JACQUES VACHÉ

1895-1919

In 1949, André Breton refers to Jacques Vaché as the man he ‘loved most in the world’.

Yet, the man to whom the founder of Surrealism was referring had been dead for thirty years. Vaché was born on 7 September 1895 in Lorient, of a father with English roots and a military background. The young Jacques therefore spent part of his childhood in Indochina. Returning to France in the early 1900s, he continued his schooling at the Institution Saint-Louis in Lorient. In 1910, his father was posted to Senegal: Jacques was then sent to stay with his aunt and uncle Guibal in Nantes.

Initially a pupil at the Externat des Enfants nantais, Vaché was expelled in 1911. He then entered the Grand Lycée, the current-day Lycée Clemenceau.

There he met Jean Bellemère (who had already adopted the pseudonym Jean Sarment), Pierre Bissérié (with whom he had already become friendly during classes at the École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) where the two had been registered as students for the 1910-1911 academic year), Eugène Hublet and several others. Together they formed a brotherhood of pranksters: the Sars.
Mobirise

Pierre Bisserié

1896-1930
Private collection

Mobirise

Eugène Hublet

1896-1916

Nantes Public Library, ms 3448

Mobirise

Jean Bellemère

1897-1978
a.k.a. Jean Sarment

Private collection

Mobirise

Jacques Vaché

1895-1919

Private collection

Enamoured with poetry, literature and theatre, all were budding writers. At the beginning of 1913, Sarment became the Nantes correspondent for the review Comœdia illustrée. Bissérié and Vaché also did some drawing. Together, the Sars took pleasure scandalizing the Nantes bourgeoisie, who lived in large houses near the Place Graslin, Jardin des Plantes (Botanical Gardens) and Passage Pommeraye. They dreamed of overturning the social hierarchy of the epoch, with power in the hands of the Sars and the Mimes. To quote Jean Sarment:

They have their conventions, their codes, and their personal arrangement with the French language. Their sense of values and hierarchies. For example, they have established a social order. At the top, the “Mimes”. Why? Because they like the word. It evokes the “mystical grandeur of silence expressing itself”, as Jacques Bouvier [alias Vaché] defined it. Below the Mimes, are the Sars, a homage to Péladan, to the “Rose-Cross” esoteric group, to everything one desires, which they don’t attempt to specify. Below them: men (homo vulgaris). Below men, “sous-hommes” (undermen), below undermen, “surhommes” (supermen); further down the ladder the “sous-off” (non-commissioned officers), and on the last rung,

mired in shame and ignominy—another delicate idea of Bouvier’s— “générals”. They intentionally chose not to use the correct plural form [généraux in the French]. […] Only Bouvier persisted in asking if one could perhaps find a designation for his father (a colonel) —existing below the “général”—which would make this small, nervous, authoritarian man, highly decorated and advanced in age, and undoubtedly very weary, something like an “untouchable”.».

Jean Sarment, Cavalcadour, 1977.


Sarment would also evoke these youthful years in his first novel, Jean-Jacques de Nantes:

In the group, Vaché was the anglophile dandy inspired by Wilde; perhaps he was already reading Alfred Jarry. At the beginning of 1913, the Sars founded a first review titled En route mauvaise troupe ! (On the Road, You Gang of Troublemakers) a title inspired by a Paul Verlaine poem. In this review, in which Vaché would publish two poems, was an article by Pierre Riveau, inspired by Kropotkine, and called ‘L’anarchie’. It caused a commotion within the school: a battle between Saint-Cyriens [advocates of the French Law imposing military service] and anti-establishment dreamers, generating controversy in the local and national press, which resulted in the expulsion of Riveau and Sarment, and the destruction of copies of the review.

First page of the review by the Sârs En route mauvaise troupe ! (February 1913)

Nantes Public Library, ms 3461

« Estompé et tranquille... », a prose-poem by Vaché published in En route mauvaise troupe !

