André Masson - Biography and Legacy
French Painter and Draughtsman
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.
Masson's childhood encouraged unconventional thought. In particular, his mother was a French teacher who promoted unusual texts that would later become important to the Surrealists and were considered scandalous at the time. While his father was more conservative in his beliefs, he did not interfere with Masson's artistic ambitions.
Early Training and Work
Through the efforts of his mother and the quality of his drawings, Masson was admitted to the Brussels Académie des Beaux-Arts at age eleven, which was much younger than usual. He studied under the Belgian painter and sculptor Constant Montald, whose method of mixing glue with water and pigment proved very influential for Masson's later technique. He also took a side job making embroidery designs, which meant his days were filled with study and work.
In his limited free time, Masson read insatiably. He was fascinated by the Quattrocento and the work of the Renaissance masters, along with fin-de-siècle artists like Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Cézanne. He saw a continuum between the two, remarking when he first James Ensor's Christ in the Midst of the Storm, that "contemporary painting could be as extraordinary as the old masters!"
His interests continued include the modern (he was shocked by Cubism when he first encountered the works of Picasso and Braque) and the traditional (he traveled to northern Italy in 1914 to study fresco painting). Masson also traveled to Switzerland and became fascinated with the philosophical writings of Frederich Nietzsche, which profoundly affected his personal life.
He returned to Paris in 1915 and joined the French army, enduring the violence, trauma and death of World War I trench warfare. He was discharged in 1917 after suffering a severe chest injury; he spent months recovering in military hospitals and spent time in a psychiatric facility. While the experience of being at war was not something Masson often explicitly spoke about, it was the root of the very violent imagery in his work and remained with him for his entire life. After his discharge, he met his wife, Odette Cabalé, and the two relocated to Paris.
In Paris, Masson began making pottery at a studio center for veterans with disabilities. He also took up work with the Journal Officiel. His work from these postwar years featured erotic, sometimes pornographic content that varied widely in style and technique. The founder of the Surrealist movement, André Breton, would later call this Masson's 'erotic period' and believed it to be key to understanding his entire oeuvre.
According to the writer Malcolm Haslam, Masson hosted regular gatherings in his Paris studio at 45 rue Blomet. Here, along with Antonin Artaud, Michel Leiris, Joan Miró, Georges Bataille, Jean Dubuffet, and Georges Malkine, the group experimented with altered states of consciousness, smoking hashish and opium added to wine and music, discussing writers central to the developing Surrealist movement: Nietzsche, Arthur Rimbaud, Comte de Lautréamont, and even the Marquis de Sade.
While vast and divergent in many ways, this group of works shared themes of deep uncertainty and humanity's coexistence with nothingness, ideas drawn from Nietzsche. This philosophy also featured themes of metamorphosis and argued for the changeable nature of organic existence, ideas that would become increasingly important to Masson's art.
In 1921, Masson met fellow artist Joan Miró through their mutual friend, Max Jacobs. Masson and Miró immediately began a friendship that would be influential to both of their careers. The group of artists often met at a studio on the rue Blomet that became a place of intellectual and artistic knowledge, discussion and exploration. Visitors included Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and the playwright Armand Salacrou, who were some of the first buyers of Masson's work.
In 1923, Masson was offered a contract by Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, a notable art dealer. Although it was not (yet) highly paid, this opportunity allowed Masson to focus solely on his art career. The following years, which encompassed both the Dada movement and the birth of Surrealism, proved some of the most exciting and successful of Masson's career. His style was changeable, and he began to experiment with automatic methods of working, often incorporating motifs from ancient Greek and Roman mythology.
During the 1930s, Masson's work grew increasingly violent and disturbing. His 1930s series of slaughterhouse paintings, built on the art historical legacy of Chaim Soutine's Carcass of Beef (early 1920s) and Rembrandt's Slaughtered Ox (1655), but brought new brutality and sexual associations to the depictions of flesh and meat. It is speculated that this may have been due to his turbulent personal life at the time. Following a 1929 divorce, he met his second wife, Rose, broke with the Surrealist group and moved out of Paris to establish a more solitary life in St-Jean-de-Grasse. He then relocated to Spain, only returning to France in 1936 after witnessing atrocities in the years prior to the Spanish Civil War. Once back in France, he reconciled with Breton and the Surrealists.
In 1941, Masson and his family sought and secured political asylum in the United States, as did many of the Surrealists. Masson's time in America transformed and revitalized his work, introducing new variety in subject matter, style and motifs. He began to focus more on abstractions from nature, alongside his fascination with metamorphosis and cosmic unity. In 1943, Masson underwent his final split from Breton, however he continued to experiment with Surrealism as a style.
With the end of World War II, Masson and his family were able to return to France in 1945. During a trip through the south of France, Masson became highly interested in southeastern Asian art and Taoism. His work became increasingly existential, conveying a sense of universal fusion through abstractions of natural landscapes. He remained based in Paris but traveled back and forth to a country house in Aix. In 1965, he was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Odéon-Théâtre de France and although he was thrilled to complete the project, it proved to be taxing for the aging artist and it was his last major work. This large circular installation, featuring classical figures like Agamemnon and Shakespearean characters like Falstaff, was celebrated as a triumph. The actor Jean-Louis Barrault was said to have declared, "At last we have a sun over our heads." His later career included a series of landscape themes and non-objective paintings. Masson died at his home in Paris in 1987.
The Legacy of André Masson
Masson tackled many of the concepts central to Surrealism and established new ways of representing traditional themes trauma, angst, violence, sex, and death with modern imagery. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre credited him with "retracing a whole mythology of metamorphoses: (transforming) the domain of the mineral, the domain of the vegetable and the domain of the animal into the domain of the human."
Masson's work influenced numerous 20th-century artists, the most prolific being Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Pollock's Action Painting in particular drew on Masson's experimental use of the automatic technique. Additionally, his use of block coloration and abstraction of form also strongly influenced other artists within the New York School. The practice of automatism has continued to resurface and remains an influence on contemporary art.
Masson's work was also of importance because of its eclectic and multifaceted nature. He experimented with different styles and techniques, so that although he is primarily associated with Surrealism, his work advanced perspectival elements found in Cubism and popularized the use of automatic methods of mark-making that channeled unconscious impulses into visual images. His long career included tremendous range, but featured deeply emotional transparency that allowed viewers to understand the emotional effects of war trauma.