Breton's Locomotive

An excerpt from: 

He wished he could show you

A search for Breton's Locomotive

Skinner, I.G (2018) Orbital Gallery Press

Breton's Locomotive Minotaure

Locomotive, unattributed, Minotaure, n°10, winter, 1937

The unattributed photograph of an abandoned locomotive overwhelmed by nature was first published in the Surrealist magazine Minotaure in the winter of 1937 to accompany an essay by Benjamin Perét,

“La Nature dévore, le Progrès et le Dépasse”, Nature devours progress and succeeds it.

André Breton, the editor of Minotaure at the time, had previously written about the 'locomotive abandoned for many years to the delirium of a virgin forest' in his  novel L’Amour Fou, where he wrote that he wished he could show the photograph, without explaining why he could not.


The impact of the iconic image was intensified by the locomotive being an example of current technologies of the time and not the bygone relic that we see today. The image of the arrested engine engulfed by vines and stuck in the swamp must have been a tragic sight, without the beauty that can be found these days in images of post-industrial ruins.

As a digital artist working in the post-photochemical era of image making I should be well aware that photographs are often not a reliable representation of reality, yet despite this, I found myself wanting to believe in this old monochrome photograph. The black-and-white nature of the image had somehow presented itself to me as documentary evidence acquired from an allegedly secure analogue past. I had been seduced into the delirium of the forest.

And then - the curious arrival of a man in a pith helmet smoking a cigarette.

Breton's Locomotive Original_IS

Looking more closely at the picture in Minotaure it was obvious that the man had been there all along, covered in a matt of grass, which had presumably been cropped from another image and pasted in place. He wasn’t absent he had always been there in his grass camouflage suit. Now, the edge of his arm was clearly visible to me in the image in Minotaure peeking out behind the grass disrespectfully. Obviously I had wanted to see the image as the Surrealists had presented it, but it was a fiction, albeit an arresting one.

Re-reading Benjamin Péret’s essay in Minotaure, reveals traces of the true story behind the photograph. Péret speaks of the abandoned locomotive being situated in equatorial America, of ‘man cutting a path through the jungle with axe and dynamite’ to lay the track and most tellingly, of gold nuggets in the hand. 

A Journey down the Maroni River - a found footage film.

A journey to see André Breton's iconic abandoned locomotive described by Breton in L’Amour Fou as

'abandoned for many years to the delirium of a virgin forest'

Now showing at:  Voyages Imaginaires - Train Zug Treno Tren

PLATEFORME 10, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Place de la Gare 16,

1003 Lausanne, Suisse

from 18.6.2022 to 25.9.2022

Exhibition link: Voyages Imaginaires