Nantes Public Library, ms 3569

«Comme à Chaptal » note on the controversy at the Lycée in Nantes, published on the front page of L'écho de Paris on February the 1st, 1913

Read on Gallica

The Sârs however, did not abandon their literary aspirations: they founded a second review called Le Canard sauvage (The Wild Duck), which edited four reviews between late 1913 and mid-1914. Vaché contributed with poetry Gilles – a humorous tale of social satire, and a regular book column, including one he had enjoyed very much, Voyage au pays de la quatrième dimension by Gaston de Pawlowski.

Le Canard sauvage, the Sârs' second review.

Private collection

Gilles, manuscript of the story published by Vaché in the fourth and last edition of Le Canard sauvage

Read the full text in the collection of short stories Les Solennels written by Sarment and Vaché (with the exception of Gilles written by Vaché alone).
Nantes Public Library, ms 3445/15

The young poets experimented with a form of collective writing, of which only a handful of manuscripts were conserved by Jean Sarment. In Cavalcadour, the latter recounts a writing session during which the Sars experimented with ‘unanimous poetry’:

‘Each person would add a verse, or two, if inspiration was present.

HARBONNE [alias Hublet] – I had a heart, I had a soul

BOUVIER [alias Vaché] – Listen to my epithalamium.

HARBONNE – My soul departed […] amongst the trade winds

PATRICE [alias Sarment] – I looked for my soul everywhere

BOUVIER – there where the bateaux mouches brought me…

BILLENJEU [alias Bissérié] – To the land of the Eskimos and the Kalmyks.

PATRICE – In my suit with gold buttons.

BILLENJEU – I went to the pink pole

BOUVIER – the pink pole of the North Pole

HARBONNE – I drank the mirrored dew of the evenings…

BOUVIER – and then the incense from the burner…

And this continued, ad libitum, until they felt like moving onto something else.’

Jean Sarment, Cavalcadour, 1977.

Mobirise

When war was declared in August 1914, the Sars were all around twenty years of age. The group would be separated due to the international conflict. Discharged, Sarment was the only one of the group not to have experienced combat: he pursued his theatrical career in 1915, in Paris. Bissérié, Hublet and Vaché were conscripted: Hublet would never return home, fatally injured by shrapnel fire on 27 October 1916. A student of medicine in 1914, Bissérié served as a military nurse during the conflict and following the armistice became a doctor, with a serious morphine addiction. He would die in suspicious circumstances in 1930.






Jean Sarment, Pierre Bisserié and Jacques Vaché
Nantes Public Library, ms 3448/10

Mobilised in December 1914, Vaché carried out his training in Brest until the start of the summer of 1915: he was hospitalized for several months for venereal disease and placed in quarantine on an offshore island. He arrived at the Front in June 1915, in the Albert sector of the Somme, as part of the 64th Infantry Regiment. After this initial experience of warfare, the anglophile Vaché began to dream of becoming an interpreter for the British troops. He realized his dream for a period of several weeks during his battalion’s leave but would soon return to his original position as a grenadier. Following his hospitalisation between late 1915 and early 1916, he returned to the Front as an interpreter, a function he would occupy until the spring of 1918.

Jacques Vaché interpreter, in Nantes

Private collection

Jacques Vaché interpreter, in Nantes 

(July 1917, residing with the Derrien family)

Nantes Public Library (former collection of André Breton)

Jacques Vaché interpreter, in Nantes

(July 1917, residing with the Derrien family)

Nantes Public Library, ms 3455

July-October 1916

Vaché serves in the 60th Divisional Train of the British Army.

October-November 1916

Vaché serves in the 2/13th (Kensington) Battalion, London Regiment..

November-December 1916

Vaché serves with the Australians as part of the 34th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force..

January-September 1917

Once again, Vaché serves the British attached to the 2/5th Battalion, King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.
During this assignment, he takes part in the second Battle of Bullecourt, early May 1917.
He deserts his post for a period of two days, a sign of his increasingly rebellious attitude towards the military authorities, which earns him a prison sentence of a few days at the beginning of September 1917, followed by a change of assignment.

Septembre-December 1917

Vaché serves for the 2/6th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment..

