Modern Painters, Summer 2004, p. 92-95                                             Back to Writing

The Breach of His Own Flesh

Deborah Rosenthal

Having experienced one of the most violent conflicts of the twentieth century, André Masson turned his wounds into his art

ANDRE MASSON WAS A PAINTER who achieved his most compelling work in a lyric mode. He was also a man with the drive, intelligence and nerve for a life and an achievement on the epic scale. Born at the end of the nineteenth century, he lived through most of the twentieth and was caught up in some of its greatest dramas. As a very young man he served in the First World War and barely escaped a premature death when he was left on the battlefield, his chest opened up by a massive wound. Though by all accounts his psychic scars remained after his lengthy physical recovery, Masson became an artist of seemingly unblocked energy who at his death in 1987, aged 91, left behind a huge output in all the media dear to the great School of Paris artists: painting, drawing, printmaking, collage, book illustration and theatre decor.
      A formidably verbal and articulate man, a vivid writer who had books' worth of things to say about his own art, Masson conducted his painterly researches—the hunt for new sources of form—through reading as much as through looking at the art of others. He satisfied his appetite for the metaphysical, for ontology, in the works of Heraclitus and Nietzsche, Frazer'sFOR ALL HIS EPIC AMBITIONS, MASSON HAD NO NOSTALGIA FOR ANY PERIOD, OR ANY USE FOR PAINTING THAT WAS NOT "ALL IN THE EYE"  The Golden Bough, and the texts of the Zen masters. In turn, the rich play of symbols and mythologies that underlay his work attracted some of the most prominent figures of the Parisian literary-artistic world: interpretive essays by the likes of Limbour, Bataille and Sartre fill the numerous exhibition catalogues and books published during his active career. In one of these essays, his longtime friend, the astute writer Michel Leiris, called Masson a 'painter who paints in order to think'. And Masson must have preferred this subtle characterisation to a phrase he so often warily mentioned—'literary painter'—that evoked the academicism of artists of his youth like Moreau and Rops. For all his epic ambitions, Masson had no nostalgia for any period, or any use for painting that was not 'all in the eye', as he said. Intellectually both of and against his own time, he was a star of Breton's Surrealist cadre who, having
André Masson, Les chevaux morts, 1927, oil and sand on linen, 46 x 55 cm. Courtesy Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Musée National d'Art Moderne/ Centre de creation industrielle
walked away from the political excesses the movement brought to its art, became known as the 'Rebel of Surrealism'. A romantic modern, Masson was not readily accepted by the French establishment—indeed, New York's Museum of Modern Art collected this most French of Surrealist painters before any museum in his native country—but the later decades of his life were filled with recognition both at home and abroad. Coming full circle, William Rubin organised a beautiful retrospective of Masson's work at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976, and gave him what is probably the most serious consideration of his work that has been accomplished.
      Masson's protean talent and large oeuvre force any retrospective to be partial, in both senses of the word. How, then, does a curator find an essential Masson? In Madrid, this question was given one of many possible answers by Josefina Alix, an independent curator: her retrospective (the first in 25 years), was focused only on Masson's paintings—some 100 of them—accompanied by a handful of drawings and a vitrine that held a few books. Though one chafed at the too-simple story line at the Reina Sofia (chronology was the primary principle of organisation), the show took up the essential threads of Masson's life and career.
     As a very young student, Masson had fallen in love with Poussin's work, thus pledging his allegiance to the traditional structures and narratives of French painting—to geometry and rhythm, to history, to mythology. In his first important non-apprentice pictures, he was a Cubist, implicating himself in the radical extension of Western painting's architectonic traditions. In small canvases like L'Oiseau Percé de Flèches of 1925, or Figure of the same year, Masson broke the decorum of the Cubist Cartesian coordinates with fragments seemingly torn from larger narratives—birds, a headless female torso—painted as radiant white-toned hypotenuses, plunging through the rectangle of the picture. These canvases are fragments of a world that Masson knew he could not see whole anymore. In these paintings, Masson replaces the logic of shared myths with mere shards of consciousness—emanations of a romantic sensibility. And though during this period he translates the violent disjunctures of Cubist collage into painted elements returned to a painted context, he is never one of the academic Cubists who attempted to put the vision of the painting all back together again, but cubed. Rather, for Masson, radical analysis became a permanent way of thinking: his lifelong cry, 'You must break the geometry of the composition', represented here by his disruptive hypotenuse, echoed down the decades of his compositions, with their open forms, their flow, their veering from the almost impossibly particular to an unmeasurable vastness.
