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André Masson: A Brush Dipped in Fire

The unfairly neglected André Masson gets a major retrospective in a small French museum.

André Masson, Engloutissement, 1968

André Masson, Engloutissement, 1968,
oil on canvas, 130 x 162 cm.

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Despite the fact that he was among the first generation of Surrealists and produced a vast body of powerful work, André Masson is not very well known in the English-speaking art world. That may be because he never created a single signature style and stuck with it, or it may be because of his refusal to paint according to the dictates of André Breton or anyone else. Then again, it may be on account of relative the lack of exposure of his work through comprehensive exhibitions—which itself may be a consequence of the previous two reasons. In any case, a wonderfully comprehensive loan exhibition, “André Masson: une mythologie de l’être et de la nature,” is on view through October 27 at Le Musée d’Art Moderne de Céret, in the southern French town where Masson began his career with Cubistic landscapes in 1919.

In 1976, the Museum of Modern Art gave Masson a full-dress retrospective; at 80 (he would live 11 more years), he was the last of the major original Surrealists to get such a treatment, and it didn’t go over particularly well. Thomas Hess began his review in New York magazine with, “Did you ever have a lifetime when nothing seemed to go right?” And Harold Rosenberg, writing for The New Yorker, called the retrospective “an exhibition beset with problems.” While neither critic showed disrespect for Masson’s achievement, both opined that the sheer multifariousness of his work constituted a sort of failing. Hess went as far as to say that “somebody else always did better what Masson tried to do.” That is most unfair, as well as missing the point—Masson was not trying to crystallize a method that could then be adopted and used by other artists, at present or in the future, like, say, Cubism. Masson himself had used Cubism in the service of Surrealism during the 1920s.

No, what Masson was doing was trying to communicate the truth about the world as he saw it, using every method at his disposal. That truth could be horrifying; Masson’s paintings often convey a sense of the world being flayed, its surface peeled back to reveal a seething, monstrous interior. He was a keen reader of philosophy; his heroes were Nietzsche and Heraclitus, the Presocratic who conceived the world as composed of fire. A poem Masson wrote in 1936, after a transformative experience in which he and his wife spent a night lost on the top of a mountain in Catalonia, reads, “Everything must return to the original fire. Tempest of flames, as Heraclitus said….And you, Zarathustra, eye of light at the center of a world that is terrible and joyous, I salute you from the heights of Montserrat.” Masson had that eye of light.

He was also burned by the heat of the fire, even before he became an artist. At the age of 18, he joined the French army and saw harrowing service in World War I. In 1917, he was severely wounded and left behind by the stretcher-bearers, who could not get to him. Lying on his back, unable to move, he saw “the indescribable night of the battlefield, streaked in every direction by bright red and green rockets, striped by the wake and the flashes of the projectiles … The first nerve-shattering fright gives way to resignation and then, as delirium slips over you, it becomes a celebration performed for one about to die.” Emerging from the crucible of war, Masson was beset by what today would be called post-traumatic stress disorder. A concerned doctor told him, “Don’t ever live in cities,” and indeed for the rest of his life Masson’s greatest inspiration would come from working in close contact with nature, whose mysteries he was deeply attuned to.

Recovering from the war, Masson started to paint in a style strongly influenced by Cézanne. He spent a year living in Céret, “the Mecca of Cubism,” where Picasso and Braque had spent time in 1911–13, when they were creating the style. There Masson met his first wife and befriended fellow painter Chaïm Soutine. The current exhibition is organized into six sections, the first being devoted to the Céret period of Masson’s work. The Convent of the Capuchins (1919) is a typical example; abetted by the modeling of the planes, the red roofs of the whitewashed Mediterranean buildings blend with the trees and hills in which they are nestled, the human and the natural existing in harmony. At this stage, it was too early for Masson to confront in his art the horrors he had seen in life, and there is an entirely forgivable escapism about these paintings.