January-April 1918

Vaché remains in the service of the British Army but attached to a French officer working as a liaison with the Fifth Army.

April-May 1918

Vaché temporarily serves the American Army, as he claims in one of his letters to Breton.

May-July 1918

Vaché becomes an interpreter for the 157th Brigade of the 52nd Division of the British Army.
From 26 June to 27 July, he is given a prison sentence for an unknown reason. He carries out his sentence at the British camp at Boulogne-sur-Mer.

August-November 1918

At the end of August, Vaché reintegrates the French Army and is assigned to the 14th Squadron Train of Military Equipment. He occupies the post of mail officer at the Directorate of the Military Road Service in the 178 postal sector, the headquarters of the 6th Army at Château-Thierry. He holds this post when he participates in the liberation of Belgium, from where he writes his last known letter.

In 1915, several months after his arrival on the Front, the 64th Infantry Regiment to which the grenadier Vaché belongs is forced to take part in the second Champagne offensive, upon the orders of General Joffre. On 25 September, Vaché is preparing to charge the coast 1916 in Tahure, when his bag of grenades explodes, injuring him in the legs. He is evacuated, first to Nevers where he undergoes a first surgical intervention. His father organizes it so that he can spend his convalescence in Nantes in the temporary hospital at 103bis on the rue du Boccage, where his aunt Louise Guibal is a nurse. Examined by x-ray during his passage through Ancenis, he undergoes a second operation, which takes place in Nantes on 7 December 1915.

Jacques Vaché in hospital in Nantes in December 1915.

The people posing beside him have yet to be identified.

Private collection.

Jacques Vaché in hospital in Nantes, (February-March 1916.

Probably at the end of his convalescence.

Private collection.
The people posing beside him have yet to be identified.

To the devoted nurse

This drawing by Vaché is more than likely a portrait of his aunt Louise Guibal, a nurse at the temporary hospital, situated a number 103bis on the rue du Boccage (the drawing belonged to her son Robert before the latter donated it to the public library).

Nantes Public Library, ms 3341

The rue du Boccage was the site of two important encounters for Vaché. He became friendly with a young nurse, Jeanne Derrien, with whom, following his return to the Front, he maintained a regular correspondence in which he recounted his daily life through texts and drawings.
In Nantes, Vaché also became friends with two young male military nurses from Paris, who knew each other from their school days, and were reunited at the rue du Boccage: André Breton and Théodore Fraenkel. At that time unknown, but passionate about literature, both were budding writers and Breton had published his first texts, mainly poems. Later accounts by the founder of Surrealism indicate that he met Vaché shortly after the latter’s second operation, probably during the month of December 1915: the two young men had plenty in common with their shared love of art and literature. At that time, Breton was heavily influenced by Rimbaud and corresponded with several older writers, including Guillaume Apollinaire.

Théodore Fraenkel and André Breton (smoking a pipe) in Nantes, probably in 1915. 

Former André Breton collection

Letter from Guillaume Apollinaire addressed to André Breton during his assignment in Nantes.

It is not unreasonable to imagine that Vaché may have held in his hands certain letters written by Apollinaire addressed to Breton, while the latter was posted at the rue du Boccage.

Read the correspondence between Apollinaire and Breton on Gallica and in the Trésors de la bibliothèque André Breton catalogue.

Portrait of a woman signed Jacques Tristan Hylar, dated 9 April 1916.

Given its date, this gouache which belonged to Breton had probably been given to him by Vaché towards the end of his stay in Nantes.

Private collection (former André Breton collection)

In ‘La confession dédaigneuse’ (‘Disdainful Confession’), Breton recounts in detail his encounter with Vaché and his time in Nantes, but gets the date of this ‘flamboyant collision’ wrong.

