André Breton Life and Art Periods

ANDRÉ BRETON SYNOPSIS

André Breton was an original member of the Dada group who went on to start and lead the Surrealist movement in 1924. In New York, Breton and his colleagues curated Surrealist exhibitions that introduced ideas of automatism and intuitive art making to the first Abstract Expressionists. He worked in various creative media, focusing on collage and printmaking as well as authoring several books. Breton innovated ways in which text and image could be united through chance association to create new, poetic word-image combinations. His ideas about accessing the unconscious and using symbols for self-expression served as a fundamental conceptual building block for New York artists in the 1940s.

ANDRÉ BRETON KEY IDEAS

Breton was a major member of the Dada group and the founder of Surrealism. He was dedicated to avant-garde art-making and was known for his ability to unite disparate artists through printed matter and curatorial pursuits.
Breton drafted the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, declaring Surrealism as "pure psychic automatism," deeply affecting the methodology and origins of future movements, such as Abstract Expressionism.
One of Breton's fundamental beliefs was in art as an anti-war protest, which he postulated during the First World War. This notion re-gained potency during and after World War II, when the early Abstract Expressionist artists were creating works to demonstrate their outrage at the atrocities happening in Europe.
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MOST IMPORTANT ART

TITLE: Egg in the church or The Snake (Date Unknown)
<i>Egg in the church or The Snake</i>(Date Unknown)
Artwork Description & Analysis: Egg in the church or The Snake is an example of photographic collage that was popularized by Surrealists like Breton and Man Ray. Typical of Breton, the title is both symbolic and enigmatic and its subject matter is cryptic and dream-like. It exemplifies the Surrealist interest in the female body as form, as well as an interest in themes concerning sexuality and religion, as elucidated by Georges Bataille. Bataille's text dealt, in part, with Christianity's repression of desire. Breton and his colleagues aspired to reduce all sexual repressions to symbols and language that would serve freedom of expression.

Collage on Paper - Musee d'Ixelles

  • <i>Egg in the church or The Snake</i>(Date Unknown)
  • <i>Poeme</i>(1924)
  • <i>The African Mask</i>(1947-48)
  • <i>Cadavre Exquis with André Breton, Max Morise, Jeannette Tanguy, Pierre Naville, Benjamin Peret, Yves Tanguy and Jacques Prevert</i>(1928)
  • Poeme Objet(1935)
  • <i>Le Coeur A Barbe (The Bearded Heart)</i>(1922)
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ANDRÉ BRETON BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

André Breton was born in a small village, although his family relocated to a Parisian suburb soon after. He excelled in school and developed literary interests quite early. Breton read the French Decadents, such as Charles Baudelaire, J.K. Huysmans, Stephane Mallarme, and the German Romantic writers, all of whom informed his early thoughts on Avant-Gardism. By 1912, Breton had a cultivated knowledge of Contemporary art and begun to study Anarchism as a political movement. While he loved the French Decadent artists, such as Gustave Moreau, he began to separate himself from their belief in "art for art's sake," in favor of art that appealed to the masses.

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Early Training

André Breton Biography

While Breton forged his early aestheticism, he studied medicine, completed basic military training and, in 1915, was assigned to work in a military hospital in Nantes. His first poems, Decembre and Age, were written while he worked there as a nurse. It was during this time that he met his mentors, Guillaume Apollinaire and Jacques Vache, who were both admitted to the hospital for war wounds. Breton's hatred of war led him to an intense investigation of Sigmund Freud's psychotherapeutic practices. He developed a passion for psychiatric art that tapped into the subconscious, which informed his interest in Dada, and later, Surrealism. In 1919, Breton began a correspondence with Tristan Tzara, who was formulating early Dada theories in Zurich. The two finally united forces in Paris in 1920.

Mature Period

André Breton Photo

When Breton arrived in Paris, he was in his mid-twenties and already an established author and editor of an avant-garde magazine, Litterature. While Tzara penned his Manifestation Dada, Breton promoted journalism and live "happenings" as the ultimate statements against the bourgeoisie. Dada performances were not recorded, so the bulk of the campaign only exists today in print, as flyers, posters, manifestos, handbills, and magazines. During this time, Breton organized many readings and events. He, along with other artists, published open letters, newspaper interviews, press releases, and advertisements. They took advantage of the media to disseminate their theories and to attack the idea of art making as an elitist practice.

