French Painter and Draughtsman
Summary of André Masson
Painting dreamscapes of writhing mythological figures and tortured natural forms, André Masson combined the two main visual techniques of Surrealism: biomorphic abstraction and automatic techniques. One of the first painters to embrace André Breton's Surrealist theories, Masson channeled the subconscious and explored the themes of sexuality, violence, metamorphosis, and death that were central to the movement. His paintings reveal the inner workings of the mind through the exploration of dreams, desires, and paranoia.
- After experiencing the violence and chaos of World War I, Masson incorporated brutal, disembodied images into his paintings with unprecedented graphic force. He combined these savage forms with ideas drawn from Friedrich Nietzsche to portray uncertainty and to question the reason for human existence.
- An admirer of early Renaissance and early modernism, Masson combined classical themes and emotionally-laden abstract forms. Many of his works draw from classical mythology as archetypes of life, sex, and death, breathing new life into traditional narratives and making them relevant to the post-war era.
- Like many of the Surrealists, he relocated to America during World War II, where his impact on the New York School was more direct. Masson's automatic technique and cosmic narratives were visually and thematically important to the development of Abstract Expressionism.
Biography of André Masson
André-Aimé-René Masson was born on January 4, 1896 in the small town of Balagny (Oise), north of Paris. He was the eldest of three children in a family of modest means. Growing up in the country, he felt an early connection with nature and the world.
Important Art by André Masson
This chaotic and multifaceted drawing demonstrates Masson's use of the automatic method. The linework is varied, ranging from thick to thin and includes some broken lines that show the unpremeditated nature of the work; he drew as inspiration came to him. The curves of these lines and bodily elements are complex.
Masson described automatism as "a kind of writing. A thing I used to do would be to throw a string onto a blank sheet of paper: what you see appear are movements of an undeniable grace." The string or line that connects all of these elements acts as a stream of consciousness, temporally binding them together. Yet, eventually all the elements blend together and one cannot determine where it begins or ends. This piece thus provides an example of quintessential automatism and gives the viewer a valuable insight into the processes behind it.
The viewer's attention is drawn to the center of the piece, which evokes a human presence. The amorphous nature and biological quality of the form suggests a conflict of multiple identities through the automatic method. Masson incorporates varying facial forms, which appear to be melting and hands, which grasp at nothing. But while the viewer can locate the presence of human features, they do not fit together to form a coherent figure.
A central figure is crushed by his surroundings while all around him are symbols of eroticism, death and destruction. Masson stated that the image "came from a memory of war...a figure lying in the trench with his head split open." There are several allusions to the trauma and aftereffects of war throughout the piece. The skinless nature of the figure alludes to the vulnerability of the body and the fragility of life as Masson witnessed in the trenches. Additionally, the agricultural elements and fire may also harken back to the setting and experience of warfare.
Human figures metamorphize into musical instruments and disintegrate into incomplete forms. The animated string instrument sawing its own strings with a bow suggests both sex and destruction while the main figure is shown without a phallus and instead leaks bodily fluid from a cavity. This theme is amplified by the woman who is transforming into a harp, but also remains a grotesque, fleshy distortion. These joint symbols of destruction and eroticism explore the longstanding associations between sex and death.
Another thread running through this painting is Greek mythology. The split skull resembles the pomegranate from the story of Persephone, who is doomed to remain with Hades in the underworld because she ate its seeds. This is reinforced by setting of the tower within an abyss from which there is no escape. The viewer is trapped in a nightmare. Like Persephone, Masson appears caught in a metaphorical underworld derived from his war trauma.
In an image of swirling, intertwining, erotic forms, Masson mingles symbols of life and death. Two large figures can be deciphered, but both display elements of male and female genitalia. The female figure sits to the right, disemboweled, with a large shell-like vagina while her arm drapes across a phallic trunk. She leans back, an apple in her mouth to evoke the narrative of Adam and Eve, with its implications on both the origins of life and sexual temptation. The male figure's torso is also splayed as he tilts his head back, touching the female's shell (vagina) in an act of coital pleasure. From his open mouth emerges a flower, which scholar and curator Carolyn Lanchner has likened to a vulva; his genitals are thus central to the biological reproduction as "the entrance to life and the exit to death...the eternally recurring cycle." From the linked musculature of the two figures grows a flower, which art historian and author Martin Ries interprets as the production of a fertilized egg: "if her internal organs evoke the germinal force of fertilized seeds, does the growing flower represent their progeny?"
Posing a sharp contrast to these symbols of life and regeneration are the eviscerated torsos of both figures. Ries suggests that this juxtaposition is thus representative of the ongoing metamorphosis of the natural world; as one of Masson's favorite philosophers, Heraclitus, stated, "Out of life, comes death and out of death life...the stream of creation and dissolution never stops." Masson's piece is a meditation on humanity's unequivocal cycle of life, death and reproduction. The piece brims with juxtaposition and inner conflict between nihilism and optimism, and questions whether human existence is thoughtful and rational or simply animal.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on André Masson
- André MassonOur PickBy William Rubin and Carolyn Lanchner
- André MassonOur PickBy Dawn Ades
- André Masson: The Mythology of NatureOur PickBy Werner Spies, Didier Ottinger and Lucía Ybarra
- André Masson and the Surrealist SelfOur PickBy Clark V. Poling
- André Masson - The Mythology of Desire: MasterworksBy Valery Oisteanu / The Brooklyn Rail / June 2012
- André Masson's Tortured and Sensuous Automatic DrawingsBy Joseph Nachvatal / HYPERALLERGIC / July 19, 2016
- André Masson: Surrealist, Survivor, SageOur PickBy Martin Ries / Art and Education / 2009
- André Masson, One of Surrealism's Great ExponentsBy Burt A. Folkart / Los Angeles Times / Octoer 29, 1987
- André Masson: Surrealism and his discontentsOur PickBy Martin Ries / Art Journal, N.Y. / Vol. 61, 2002
- Surrealist Painter, André Masson: Sophocles, de Sade, and OedipusOur PickBy Martin Ries / Artes Magazine / January 19, 2015
- Masson's Pasiphaë: Eros and the Unity of the CosmosOur PickBy Doris A. Birmingham / The Art Bulletin / June 1987
- Painting is a WagerBy André Masson / Yale French Studies / 1964