‘At the beginning of 1916, I was mobilized as a provisional intern to the centre of neurology in Nantes, where I made the acquaintance of Jacques Vaché. He was undergoing treatment at the hospital on the rue du Boccage for an injury to his calf. A year older than me, he was a young man with red hair, very elegant, who had taken classes with Mr Luc-Olivier Merson at the School of Fine Arts. Confined to bed, he spent his time drawing and painting series of postcards for which he created some unusual captions. Masculine fashion was almost always the target of his imagination. He liked these smooth-faced figures, and aloof behaviour that one could observe in bars. Every morning, he would spend a good hour arranging one or two photographs, jars, and a few violets, on a little table with a lace tablecloth, within arm’s reach […] Jacques Vaché, barely released from hospital, found employment as a stevedore unloading coal from barges on the Loire. He spent his afternoons in the dives that lined the port. In the evenings, he wandered from cafe to cafe, cinema to cinema, spending a lot more than was reasonable,

creating an atmosphere that was dramatic and full of enthusiasm, punctuated with lies and tall tales, which seemed to bother him little. I must admit that he did not share my passions and for a long time, I was just the ‘pohet’ to him, someone on whom the lesson of the epoch had had little effect. In the streets of Nantes, he would sometimes walk dressed in the uniform of a hussar lieutenant, an aviator, or a doctor. Sometimes, if he met you on the street he pretended not to know you and would continue on his way without looking back. Vaché didn’t shake hands by means of hello or goodbye. He lived in a nice room on the Place du Beffroi in the company of a young woman of whom I knew only the first name: Louise, ordered to remain silent and immobile in the corner whenever he welcomed me there. At five o’clock, she would serve tea and by way of thanks, he would kiss her hand. One imagined that he had no sexual relationship with her and was happy to merely lie next to her, in the same bed. In fact, this was how, he claimed, he liked to behave.’

André Breton, La confession dédaigneuse (‘Disdainful Confession’), in Les pas perdus (The Lost Steps), 1924.

In 1972, Philippe Audoin recounts an anecdote that Breton had told him about his stay in Nantes. With Vaché, they ‘had decided to persecute a Nantes painter who was very ‘pompous’ and very ‘formal’ and who took great pleasure in his bourgeois exhibitions at the time. The pair had inserts published in the newspapers, claiming that ‘the painter so-and-so was categorically lying about his German roots and that his real name was … (here followed a German name).’ Already in 1965, Michel Sanouillet had recounted this anecdote, implying however that only Breton and Fraenkel were involved. The participation of the three (Breton, Fraenkel, Vaché) seems more likely and the article referred to by Philippe Audoin had in fact appeared in Le Populaire dated 4 February 1916: targeting the Nantes symbolist painter Edgar Maxence, but the hoax, published in the morning edition, was revealed and corrected in the evening edition of the same newspaper. As Alain and Odette Virmaux wrote, without directly referring to this episode, ‘with his new friends, […] Vaché spontaneously resorted to the same language, and the same pranks that he once had with his Nantes classmates […] a way of adopting the newcomers’.

Once he had recovered, Vaché went out to bars and cinemas with Breton: the new friends shared a passion for crime serials, notably Les Vampires starring Musidora. An echo of this infatuation would appear in the later correspondence between the pair. In his first letter to Breton, Vaché wrote: «certainly I smoke hig hat [opium]», this officer “in the service of His Majesty” who is going to transform into a winged androgenous figure and dance the dance of the vampire.».
In his accounts relating to their cinema outings, Breton never mentions Fraenkel, who in diaries from that period, shows himself to be highly critical of this new medium appreciated by his two comrades. In 1951 in his text ‘Comme dans un bois’ (‘As in a wood’), Breton recounts:
‘I agreed wholeheartedly with Jacques Vaché in appreciating nothing so much as dropping into the cinema when whatever was playing was playing, at any point in the show, and leaving at the first hint of boredom—of surfeit—to rush off to another cinema where we behaved in the same way, and so on. […] On a Sunday several hours sufficed to exhaust all that Nantes could offer us: the important thing was one came out “charged” for a few days; as there had been nothing deliberate about our actions; qualitative judgements were forbidden. Nevertheless, it happened that certain “comic” films claimed our attention: they were, of course,

by Mack Sennet, the first Chaplins, certain Al St. Johns. At this period I recall putting on an unrivalled footing a Diana la charmeuse […]. All we could grant of fidelity used to go to those serials previously so decried (Les Mystères de New York, Le Masque aux dents blanches, Les Vampires) […]. We saw in the cinema then, such as it was, a lyrical substance simply begging to be hauled in en masse, with the aid of chance. I think that what we valued most in it, to the point of taking no interest in anything else, was its power to disorient.’