Because Dada was originally associated with German Expressionism, many French critics disliked it, thus Breton worked to tie this new movement to French literary communities. Dada faded in 1924 due to personal differences between Breton and Tzara. This paved the way for Breton's Surrealism. The Surrealist Manifesto interpreted Breton's experiments with psychic automatism, which became popular in America when he brought exhibitions featuring Surrealist artists to New York.

Late Years and Death

During the 1930s, artists within the Surrealist movement became polarized, some favoring political activism over commercial success. Artists such as Max Ernst, Rene Magritte and Salvador Dalí pursued furthered connections between dreams and art practice. Breton, who rejected fascism, advocated for political responsibility and consequently many Surrealists followed his cue. Interestingly, many women affiliated with Surrealism, such as Lee Miller and Meret Oppenheim, followed Breton, for his exploration of sexual identity themes at the time.

Breton traveled Europe during the onset of World War II, lecturing against repression of intellectual freedom. Notably, he spent the summer of 1939 with Roberto Matta at his country house, where Matta painted the pieces that would visually introduce automatism to America. Breton again worked as a medic when the war broke out, finally fleeing to New York in 1941. For the next several years, Breton lectured at Yale and other universities about automatism, politics and Surrealism. His influence on the New York School became clear as painters like Pollock and Motherwell applied his theories to their art practices.

André Breton Portrait

When the war was over, Breton continued to write and traveled the world, finally returned to Paris. In the 1940s and 50s, Breton primarily worked on essays and poems, including Arcane 17 (1945), mythological prose set in Canada. He also published Constellations (1959), a suite of poems inspired by Joan Miró's gouache paintings of the same name. He also collected art, especially that of Indigenous peoples. His collection remained intact until 2003, when the Atelier de Breton was dismantled and sold at auction. Some of his collection remains at the Centre Pompidou. The Dossier Dada, an archive Breton built of press clippings and publications related to these various art movements, can be found at Kunsthaus Zurich.

ANDRÉ BRETON LEGACY

The legacy of André Breton is wide reaching and continues to this day. After coming to New York during World War II, his ideas on Surrealism were essential to early Abstract Expressionists, like Arshile Gorky, Roberto Matta, and Yves Tanguy, as well as second generation Surrealists, like Joseph Cornell. He pioneered the concept of fusing art and culture, which became a basic tenet in Pop Art. Breton's use of the media as a tool of art practice also helped shape many contemporary artists who build personas as part of their work. In this way, he foresaw Performance Art, Fluxus, Conceptualism, and what has followed on from those movements. Perhaps above all, Breton's love of absurdist humor continues to inspire artists to the present.

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ANDRÉ BRETON QUOTES

"When will the arbitrary be granted the place it deserves in the formation of works and ideas?"
From For Dada

"It is often repeated that Leonardo da Vinci advised his pupils, searching for a suitable original subject, to stare fixedly at an old, decrepit wall. "Very soon," he said, "you will notice forms and scenes that will become more and more precise.. From then on you will only have to copy what you see and to complete it where necessary." Whatever references continue to be made to this, one can only say that this lesson has been lost. The beautiful interpretive wall, brimming with lizards, is not but a fencepost toppling on the highway, before which a landscape that never has had time to form itself reconstitutes, furthermore, the magic mirror in which life and death may be read.. Let us cast a glance of sincere appreciation on these elementary surfaces in which the future world has for so long elected to compose itself. Coffee grounds, scrap iron, cloudy mirror: it is still of you that the impenetrably bright veils on the hats of young women are made."

"Even the most stable and best poised mind cannot help being fixed, for the moment, on the nightly shrieks of sirens, the dragonlike tongues of flame, which forebode the roar of tanks being hurled against each other. One cannot help being affected in one's inmost being. Nothing will help to obscure the depths, not only of horror but, even more, of the irrational and nonintelligent background upon which, at least for the time being, the intellectual and artistic figures of the mind are traced."