The next section of the exhibition is dedicated to Masson’s first great body of work, the “automatic” paintings and drawings he made in Paris in the 1920s. In 1923 he met André Breton, the Surrealist leader, but several months before that, Masson was already using the technique of automatism that the Surrealists championed. The Kites (1927) is all biomorphic shapes and curving lines suggesting both kite strings and air currents. The technique is abstract but the figurative subject matter is clearly visible. Automatism refers to drawing spontaneously while giving free rein to unconscious feelings and motives, and Masson embraced this way of working without intending to make it the core of his practice. “Obviously, I couldn’t be surreal every day,” he recalled. “It was a state of grace.”

Masson broke with Breton (as so many did, due to Breton’s autocratic personality) in 1928 and allied himself with Joan Miró as well as with independent literary Surrealists such as Michel Leiris. He relocated to the small town of Tossa de Mar near Barcelona. As the 1930s got underway, it was increasingly apparent that the world was headed back to war, and Masson’s works from the decade are full of fear and violence. The third section of the exhibition focuses on this important period. The Mower (1934) could be a pastoral scene, but its bright colors are acidic, and the figure’s burning heart of fire seems like it might consume him. Beneath the surface of the earth he plows are energies (Masson called them “telluric” forces) that could be destructive as well as vivifying. In Insect Matadors (1936), Masson adopts a fantastic-cartoonish style to allegorically depict a predatory, dehumanized world.

Masson’s greatest artistic statement from the ’30s is the grotesque, shocking Labyrinth (1938). The myth of Theseus and the Minotaur was one of Masson’s touchstones, and here he literally turns it inside out in a daring mapping of ancient symbolism onto modern reality. In the original story, the Minotaur, monstrous offspring of a white bull and the Cretan queen Pasiphaë, is imprisoned by Dedalus in the heart of a labyrinth, where Theseus tracks him down and kills him, aided by a thread provided by Ariadne. In this painting, the bull-headed man is flayed open to reveal that the labyrinth is inside him, instead of the other way around. Furthermore, the towering figure seems to be partly organic and partly architectural, containing within itself all the elements of a tottering civilization. Masson’s Minotaur appears triumphant, about to devour the world; where is the Theseus who can vanquish him?

With the coming of World War II, Masson was fortunate enough to be able to leave France for the United States, where he took refuge not in New York City but in New Preston, Connecticut, where his neighbors included Yves Tanguy and Kay Sage. Masson was extremely impressed with the natural beauty of this area, which he described as “the wild land of Chateaubriand,” referring to the early Romantic writer who set a famous novel, Atala, among the Indians in the North American forests. In small-town New England Masson found the inspiration for a new style of painting, in which he sought to depict the endless “flux and reflux” (as he put it in his Montserrat poem) of nature’s forces. The swirling colors and forms of Masson’s paintings from the war years take him to the edge of abstraction, and the “allover” quality of many of them recalls the work of Jackson Pollock, which was germinating about that time. There has been much debate about possible influence of Masson on Pollock, and the answer is not clear, but the visual affinity between the older artist and the younger one definitely is. The fifth section of the Céret show is dedicated to the New Preston paintings, while the fourth features paintings Masson made in Martinique, in the French West Indies, where he spent a brief time, in the company of Breton, Wifredo Lam, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, on his way to the U.S. in 1941.

The show’s final section covers Masson’s return to Europe in 1947, when he and his wife and children resettled in Le Tholonet, in Provence, where Cézanne had lived. Here Masson came full-circle, in a way, reconnecting with his artistic roots in rural France and drawing new inspiration from Cézanne, who had meant so much to him when he was starting out as a painter after the First World War. Masson’s works from the last phase of his career, while not as grippingly powerful as his earlier ones, exude a sense of serenity that was previously out of reach to him. He explored techniques taken from Chinese painting and infused his work with a Buddhist sensibility that in ways harks back to the automatism of the ’20s, a sort of working without consciously trying. Perhaps at last he had found the stillness in flux that Heraclitus spoke of.

By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: August 2019

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