André Breton, Comme dans un bois, in L'âge du cinéma (The Age of Cinema), August-November 1951.

When in April, Vaché rejoined active service, he continued his relationship with Breton and Fraenkel through correspondence. Letters were exchanged irregularly during the conflict and only fourteen letters are known of: ten to Breton, four to Fraenkel and a fifteenth addressed in 1918 to a new friend of Breton’s, Louis Aragon. In his letters, Vaché gave free rein to his dandy spirit, outraged by art and war. The only authority he respected was that of Jarry and his characters, Ubu and Faustroll.

In a letter to Breton, Vaché speaks of Jean Sarment as being ‘his very best friend’. Through him, Vaché was in contact with avant-garde theatre: in 1917, Sarment performed at the Théâtre de l'Odéon—where Vaché came to see him; in 1918, he participated in the American tour of the Vieux-Colombier troupe which, directed by Jacques Copeau, included notably in its ranks Louis Jouvet and Charles Dullin. Through Breton, who was the correspondent of Paul Valéry and Guillaume Apollinaire, Vaché was able to observe modern poetry: he established himself as being contemptuous of his contemporaries: ‘Are you sure Apollinaire is still alive, and that Rimbaud ever existed? I myself do not think so—I see hardly anyone but Jarry (At least, you know, at the very least!—UBU)—It seems certain that MARIE LAURENCIN is still alive: certain symptoms authorize this—Is it absolutely sure—yet I think that I detest her—yes—there it is, tonight I detest her, what can I do?’ Vaché carefully followed the publications, whether serious or satirical of his friends, in the avant-garde reviews that existed at that time, Parisian reviews like SIC and Nord-Sud, and regional publications like Les trois roses.

Letter from Vaché to Théodore Fraenkel dated 4 June 1917.

The beginning of the letter refers to a prank carried out by Théodore Fraenkel who succeeded in publishing a poem about Pierre-Albert Birot in SIC, a review run by the latter, signing it Jean Cocteau.

Digitization of the facsimile in the 1949 K edition

Study in powder, a drawing by Vaché dedicated to his ‘friend and sar’ Jean Sarment.

This drawing bears witness to Vaché’s encounter with Sarment at the Théâtre de l'Odéon where Sarment was performing in 1917.

Nantes Public Library, ms 3446/11

Jean Sarment on tour in the United States with the troupe of Jacques Copeau.

Sarment is the first on the right, Copeau can be seen on the extreme left, smoking a pipe.

Private collection

Vaché threw himself into the artistic life. In December 1916, he authored a petition in favour of Rodin in the anarchist newspaper Les hommes du jour. His letters to his mother and Jeanne Derrien attest to the fact that he more than likely participated in the production of Parade, a ballet bringing together Cocteau, Picasso and Satie, in May 1917. According to his own words, he executed ‘the maquettes of the stage sets’. In June 1917, with Cocteau’s permission, Vaché and Breton found themselves at the Théâtre Renée Maubel to attend the premier of a play by Guillaume Apollinaire, Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias). Breton has provided us with two accounts of this episode, firstly in La confession dédaigneuse (‘Disdainful Confession’), then in his Entretiens (Interviews) with André Parinaud.

‘I saw Jacques Vaché again at the Conservatoire Renée Maubel. The first act had just finished. An English officer was creating a disturbance in the orchestra pit: it could only be him. The scandal of the representation had excited him terribly. He entered the room with his revolver in his fist and spoke about shooting at the public. To tell the truth, he had disliked Apollinaire’s “surrealist drama”. He thought the work was too literary and heavily criticized the costumes.’

André Breton, La confession dédaigneuse (‘Disdainful Confession’), in Les pas perdus (The Lost Steps), 1924.