André Breton

André Breton Influences

Interactive chart with André Breton's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Tristan Tzara
Tristan Tzara
Tristan Tzara was a Romanian and French poet, playwright, and avant-garde performer who played a key role in early Zurich Dada. A proponent of pure automatic techniques, he had an at-times contentious relationship with the Dada's Surrealist direction in Paris.

Modern Art Information Tristan Tzara
Francis Picabia
Francis Picabia
Francis Picabia was a French artist who worked in Dada, Surrealist, and abstract modes, often employing language and mechanical imagery. He published the Dada journal 391 in Barcelona and America.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Francis Picabia
Jacques Vache
Jacques Vache
Jacques Vache was a French avant-garde artist. Although he died young of an opium overdose, he was a chief inspiration for André Breton in the formulation of Surrealism.

Modern Art Information Jacques Vache
Gustave Moreau
Gustave Moreau
Gustave Moreau was a French Symbolist painter who depicted narrative moments and figures from classical mythology and biblical history.

Modern Art Information Gustave Moreau
Comte de Lautremont
Comte de Lautremont
Comte de Lautreamont was the pen-name of Isidore Ducasse, a Uruguay-born French poet. His works, often with violent and bizarre imagery, exercised a great influence on the Surrealists.

Modern Art Information Comte de Lautremont
Arthur Rimbaud
Arthur Rimbaud
Arthur Rimbaud was a nineteenth-century French Symbolist poet and one of Paul Verlaine's "poetes maudits," the "accursed poets" isolated from society by their talents.

Modern Art Information Arthur Rimbaud
Louis Aragon
Louis Aragon
Louis Aragon was a French poet and writer, as well as journalist and editor for several revolutionary and avant-garde journals. He was involved with the Dada circle in Paris before helping found Surrealism in 1924.

Modern Art Information Louis Aragon
Antonin Artaud
Antonin Artaud
Antonin Artaud was a French playwright and poet influenced by Surrealism, whose "Theater of Cruelty" strove to reveal hidden truths about man through disorienting, often violent theatrical techniques.

Modern Art Information Antonin Artaud
Paul Eluard
Paul Eluard
Paul Eluard was a French poet, and one of the original participants in the French Surrealism movement, forming strong ties with the likes of Breton, Aragon and Ernst. Eluard was also active in the French Resistance during World War II, but later in life joined the Communist Party, became a Stalin sympathizer and renounced the Surrealism movement.

Modern Art Information Paul Eluard
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism refers to a number of styles that emerged in reaction to Impressionism in the 1880s. The movement encompassed Symbolism and Neo-Impressionism before ceding to Fauvism around 1905. Its artists turned away from effects of light and atmosphere to explore new avenues such as color theory and personal feeling, often using colors and forms in intense and expressive ways.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Post-Impressionism
Expressionism
Expressionism
Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 1920s and '30s. Many German Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Expressionism
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cubism
Futurism
Futurism
Futurism was the most influential Italian avant-garde movement of the twentieth century. Dedicated to the modern age, it celebrated speed, movement, machinery and violence. At first influenced by Neo-Impressionism, and later by Cubism, some of its members were also drawn to mass culture and nontraditional forms of art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Futurism
Dada
Dada
Dada was an artistic and literary movement that emerged in 1916. It arose in reaction to World War I, and the nationalism and rationalism that many thought had led to the War. Influenced by several avant-gardes - Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism - its output was wildly diverse, ranging from performance art to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting and collage. Emerging first in Zurich, it spread to cities including Berlin, Hanover, Paris, New York and Cologne.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Dada
Man Ray
Man Ray
Man Ray was an American artist in Paris whose photograms, objects, drawings, and other works played an important role in Dada, Surrealism, modern photography, and avant-garde art at large.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Man Ray
Max Ernst
Max Ernst
Max Ernst was a German Dadaist and Surrealist whose paintings and collages combine dream-like realism, automatic techniques, and eerie subject matter.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Max Ernst
Salvador Dalí
Salvador Dalí
Salvador Dalí was a Spanish Surrealist painter who combined a hyperrealist style with dream-like, sexualized subject matter. His collaborations with Hollywood and commercial ventures, alongside his notoriously dramatic personality, earned him scorn from some Surrealist colleagues.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Salvador Dalí
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko was an Abstract Expressionist painter whose early interest in mythic landscapes gave way to mature works featuring large, hovering blocks of color on colored grounds.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Mark Rothko
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jackson Pollock
Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp
The French artist Marcel Duchamp was an instrumental figure in the avant-garde art worlds of Paris and New York. Moving through Dada, Surrealism, readymades, sculpture, and installation, his work involves conceptual play and an implicit attack on bourgeois art sensibilities.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Marcel Duchamp
Diego Rivera
Diego Rivera
Diego Rivera was the principal actor in the Mexican Muralism movement and one of Mexico's greatest artists. His large-scale fresco cycles tell the histories of labor, industry, society, and other themes.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Diego Rivera
Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo is a twentieth-century Mexican artist whose work has a strong autobiographical component as it addresses issues of feminism and nationalism. Her work is often associated with Surrealism and she is best known for her many, often uncanny self-portraits.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Frida Kahlo
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Surrealism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pop Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Conceptual Art
Guillaume Apollinaire
Guillaume Apollinaire
Guillaume Apollinaire was a French writer and art critic who in the early twentieth century was a member of the avant-garde group of artists based in the Montparnasse community of Paris, which included Picasso, André Breton and Henri Rousseau. He is credited with coining the term "Surrealism."

