was a French surrealist poet who played a key role in the Surrealist movement of his day.
Robert Desnos was born in Paris on 4 July 1900, the son of a licensed dealer in game and poultry at the Halles market. Desnos attended commercial college, and started work as a clerk. After that he worked as a literary columnist for the newspaper Paris-Soir
Paris-Soir was a large-circulation daily newspaper in Paris, France from 1923-1944.Its first issue came out in 4 October 1923. After June 11, 1940, the same publisher, Jean Prouvost, continued its publication in Vichy France: Clermont-Ferrand, Lyon, Marseille, and Vichy while in occupied Paris, it...
The first poems by Desnos to appear in print were published in 1917 in La Tribune des Jeunes
(Platform for Youth) and in 1919 in the avant-garde
Avant-garde means "advance guard" or "vanguard". The adjective form is used in English to refer to people or works that are experimental or innovative, particularly with respect to art, culture, and politics....
review, Le Trait d’union
(HYPHEN), and also the same year in the Dadaist magazine Littérature
. In 1922 he published his first book, a collection of surrealistic aphorisms, with the title Rrose Sélavy
Rrose Sélavy, or Rose Sélavy, was one of the pseudonyms of artist Marcel Duchamp. The name, a pun, sounds like the French phrase "Eros, c'est la vie", which translates to English as "eros, that's life". It has also been read as "arroser la vie" .Sélavy emerged in 1921 in a series of photographs by...
(based upon the name (pseudonym) of the popular French artist Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp was a French artist whose work is most often associated with the Dadaist and Surrealist movements. Considered by some to be one of the most important artists of the 20th century, Duchamp's output influenced the development of post-World War I Western art...
In 1919, he met the poet Benjamin Péret
Benjamin Péret was a French poet, Parisian Dadaist and a founder and central member of the French Surrealist movement with his avid use of Surrealist automatism.-Biography:...
who introduced him to the Paris Dada
Dada or Dadaism is a cultural movement that began in Zurich, Switzerland, during World War I and peaked from 1916 to 1922. The movement primarily involved visual arts, literature—poetry, art manifestoes, art theory—theatre, and graphic design, and concentrated its anti-war politics through a...
group and André Breton
André Breton was a French writer and poet. He is known best as the founder of Surrealism. His writings include the first Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, in which he defined surrealism as "pure psychic automatism"....
, with whom he soon became friends. While working as a literary columnist for Paris-Soir
, Desnos was an active member of the Surrealist group and developed a particular talent for "automatic writing
Automatic writing or psychography is writing which the writer states to be produced from a subconscious and/or spiritual source without conscious awareness of the content.-History:...
". He, together with writers such as Louis Aragon
Louis Aragon , was a French poet, novelist and editor, a long-time member of the Communist Party and a member of the Académie Goncourt.- Early life :...
and Paul Éluard
Paul Éluard, born Eugène Émile Paul Grindel , was a French poet who was one of the founders of the surrealist movement.-Biography:...
, would form the literary vanguard of surrealism. André Breton included two photographs of Desnos sleeping in his surrealist novel Nadja
One of the iconic works of the French surrealist movement, Nadja is the second novel published by André Breton, in 1928. It starts with the question "Who am I?"...
. Although he was praised by Breton in his 1924 Manifeste du Surréalisme
Two Surrealist Manifestos were issued by the Surrealist movement, in 1924 and 1929. The first was written by André Breton, the second was supervised by him. Breton drafted a third Surrealist manifesto which was never issued.-First manifesto:...
for being the movement's "prophet", Desnos disagreed with Surrealism's involvement in communist politics, which caused a rift between him and Breton. Desnos continued work as a columnist.
In 1926 he composed The Night of Loveless Nights,
a lyric poem dealing with solitude
Solitude is a state of seclusion or isolation, i.e., lack of contact with people. It may stem from bad relationships, deliberate choice, infectious disease, mental disorders, neurological disorders or circumstances of employment or situation .Short-term solitude is often valued as a time when one...
curiously written in classic quatrain
A quatrain is a stanza, or a complete poem, consisting of four lines of verse. Existing in various forms, the quatrain appears in poems from the poetic traditions of various ancient civilizations including Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, and China; and, continues into the 21st century, where it is...
s, which makes it more like Baudelaire than Breton. Desnos fell in love with Yvonne George
Yvonne de Knops , better known by her stage name Yvonne George, was a Belgian singer and feminist actress.-Biography:...
, a singer whose obsessed fans made his love impossible. He wrote several poems for her, as well as the surrealist novel La liberté ou l'amour!
By 1929, Breton definitively condemned Desnos, who in turn joined Georges Bataille
Georges Bataille was a French writer. His multifaceted work is linked to the domains of literature, anthropology, philosophy, economy, sociology and history of art...