‘The play begin almost two hours later than advertised. Rather disappointing in itself, moreover it was poorly acted, and the audience, already irritated by the long wait,

responded to the first act with a great din. The reason for the growing disturbance in a precise part of the pit soon made itself clear to me: Jacques Vaché had just entered, wearing an English officer’s uniform: in order to look the part, he had taken out his revolver and seemed in the mood to use it. […]. Never before this evening had I taken the measure of the distance that separated the new generation from the one preceding it. Vaché, was exasperated as much by the good value lyrical tone of the play as he was by the Cubist rehashing of the decors and costumes, Vaché in a defiant stance against the public at once jaded and adulterated by these kinds of performances, was, at that moment, a revelatory figure.'

André Breton, Entretiens (Interviews), 1952.

If these two texts forge the myth of Vaché’s behaviour on the evening of 24 June 1917, the first person to publicly recount the episode was Louis Aragon, who at the time of the representation, knew neither Breton nor Vaché. In fact, he referred briefly to this anecdote in March 1918 in the review SIC.
Yet, in August 1918 Vaché wrote to Aragon, beginning his letter with these words: « Cher ami et mystificateur ». May we see here a denial of the gesture attributed to him by Aragon who, in March in SIC, had called him his ‘legendary friend’?

Vaché signed the petition in favour of Rodin.

La Resterie was the name of a property belonging to the Vaché family in the Touraine region. Vaché signs one of his letters to Jean Sarment as ‘Pierre Jacques Vaché de la Rez’.

Les hommes du jour, n° 455, 1 December 6 1916
Read the newspaper edition on Gallica

The programme of the Ballet Parade.

This is the copy that belonged to Vaché, conserved amongst his belongings after his death.
The programme, which includes an article by Guillaume Apollinaire entitled ‘Parade et l'Esprit Nouveau’, may be read on the website of the Library of Congress.

Private collection

Both Breton and Vaché were filled with endless ideas and projects: they planned to hold a conference in Paris on the notion of ‘Umour’, which may be defined as the ‘sensation […] of the theatrical (and joyless) uselessness of everything’; to co-write a play together; and Vaché was to illustrate Breton’s first collection of poems. Indeed, during the war, in addition to the sketches illustrating his letters, Vaché continued to draw, as several items from Breton’s collection demonstrate. .

Obsessions ou Bataille de la Somme et du reste (Obsessions or the Battle of the Somme and the rest).

Vaché addressed this drawing to Breton in April 1917 and provided it with a title in a later letter. Breton published it in 1925 in La Révolution surréaliste under the title Jacques Vaché par lui-même (‘Jacques Vaché by himself’).

Private collection (former André Breton collection)

Toth

The original of this drawing by Vaché has never been found since its publication in the first edition of Lettres de guerre (War Letters). In La confession dédaigneuse (‘Disdainful Confession’), Breton indicates that Vaché presented him with this drawing in June 1917.

(Former André Breton collection)

Ces messieurs (These sirs)

This drawing is part of a series which perhaps can be linked to a joint theatre project by both Vaché and Breton. In its execution, this series is reminiscent of Vaché’s pre-war drawings of the theatre.

Private collection (former André Breton collection)

After Aragon in March 1918, it was Breton’s turn to prepare the entrance onto the literary scene of his correspondent. In fact, he cited Vaché and his definition of ‘Umour’ in a study on Apollinaire published in October 1918, in the review L’Éventail.
During the armistice, Vaché was in Belgium and it was from Brussels that he sent his last known letter, addressed to Breton, which he closed with the following words: ‘Will you be in Paris for a while? — I plan to go there in about a month, and see you at all costs.’’ As the letter shows, Vaché was making plans for after the war. Moreover, the end of the conflict coincided with an intense period of artistic production on his behalf: a dozen or so drawings are known to have been executed in the period from September to December 1918.

L'habit (Clothing)

Fashion drawing in which Vaché details in his notes the materials and colours of the clothes depicted.

