masson André Masson ★

André Masson

(1896 – 1987)

Painter, graphic artist, engraver, illustrator, sculptor, monumentalist.

Born in Balagny-sur-Thérain, France.

1908 – finished drawing courses at the Brussels School of Decorative Arts and enrolled at the Arts Academy.

1912-14 – attended the Paris École des Beaux-Arts.

1915-17 – fought at the front.

1941-5 – lived in the USA.

Died in Paris.


Detailed Biography

Andre Masson was born in Balagny-sur-Thérain, France, on January 4,1896.

He spent childhood in Brussels, where his father served. At 11 Andre began to attend the Académie Royale de Beaux-Arts and l’École des Arts Decoratifs. In 1912 Masson enrolled in the Paris École Superieure des Beaux-Arts, where he studied fresco painting at Paul Baudoin’s studio. With an Academy grant, he set out to Italy and Switzerland.

In his youth Masson was enthusiastic about Impressionism and Symbolism, Art nouveau and the popular ideas of Nietzsche and Wagner. When France entered the First World War in 1914, the general patriotic mood and the desire to experience the “Wagnerian aspects of battle” and the ecstasy of death prompted Masson to volunteer for the front.

He did feel the ecstasy of death in full measure, when in April 1917 he lay, gravely wounded, all through the night in the blood-drenched battlefield of Aisne on the Chemin des Dames, until the stretcher-bearers could rescue him the following day. His chest wound was so serious that Masson had to spend two years in hospitals, and even stay at a psychiatric clinic to treat the consequences of shell-shock. For the rest of his life Masson would have to endure physical pain, nightmares and insomnia. His doctor recommended that he stay away from large cities and lead a life of peace. Masson heeded only partially: he frequently lived in Paris and now and then went to the provinces or abroad. Legend has it that his mother was a foundling of Gypsy descent, the fact used by his friends to explain his frequent movements and change of address.

A Throw of the Dice André Masson ★

A Throw of the Dice, 1922, oil on canvas, 37⅛x25¼, Essen Museum, Germany.

In April 1919 Masson went to Céret in southwestern France, known as the birthplace of Cubism. Andre Derain, Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris and many other artists worked there from 1905. The landscapes done by Masson during that period show strong influence of Cézanne and Van Gogh, other works bespeak of Post-Cubist impact. In Céret Masson met a young modiste Odette Cabale, who became his wife. Expecting the birth of their daughter Lily, the young couple returned to Paris, counting on parental support.

In Paris Masson quickly made friends with young writers and artists. In 1921-2 his studio at 45 Rue Blomet, in the vicinity of Juan Miró’s studio, became a center of attraction for a group of artists, including Leiris, Salacrou, Limbour and Artaud. During the same period he met the American writers – Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, who was a patron of young artists. They were among the first to buy Masson’s works. Thus, in 1922 Hemingway acquired from the artist’s studio a signal picture, A Throw of the Dice, in which Masson portrayed artists of his circle.

The Crows André Masson ★

The Crows, 1922, oil on canvas, 92x73 cm. Private collection, Le Havre.

His early works, especially of 1922-3, on the forest theme testify to André Derain’s influence and those of late 1923 were done under the impact of analytical Cubism.

In 1924 Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the famous art dealer, organized the first solo exhibition of Masson at his Galérie Simon. The exposition attracted the attention of André Breton, who purchased Les Quatre Éléments (1923-4) and invited Masson to join his group of Surrealists. Soon after that exhibition Breton published his Surrealist Manifesto that same year.

Influenced by the Surrealist ideas, both Masson and Miró began to experiment with “automatic drawing”. Two such works were reproduced in the first issue of La Révolution surréaliste almanac in December 1924. The ideas of “automatism” were carried on in the so-called sand pictures, in which “automatic” drawing was put on the canvas with glue, to which colored sand was then added. The sand picture Battle of Fishes (1927) is most characteristic of this period. On Giacometti’s advice Masson took up plaster molding in 1927.

In 1928-9 Masson decided that “automatism” restricted his potentialities and set his eyes on biomorphic abstractions. That led to differences with Breton, who held an authoritarian sway over the group members and declared Masson ousted from the Surrealists. In 1929 André Masson and his wife Odette parted.

In the early 1930s Masson lived and worked in Grasse, Provence. In 1932 he met Henri Matisse. He designed scenery and costumes for Les Presages production by the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo, premiered on April 13, 1933. Between 1931 and 1934 violence and eroticism are the dominant themes of Masson’s works (the Massacres series of drawings with liniatures and Summer Pastimes series); he is also interested in ancient Greek myths.

On February 6, 1934 Paris became the scene of mass disorders staged by ultra-Right anti-parliamentary armed units, in the course of which 16 people were killed and two thousand wounded. Masson, who had a foreboding of another war, wanted to leave France for the time being and decided to go to neighboring Spain. He was accompanied by Rose Maklès, sister of the wife of his best friend and well-known author Georges Bataille. In December 1934 André and Rose got married, and in June 1935 their son Diego was born. The following year they had another son, Luis.

The two year in Spain proved a veritable ordeal: an exchange of fire and riots never seemed to stop in Barcelona. All that reminded Masson of the horrors experienced in the First World War. Shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War in Spain the Masson family returned to France.

In the Tower of Sleep 300x242 André Masson ★

In the Tower of Sleep, 1938, oil on canvas, 32x39½, Baltimore Museum of Art, Sadie A. May Collection.

Upon his return Masson resumed friendship with Breton. The second Surrealist period in Masson’s work began in 1937. In January 1938 he contributed to the International Surrealist Exposition of Paris. His passion for ancient myths found expression in his pictures of the Minotaur and in the Labyrinth.