, as one of the authors to sign Un Cadavre
Un Cadavre was the name of two separate surrealist pamphlets published in France in October of 1924, and January of 1930, respectively.-Pamphlet of October 18th, 1924:...
(A cadaver) attacking "le boeuf Breton" (the ox Breton). He wrote articles on "Modern Imagery", "Avant-garde Cinema" (1929, issue 7), "Pygmalion and the Sphinx" (1930, issue 1), and Sergei Eisenstein
Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein , né Eizenshtein, was a pioneering Soviet Russian film director and film theorist, often considered to be the "Father of Montage"...
, the Soviet filmmaker, on his film titled The General Line
The General Line aka Old and New is a 1929 Soviet film directed by Sergei Eisenstein.The General Line was begun in 1927 as a celebration of the collectivization of agriculture, as championed by old-line Bolshevik Leon Trotsky. Hoping to reach a wide audience, the director forsook his usual...
(1930, issue 4).
His career in radio began in 1932 with a show dedicated to Fantomas
Fantômas is a fictional character created by French writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre .One of the most popular characters in the history of French crime fiction, Fantômas was created in 1911 and appeared in a total of 32 volumes written by the two collaborators, then a subsequent 11...
. During that time, he became friends with Picasso, Hemingway
Ernest Miller Hemingway was an American author and journalist. His economic and understated style had a strong influence on 20th-century fiction, while his life of adventure and his public image influenced later generations. Hemingway produced most of his work between the mid-1920s and the...
, Artaud and John Dos Passos
John Roderigo Dos Passos was an American novelist and artist.-Early life:Born in Chicago, Illinois, Dos Passos was the illegitimate son of John Randolph Dos Passos , a distinguished lawyer of Madeiran Portuguese descent, and Lucy Addison Sprigg Madison of Petersburg, Virginia. The elder Dos Passos...
; published many critical reviews on jazz
Jazz is a musical style that originated at the beginning of the 20th century in African American communities in the Southern United States. It was born out of a mix of African and European music traditions. From its early development until the present, jazz has incorporated music from 19th and 20th...
A film, also called a movie or motion picture, is a series of still or moving images. It is produced by recording photographic images with cameras, or by creating images using animation techniques or visual effects...
; and became increasingly involved in politics. He wrote for many periodicals, including Littérature
, La Révolution surréaliste
, and Variétés
. Besides his numerous collections of poems, he published three novels, Deuil pour deuil
(1924), La Liberté ou l’amour!
(1927), and Le vin est tiré
(1943); a play La Place De L'Etoile,
(1928; revised 1944) and a film script, L'Etoile de mer
(1928), which was directed by Man Ray
Man Ray , born Emmanuel Radnitzky, was an American artist who spent most of his career in Paris, France. Perhaps best described simply as a modernist, he was a significant contributor to both the Dada and Surrealist movements, although his ties to each were informal...
that same year.
Resistance and deportation
During World War II, Desnos was an active member of the French Résistance
The French Resistance is the name used to denote the collection of French resistance movements that fought against the Nazi German occupation of France and against the collaborationist Vichy régime during World War II...
network Réseau AGIR
The Réseau AGIR was a World War II espionage group founded by French wartime resister Michel Hollard that provided human intelligence on V-1 flying bomb facilities)....
, under the direction of Michel Hollard
Michel Hollard is a French wartime resister and engineer that founded the espionage group Réseau AGIR during World War II.His contribution was recognised by the British with the award of the Distinguished Service Order having "reconnoitered a number of heavily guarded V1 sites and reported on them"...
, often publishing under pseudonyms. For Réseau Agir
, Desnos provided information collected during his job at the journal Aujourd'hui and made false identity papers and was arrested by the Gestapo
The Gestapo was the official secret police of Nazi Germany. Beginning on 20 April 1934, it was under the administration of the SS leader Heinrich Himmler in his position as Chief of German Police...
on 22 February 1944.
He was first deported to the Nazi German concentration camps of Auschwitz in occupied Poland, then Buchenwald, Flossenburg
Konzentrationslager Flossenbürg was a Nazi concentration camp built in May 1938 by the Schutzstaffel Economic-Administrative Main Office at Flossenbürg, in the Oberpfalz region of Bavaria, Germany, near the border with Czechoslovakia. Until its liberation in April 1945, more than 96,000 prisoners...
in Germany and finally to Terezín
Terezín is the name of a former military fortress and adjacent walled garrison town in the Ústí nad Labem Region of the Czech Republic.-Early history:...