Nantes Public Library, ms 3341

Scène de décapitation

(Decapitation scene)

This drawing is signed Harry James, Vaché’s last known pseudonym with which he signed his last letter to Breton.

Private collection

Visage de femme

(Woman’s face)

Between October and December 1918, Vaché did four portraits of women, although it is uncertain as to whether these were executed using the same model. This drawing is also signed Harry James.

Nantes Public Library, ms 3573

If he more than likely passed through the French capital, Vaché found himself assigned to Nantes at the beginning of January 1919 amongst American troops based in Saint-Nazaire. There, he was reunited with several Sars and school friends. On the night of the 5-6 January, after having spent the evening at the Théâtre de l’Apollo on the rue Racine, Vaché and his friends went to the hotel room of one of the group, Paul Bonnet, at the Hôtel de France on the Place Graslin. Vaché had brought opium. The group tried to smoke the narcotic but without a suitable pipe, decided to ingest it. Some of the revellers left the party, and by the morning of the 6th, there were only three left in the hotel room: Bonnet, Vaché and Woynow, an American soldier. The latter awoke in the afternoon and realized that Bonnet had died and that Vaché was in a worrying state. He would die despite the intervention of a doctor. Nantes newspapers reported on the tragic death over several days, systematically presenting it as an accident.

Les drames de l'Opium (1)

(‘Opium Drama’)

First part of the article devoted to the deaths of Bonnet and Vaché published in the newspaper Ouest-Éclair on 7 January 1919

Read on Gallica

Les drames de l'Opium (2)

(‘Opium Drama’)

Second part of the article on the deaths of Bonnet and Vaché published in Ouest-Eclair on 7 Jaunary 1919

Le drame de l'Hôtel de France - l'enquête

(‘The Drama at the Hôtel de France: an investigation’)

Article published in Ouest-Eclair on 9 January 1919

Read on Gallica

Vaché’s death deeply affected Breton. On the 3 January, the latter would write to his new friend, Philippe Soupault: ‘Despite the affection I have for you, Jacques V. remains the centre of everything for me. How that must seem strange to you! I write things to him just as I wait for you to live.’ Breton learned about Vaché’s death several days after the incident: on 13 January, he had sent a letter-collage which would never reach its recipient. This letter was recovered in the 1980s. Breton referred to the loss of his friend on several occasions as an ‘emotional trauma’ and his artwork from the period 1919-1924 attests to his obsession with his deceased friend. During this period, the heyday of Dadaism in Paris, Breton nevertheless found a substitute in the person of Tristan Tzara, who had recently moved to the capital. Through the course of his work, Breton would settle on the hypothesis of suicide for his friend Vaché, notably in ‘La confession dédaigneuse’ (‘Disdainful Confession’), and later in the notice he would devote to him in Anthologie de l'humour noir (Anthology of Black Humour).

‘Jacques Vaché committed suicide in Nantes sometime after the armistice. His death had this admirable feature about it, in that it can be taken for accidental. He absorbed, I believe, forty grams of opium, even though, as one might believe, he was not an inexperienced smoker. On the other hand, it is highly likely that his unfortunate companions were inexperienced drug users, and that he wanted in dying, to commit one last funny trick, at their expense.’

André Breton, La confession dédaigneuse, in Les pas perdus, 1924.

‘I escaped it,’ said Vaché, ‘albeit closely—this last retreat. But I object to being killed at a time of war.’ However, he would die closely after the armistice. ‘At the time of finishing this study,’ wrote Mr Marc-Adolphe Guégan in La Ligne de cœur (January 1927), I have received a terrible declaration from a trustworthy person.

Jacques Vaché is believed to have declared several hours before the drama: “I will die when I want to die … but I will die with someone. Dying alone, is boring beyond words… Preferably I will die with one of my best friends”.’ ‘Such words,’ added M. Guégan, ‘make the hypothesis of an accident less certain, especially when one remembers that Jacques Vaché did not die alone. One of his friends was a victim of the same poison, on the same evening. They appeared to be sleeping next to each other when it was discovered that they were no longer alive. But to admit that this double death was the consequence of a sinister plan, means making the memory of one of these men terribly responsible.’ To trigger the disclosure of this ‘terrible responsibility’, was, most certainly, the supreme ambition of Jacques Vaché.

