Researching Breton's Locomotive
André Breton takes a closer look

The locomotive is often used as a metaphor for the constant evolution of human endeavour, as an emblem of technological advancement. However, I see her as more than just shorthand for the concept of progress, I see a machine with such power and character that she is almost a living being.

Minotaure 10 Winter 1937

Building a model of the Locomotive

After locating the image of Breton’s locomotive in Minotaure I searched through a large collection of train and railway magazines, belonging to my late father, trying to identify the type of engine. I needed to find a good reference image to build a model of the locomotive in 3D for my animation.

Looking through a copy of Railway Wonders Of The World, I was amazed to find the same image with one slight difference - a strange man in colonial attire was standing in the cab.

Railway Wonders of the World - part 41
Railway Wonders of the World, page 1287- Breton's Locomotive

The image in Railway Wonders Of The World showed that the image in Minotaure was a photo montage, although it had not been identified as one. It is not surprising that Breton or Péret would want to hide the man in colonial dress. This is probably why the image was withheld from L'Amour Fou. The Surrealists and particularly Breton had well publicised political views, it was their anti-colonial stance that brought about an exhibition The truth about the colonies in 1931. Although the man in the photograph was not in military dress, he certainly didn’t look like a local in his pith helmet, more like a colonial official.

The picture in Railway Wonders of the World was titled 'Checked by Nature' and described 'In Dutch Guiana near the river Maroni, which is liable to floods, it has been impossible to operate a railway line. The locomotive shown had to be abandoned to the swamp and the tropical vegetation'.

Breton's Locomotive, La Nature

The story of the unnamed engine

The Marowijne Company, an American gold exploitation company, ignored expert advice and built a railway through the rainforest of Dutch Guiana. The company shipped two 40-ton locomotives (John Lucas and another, not carrying a name) along with 5km of track and 100 mining cars, from Philadelphia, on a schooner called La Plata. The locomotives were landed at Paramaribo, dismantled and hauled up the Maroni River then re-assembled for the mining railway. The whole enterprise was a disaster, the railway was built over swampland which became impassable during frequent floods. The terrain was dangerous and more than a thousand workers died of malaria and exhaustion. Rare manatees were killed for their skins, which were used for drive belts for machinery. 

In the end, the gold had mysteriously gone; the whole venture had been sold on a false promise. The land was later disposed of at auction; the locomotives, mining equipment and track left abandoned in the rainforest.  

There was still one problem, the image in Railway Wonders had be cropped, presumably to fit in with the printed text, so this printed image was not the original used by Breton or Perét for the montage. I tried to track down the image in photo libraries and railway collections for many months and eventually found a copy of the same image un-cropped. The photo has La Nature and an unclear date, possibly 1932, written on the back. I have searched through the online archive of La Nature but have not been able to find it in the magazine, so far…

To Nowhere - Isabel Skinner 2017

Bate, D (2004) Photography and Surrealism. London: I B Tauris.

Breton, A. and Caws, M.A. (1987) Mad love (French modernist library). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

DeGrouchy, W and Magee, W L, (1930)  Jungle Gold. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill

Foster, H. (1995) Compulsive beauty (October books). (3rd ed.) Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Foster, H. (2018) Re: Breton’s abandoned Locomotive. [email sent to I Skinner, 10th March 2018] (Re: ‘Nice discovery’)

International Steam (2017) (Accessed 03/02/2017)

Krauss, R., Livingston, J. and Ades, D. (1985). L'amour Fou – photography and surrealism. Washington, D.C.: Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Krauss, R.E. (1986) The originality of the avant-garde and other modernist myths. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Niles, R. (1928), Where Do Good Locomotives Go When They Die? Philadelphia: Baldwins Locomotives Journal  p. 371-402.

Péret, B (1937) “La Nature dévore, le progrès et le dépasse” in Skira, A. and Tériade, E. (1981). Minotaure. 3rd ed. [New York]: Rizzoli International.

Railway Curiosities. (1935). Railway Wonders of the World, (Part 41), p.1287.

Vauclain, S.M. (1929) ‘Steaming up.’ In: The Saturday Evening Post 4 May 1929

Part of Bibliography for MA Fine Art research 2016-2018 Isabel Skinner