(Theresienstadt) in occupied Czechoslovakia
Czechoslovakia or Czecho-Slovakia was a sovereign state in Central Europe which existed from October 1918, when it declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until 1992...
Susan Griffin relates a story that exemplifies Desnos' surrealist spirit:
Desnos died in "Malá pevnost", which was an inner part of Terezín used only for political prisoners, from typhoid, only weeks after the camp's liberation. He wrote poems during his imprisonment which were accidentally destroyed following his death.
He was married to Youki Desnos, formerly Lucie Badoud, nicknamed "Youki" ("snow") by her lover Tsuguharu Foujita
was a painter and printmaker born in Tokyo, Japan who applied Japanese ink techniques to Western style paintings.- Education :In 1910 when he was twenty-four years old Foujita graduated from what is now the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music....
before she left him for Desnos. Desnos wrote several poems about her. One of his most famous poems is "Letter to Youki", written after his arrest.
He is buried at the Montparnasse cemetery
Montparnasse Cemetery is a cemetery in the Montparnasse quarter of Paris, part of the city's 14th arrondissement.-History:Created from three farms in 1824, the cemetery at Montparnasse was originally known as Le Cimetière du Sud. Cemeteries had been banned from Paris since the closure, owing to...
Desnos' poetry has been set to music by a number of composers, including Witold Lutosławski with Les Espaces du Sommeil
(1975) and Chantefleurs et Chantefables
(1991), Francis Poulenc
Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc was a French composer and a member of the French group Les six. He composed solo piano music, chamber music, oratorio, choral music, opera, ballet music, and orchestral music...
, 1956) and Henri Dutilleux
Henri Dutilleux is one of the most important French composers of the second half of the 20th century, producing work in the tradition of Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, and Albert Roussel, but in a style distinctly his own...
with Le Temps l'Horloge
(2007). Carolyn Forché
Carolyn Forché is an American poet, editor, translator, and human rights advocate.-Life:Forché was born in Detroit, Michigan, on April 28, 1950, to Michael Joseph and Louise Nada Blackford Sidlosky. Forché earned a B.A...
has translated his poetry and names Desnos as a significant influence on her own work.
In 1974, at the urging of Robert Desnos' widow, Joan Miró
Joan Miró i Ferrà was a Spanish Catalan painter, sculptor, and ceramicist born in Barcelona.Earning international acclaim, his work has been interpreted as Surrealism, a sandbox for the subconscious mind, a re-creation of the childlike, and a manifestation of Catalan pride...
published an “illustrated book” with Robert Desnos titled "Les pénalités de l'enfer ou les nouvelles Hébrides" (The Penalties of Hell or The New Hebrides), Maeght Editeur, Paris, 1974. It was a set of 25 lithographs, five in black, and the others in colors.
In 2006 the book was displayed in “Joan Miró, Illustrated Books” at the Vero Beach Museum of Art. One critic said it is “an especially powerful set, not only for the rich imagery but also for the story behind the book's creation. The lithographs are long, narrow verticals, and while they feature Miró's familiar shapes, there's an unusual emphasis on texture." The critic continued, “I was instantly attracted to these four prints, to an emotional lushness, that's in contrast with the cool surfaces of so much of Miró's work. Their poignancy is even greater, I think, when you read how they came to be. The artist met and became friends with Desnos, perhaps the most beloved and influential surrealist writer, in 1925, and before long, they made plans to collaborate on a livre d'artist. Those plans were put on hold because of the Spanish civil war and World War II. Desnos' bold criticism of the latter led to his imprisonment in Auschwitz, and he died at age 45 shortly after his release in 1945. Nearly three decades later, at the suggestion of Desnos' widow, Miró set out to illustrate the poet's manuscript. It was his first work in prose, which was written in Morocco in 1922 but remained unpublished until this posthumous collaboration.
- Deuil pour deuil (1924) /Mourning Mourning/
- La Liberté ou l’amour! (1927) /Give Me Liberty or Give Me Love!/
- Rrose Sélavy (1923/1930)
- Corps et biens (1930) /Body and Goods/
- The Night of Loveless Nights (1930/31)
- Youki 1930 Poésie (1930/32)
- La Ménagerie de Tristan (1932)
- Le Parterre d'Hyacinthe (1932)
- La Grande Complainte de Fantômas (1933)
- La Géométrie de Daniel (1939)
- Fortunes (1942)
- État de veille (1943) /On Watch/
- Le vin est tiré (1943) /The wine is drawn/
- Contrée (1944) /Against the Grain/
- Le Bain Avec Andromède (1944) /Bathing with Andromeda/
- Calixto (1944)
- Chantefables (1945) /Storysongs/
- Chantefleurs (1945) /Flowersongs/