Sigmund Freud’s essay “Delusions and Dreams in Jensen’s Gradivawas translated into French in 1931 and largely influenced the Surrealists. The latter adopted Freud’s revelations about “medication of love” for woman as their program, and Gradiva as their Ideal Woman. Gradiva could intercede between the real and the surreal, creation and destruction, life and death. In 1939 Masson produces his Gradiva, showing half-woman, half-marble statue from the Vatican Museums. The theme of Gradiva can be found in works by other Surrealists, in Breton’s essay and Freud’s writings as a myth of metamorphosis and regeneration of life. Nowadays too the image of Ideal Woman is on the minds of the intellectuals. The film C’est Gradiva qui vous appelle (2006) by the famous French author Robbe-Grillet is another impressive pronouncement on this theme.

Gradiva André Masson ★

Gradiva, 1939, oil on canvas, 34½x48½, Collection Parti, Paris.

Masson developed the theme in his La rêve d’Ariane (1941), which betokens the mysteries of female organs, just as the shell-vulva in Gradiva is associated with water and Venus, sources of fertility and symbols of one generation rising from the death of the preceding.

Le R%C3%AAve d%E2%80%99Ariane André Masson ★

Le Rêve d’Ariane, 1941, ink on paper, 19⅝x25¾, collection of Francois Odermatt, Paris.

His Goethe and the Metamorphosis of Plants (1940) is likewise loaded with philosophical meaning. Masson was primarily interested in Goethe as a scientist, who studied mineralogy, anatomy, botany and the theory of color. Like Masson, Goethe knew that the sensation of color was a psychological and sensual experience of the mind; he regarded his “Theory of Color” as proof against Newtonian optics.

When German troops invaded Paris, the Masson family had to flee because Masson’s art was pronounced degenerate, because the Surrealists had ties with the Communist Party and because Masson’s wife was Jewish. They went first to Auvergne and then to Marseille.

A group of Americans founded a European Rescue Committee. Varian Fry, who helped Jews and Germans blacklisted by the Nazi authorities to escape to the USA, arrived in France. A total of about 4,000 scientists and cultural figures, including Marc Chagall, André Breton, Max Ernst, Jacques Lipchitz and Lion Feuchtwanger, were rescued. Together with a group of volunteers, Fry hid the refugees at a villa in a Marseille environ, and then took them via Spain to neutral Portugal, or shipped them from Marseille to Martinique and from there on to the USA. Hiram Bingham, the American vice consul in Marseille, helped to procure American entry visas.

Goethe and the Metamorphosis of Plants 300x187 André Masson ★

Goethe and the Metamorphosis of Plants, 1940, oil on canvas, 28¾x45⅝, Vera and Arturo Schwarz Collection, Israel Museum, Jerusalem

André Masson and his family were thus taken to the USA in 1941. Hardly had their rescue journey come to an end, when Masson had to face another ordeal: when they were entering the US, customs officers tore to pieces five of his drawings (that they thought to be pornographic) right in front of the artist’s eyes.

The Masson family settled in New Preston, Connecticut. Although Masson had never studied English, he began to read lectures on contemporary French art, attended conferences and published articles during his stay in the USA. In 1941 his solo exhibition was held at the Baltimore Museum of Art. His works were also exhibited in New York and South Hedley, Mass.

American critic Clement Greenberg stated that Masson’s visit to America played a pivotal role in the development of Abstract Expressionism in New York. Masson’s influence is felt in the works of Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky. In the USA Masson got interested in Chinese art, which is broadly represented in the Metropolitan Museum of New York and the Boston Museum in Massachusetts.

Meditation on an Oak Leaf 247x300 André Masson ★

Meditation on an Oak Leaf, 1942, tempera, pastel, sand on canvas, 40x33, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

With the end of the war the Masson family returned to France, where they lived for a while with Rose’s sister Simone.

In 1947 they moved to Aix-en-Provence in southern France and lived there until 1955.

A series of retrospective and solo exhibitions of Masson were staged in European galleries and museums. Curiously enough, the exhibition “Terre erotique” (Erotic Earth) on Vendome Square was shut down by the police. A large retrospective, “André Masson and Alberto Giacometti”, took place in Basel, Switzerland, in 1950. Masson won Grand Prix National for painting in 1954.

In 1951 Masson visited Venice. An album of colored lithographs VeniceTrip (1952) and a wonderful series of Italian landscapes came as a result of his several trips to Italy.

In the mid-1950s calligraphic forms derived from Chinese and Japanese ideograms began to appear in Masson’s works; he was drawn to the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. Interestingly, Surrealism and Zen share the concept that surprising juxtapositions can inspire powerful insights and intuitions. That period is described as “Asian” in Masson’s work. Simultaneously Masson is attracted to Impressionism and shows interest in Turner and Claude Monet.

In Pursuit of Hatchings and Germinations 300x198 André Masson ★

In Pursuit of Hatchings and Germinations, 1967, oil, sand on canvas, 39⅜x59, Mobilier National, Paris.

In 1964 on a commission from the French Culture Ministry Masson painted the ceiling at the Parisian Théatre Odéon. In the following years Masson engaged in book illustration and stage design.

In 1976 New York’s Museum of Modern Art honored Masson with a retrospective of his works. Four years later he quit painting for health reasons. In early 1987 the Hayward Gallery of London showed a large exhibition of drawings of André Masson, who personally attended the show. He died in Paris in October 1976 aged 91.





La Révolution Surréaliste

Un nomade à Paris, André Masson. Musée du Montparnasse 2010

Omaggio a André Masson. Voyage en Italie. Cleto Polcina, Arte Moderna. 1984