Modern Art Information Guillaume Apollinaire
Rene Magritte
Rene Magritte
Rene Magritte has achieved great popular acclaim for his idiosyncratic approach to Surrealism. His beautiful and troubling images of bowler-hatted men and nature scenes are popular in art and general circles.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Rene Magritte
Lee Miller
Lee Miller
Lee Miller was an American photographer and former fashion model who, while living abroad in Paris during World War II, became well known as a war-time correspondent for Vogue, covering the London blitz, the liberation of Paris, and the concentration camps of Buchenwald and Dachau. Prior to the war, Miller was a notable apprentice of the Surrealist Man Ray, during which time she was instrumental in revolutionizing the photographic technique of solarization.

Modern Art Information Lee Miller
Roberto Matta
Roberto Matta
Roberto Matta was a Chilean-born artist who lived and worked in New York in the 1940s. His interest in automatism and painterly effects helped forge a crucial link between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Roberto Matta
Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell was a first-generation Abstract Expressionist whose paintings use hulking shapes, large-scale strokes and calligraphy, and wide expanses of muted color. Eloquent and well-educated, he wrote extensively on theories of art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Robert Motherwell
Joan Miró
Joan Miró
Active in Paris from the 1920s onward, and influenced by Surrealism, Miró developed a style of biomorphic abstraction which blended abstract figurative motifs, large fields of color, and primitivist symbols. This style would be an important inspiration for many Abstract Expressionists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Joan Miró
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky was an Armenian-born American painter and a major influence on the development of Abstract Expressionism. In his own art he fused elements of Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism, and was close with key figures central to New York's burgeoning abstrct art scene, such as John Graham, Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Arshile Gorky
Yves Tanguy
Yves Tanguy
Yves Tanguy was a French painter and one of the key figures of French Surrealism in the early twentieth century. Having never received any formal training, Tanguy was a self-taught painter who became best known for his highly imaginitive landscapes and detailed precision.

Modern Art Information Yves Tanguy
Joseph Cornell
Joseph Cornell
Joseph Cornell was an American artist, best known for his collage work and "shadow boxes," which were highly complex diorama-like constructions. Cornell incorporated found objects, old photos, newspaper clippings and other objects into these boxes, resulting in uniquely surreal, three-dimensional worlds. Cornell was one of the few American artists associated with Surrealism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Joseph Cornell
Performance Art
Performance Art
Performance is a genre in which art is presented "live," usually by the artist but sometimes with collaborators or performers. It has had a role in avant-garde art throughout the twentieth century, playing an important part in anarchic movements such as Futurism and Dada. It particularly flourished in the 1960s, when Performance artists became preoccupied with the body, but it continues to be an important aspect of art practice.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Performance Art
Fluxus
Fluxus
Fluxus was an international network of "intermedia" artists of the 1960s who worked in fields ranging from music to performance to the visual arts. Taking their name from the Latin "to flow," Fluxus artists adopted an often anarchic and satirical approach to conventional forms of art, and their ideas paved the way for Conceptual art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Fluxus
Egg in the church or The Snake
<i>Egg in the church or The Snake</i>

