus it confirms that it was indeed Dalí who wrote the first draft, a draft which was taken up by Breton and Eluard, which is also proved by the two other handwritten versions of this text also included in the copy. Dalí notably said about this book: ‘L’IMMACULÉE CONCEPTION will remain the experimental source to which we must refer in order to recognize the power which has the thought to successively adopt all the methods of folly: recognizing this power equates to admitting the reality of this folly and affirming its latent existence within the human spirit.’ All of the above proves the presence of Salvador Dalí near Breton and Eluard at the moment the book appeared.

Several pages, written in André Breton’s hand, of elements used or not used in the book (mainly in the sections of ‘Jugement originel’) are also found bound in the copy – the original manuscript of L’Immaculée Conception is kept in the Picasso museum in Paris. Eluard added to his copy, later, the handwritten text of the ‘note about a collaboration’ signed by the two poets, written in January 1935, intended to appear in a Japanese edition of the work and published in Les Cahiers d’Art. We notably find this, which poetically echoes some images from Breton’s letter to Eluard: ‘Being two people who destroy, build, live, is already being everybody, being the other to infinity and no longer yourself. Every touch of sun supports a snowflake, every held hand a known look.’

Drawings, manuscripts and photos inserted into this extraordinary copy, magnificently demonstrate the close relationship, from the conception to the writing of this book, between Breton, Eluard and Dalí. In this way, one of surrealism’s aims, ‘pooling of thought’ was carried out in a very concrete way. The very great beauty of the text, the richness of the poetic images, here too underline all the power which poetry has to reveal the world and the innermost thoughts of humankind.

Vincent Gille
Curator, Maison de Victor Hugo, Paris.

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