André Breton, Jacques Vaché, in Anthologie de l'humour noir (Anthology of Black Humour), 1940.

In July 1919, Breton decided to publish the letters he had received from Vaché along with Fraenkel and Aragon, in the review Littérature. Then in September, Breton gathered these letters into a single volume for which he wrote the preface and titled it Lettres de guerre (War Letters). In so doing, he ensured Vaché’s entry into the literary pantheon of the avant-garde. In 1921, Aragon published his satirical novel on the history of the contemporary literary avant-garde, called Anicet ou le panorama, roman (Anicet or the Panorama). Vaché, under his last pseudonym of Harry James, occupied an important part in Aragon’s work. In an interview in the late 1970s, Philippe Soupault evoked the eruption of Dada as a reaction to the First World War by recalling the importance of the figure of Vaché:
In May-June 1919, in collaboration with Philippe Soupault, Breton had written the first surrealist text by putting into practice the technique of automatic writing. The work appeared in May 1920 under the title Les champs magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields) and was dedicated to Vaché. Over the course of this work, Breton outlined the hagiography of his dead friend, about whom, he wrote in Manifeste du surréalisme (Surrealist Manifesto) of 1924, this famous sentence: ‘Vaché is surrealist in me’. Breton rapidly made the author of Lettres de guerre (War Letters) a key figure in the Surrealist movement. Numerous members of the group referred to Vaché, without ever having known him, including Jacques Baron, Robert Desnos, Michel Leiris, Paul Nougé, Louis Scutenaire, and after 1945, Claude Tarnaud and Stanislas Rodanski. At this time, other movements came to compete with Surrealism in the field of the avant-garde, such as Lettrism and Situationism: Isidore Isou and Gabriel Pomerand on the one hand, Guy-Ernest Debord and Raoul Vaneighem on the other, all referred to Vaché in their respective work. As a result of these appropriations, the author of Lettres de guerre has become a tutelary figure of contestation.

Robert Desnos, Un Rit

In the upper-left medallion, Desnos evokes Vaché’s death by associating the opium pipe and a postcard, symbolizing the hypothesis put forward by Breton of ‘the last funny prank’ concerning the supposed suicide of his friend.

Oil on canvas,
Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques Doucet.

Paul Nougé, J. Vaché

Paul Nougé, J. Vaché. Satirical text published in La Révolution surréaliste (no. 9-10, October 1927), appropriating and altering a text by Rémy de Gourmont about the serial killer Joseph Vacher.
Read the full text on Gallica (the text is accompanied by two previously unpublished drawings by Vaché).
Nantes Public Library, ms 3994 (former André Breton collection)

Louis Scutenaire, Pêle-mêle

In this collage, Scutenaire inserts at the right-hand side, a sketch of a drawing by Vaché published by Breton under the title ‘Vaché par lui-même’ in La Révolution surréaliste. This collage appeared in the special edition on Surrealism by the review Documents in 1934.

Archives et Musée de la Littérature, Brussels..

Stanislas Rodanski, imaginary portrait of Jacques Vaché

Member of the Surrealist group between 1947 and 1948, Rodanski did this drawing during his internment at the Villejuif psychiatric hospital. He associates the only two portraits then known of Vaché. Rodanski’s literary work reveals his identification with the author of Lettres de guerre (War Letters). .

Archives du Groupe Hospitalier Paul-Guiraud, Villejuif.

Gabriel Pomerand, "Trois suicidés significatifs"

(‘Three Significant Suicides’)

Article by Lettrist Gabriel Pomerand published by the review Psyché in June 1948.

Guy-Ernest Debord, Exercice de la psychogéographie

(‘Exercise in psycho-geography’)

Published in Potlatch, the International Lettrist Review (the literary voice of the future Situationists), this text parodies the famous list established by Breton of the ‘surrealists in’ in the first Surrealist Manifesto..

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