Title: Egg in the church or The Snake (Date Unknown)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Egg in the church or The Snake is an example of photographic collage that was popularized by Surrealists like Breton and Man Ray. Typical of Breton, the title is both symbolic and enigmatic and its subject matter is cryptic and dream-like. It exemplifies the Surrealist interest in the female body as form, as well as an interest in themes concerning sexuality and religion, as elucidated by Georges Bataille. Bataille's text dealt, in part, with Christianity's repression of desire. Breton and his colleagues aspired to reduce all sexual repressions to symbols and language that would serve freedom of expression.


Collage on Paper - Musee d'Ixelles

Poeme
<i>Poeme</i>

Title: Poeme (1924)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This is an early example of a Surrealist collage that fuses text and image. Breton wrote this poem the same year he published the Surrealist Manifesto. More than a poetic expression, it reveals Breton's increasing belief in journalism as a potent artistic form as the piece uses newspaper and magazine clipping materials as its source. The text is absurdist and constructs its own logic that would not make sense to a reader trying to understand it as traditional language.


Collage on paper - Elsa Adamowicz

The African Mask
<i>The African Mask</i>

Title: The African Mask (1947-48)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The African Mask is a good example of Breton's studies of Primitive art and its shamanistic potency. Breton was renowned for his mask collection. The first mask he purchased was from Easter Island. While in the United States, Breton traveled around the country, visiting several Native American sites and collecting masks all along the way. He was interested in them as visual objects as well as the metaphorical concept as a window into one's inner mind.


Ink and wax on paper - Mark Borghi Fine Art

Cadavre Exquis with André Breton, Max Morise, Jeannette Tanguy, Pierre Naville, Benjamin Peret, Yves Tanguy and Jacques Prevert
<i>Cadavre Exquis with André Breton, Max Morise, Jeannette Tanguy, Pierre Naville, Benjamin Peret, Yves Tanguy and Jacques Prevert</i>

Title: Cadavre Exquis with André Breton, Max Morise, Jeannette Tanguy, Pierre Naville, Benjamin Peret, Yves Tanguy and Jacques Prevert (1928)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This is an example of an artwork made as an Exquisite Corpse, a Surrealist game developed to free the mind and to tap into subconscious forces, similar to doodling. In this game, artist fold the page into sections and hide previous contributions or build upon one another's collaborative efforts to create a work that is inspired by consecutive artistic moves. In Breton's early development of theories about automatism, he and his colleagues made many of these collages. They also emphasize the act of collaboration, which was a fundamental ideal to both Dada and Surrealism.


Collage on paper - MOMA, New York, Estate of Yves Tanguy

Poeme Objet
Poeme Objet

Title: Poeme Objet (1935)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Breton made many Poem Objects, such as this assemblage constructed around a plaster egg. Many of his Poem Objects were assemblages. The text on the plaster egg in this work translates as "I see / I imagine" though the poem beneath is deliberately cryptic. Like the Exquisite Corpse, Breton made these objects as a reflection of his inner mind, and also thought of them as analytical tools that could be analyzed, like dreams.


Mixed media collage - National Galleries of Scotland

Le Coeur A Barbe (The Bearded Heart)
<i>Le Coeur A Barbe (The Bearded Heart)</i>

Title: Le Coeur A Barbe (The Bearded Heart) (1922)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This is the first and only issue of a "transparent newspaper," published by Tristan Tzara in response to André Breton's attacks on him during their Dada collaborations. It exemplifies the Dada print aesthetic, which sometimes appeared as corrupted versions of Victorian printed material. This is an important document as it calls for the "Bearded Heart Evening," which consisted of readings and performances that occurred in 1923 and effectively terminated Breton's involvement with Dada.


Black printing on pink paper - ?

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.