     Line was the earliest and most important agent of Masson's image-making. Drawn with a brush so they wax and wane, his lines gash open the coloured fabric of his pictures to let us see the birth of the image, its coming into being. Though Masson's graphism—which puts him in the company of some of the great artists he wrote about—Goya, Blake, Redon and Klee—was represented in Madrid by only a handful of pages in black and white, his greatest gift was nevertheless everywhere. There is virtually no picture by Masson that could not
André Masson, Traité du désespoir, 1961, oil, sand and metallic paint on linen, 88 x 130 cm. Private collection, Paris. Courtesy MNCARS, Madrid
be called a drawing. The masterful weaving in and out of the plane which is always recognisably Masson was synthesised from two elements: his elegantly rhythmic hand, and the 'blind' automatic drawing he said he invented as a kind of doodle. What Gertrude Stein famously called Masson's 'wandering line' can go so far towards detaching itself from the contour of an object that a painting such as Les Promeneurs (1927) appears unmoored from representation altogether. Which is not to say that Masson allied himself with abstraction that simply took movement itself as its subject. When Masson told Matisse that, unlike the older painter, he always had to begin by drawing without the motif (i.e. an object) in front of him, we may be reminded instead of the figure-filled metaphoric abstraction of Paul Klee, the master whose art Masson came to know in the 1920s and eulogised on the occasion of his death in 1946. Klee's dictum, 'There are more truths unseen than seen', suggests the Nietzschean dichotomies that Masson's line would weave together. His is a world focused on births and deaths rather than on the broad middle of life. It is a world of metamorphoses, transformations, intoxications, and states of being—an art in which, as Klee says, 'All becoming is based on movement'.
      Masson's epic gifts included a genius for image-making. His ambitious bacchanales, combats and allegories take place underneath the water, or hidden in the depths of the grass, or on vast tracts of landscape. They depict human-like insects, landscapes constructed of bird- and fish-like shapes, and the human form reimagined as a city or labyrinth. The erotic drive of his line—which in its ubiquitous working away at the surface suggests an irritation or an impregnation or even an insemination of the paper or the canvas—analogises infinities. Masson captures the uncontainable energies of water and the uncountable blades of grass. When he detaches the element of colour from an enclosing contour, he multiplies the rhythms in the picture, as when the beautifully strong, simple strokes of his colour unfurl an entire landscape from the upright bodies of a few insects hidden in tall blades of grass. Or when Masson counterpoints wavery open lines and glued shapes of sand, with its all-colour, almost no-colour shimmer, he evokes water, with all its transparencies and depths and distances.
Corporeality is in the mind, if not on the surface, of every one of Masson's works. In his albums of drawings of mythologies and anatomies, he draws the figure over and over, and he gives us what is for him the plain nude, with nothing left to reveal: the skeleton. In the paintings, Masson constructed some of his most memorable images from the iconic, single human figure—the acéphale, a hero with head displaced to loins; the topographical-landscape body of the woman in Antille (1943); or the man-architecture of Le Labyrinthe (1938). But even these figures whom Masson 'dresses' in elaborate metaphors are at least partly flayed open to reveal a world of structures within. The integrity of their contours is broken—they are fragmentary. Their fragmentariness should not be mistaken for distortion, or the crudely mis-fit forms of Surrealist art. Masson celebrates a delicate process of growth and elaboration; serving as a sort of discreet midwife to his creations, he carefully fits together the disparate surfaces of the animal and vegetable and mineral realms, to shape the delectable hybrids in his Garden of Earthly Delights. He is a draftsman who is virtuosic enough to allow his line to turn plain, sometimes even ugly, in a painting such as Le Labyrinthe. Here he uses a line like a crinkly Magic-Marker contour, or an even plainer line, like a fractal measurement increasing actual distances by dint of its very multitudinousness. This line curls, retracts, sprouts many offshoots of itself, to the point of disgusting us with its suggestions of enormities of increase or decay. But in Le Labyrinthe Masson uses such contours with a firmness and precision that reduces the overheatedness of the image, and gives it a kind of simple matter-of-factness, so that we finally feel that this is no vision, but that the artist somehow had this strangely tender monster-man whole in front of him as he painted.
      Masson's many retreats and engagements with the world included a forced absence from France. In 1941, having been a vocal critic of Franco, and married to a Jewish woman, the artist fled with his wife and children to the United States, where they waited out the war. Having immediately gone on from New York—it was 'impossible'—to live in rural Connecticut, Masson stayed put there for the most part; though he exhibited in America, and gave some lectures, he seems to have been rather isolated,
André Masson, Paysage iroquois (detail), 1942, oil on linen,
77.5 x 101.5 cm. Private collection. Courtesy MNCARS, Madrid
in a kind of hibernation. In the long letters sent to his dealer Kahnweiler, we hear a man lonesome for the home he has in his own language, his head full of dreams and memories. But standing in his garden in Connecticut—as we see him in a snapshot—he may have felt, too, a little like a new Adam. Masson absorbed the new light, and saw new sights around him. He was especially sensitive to the startling and spectacular North American autumn, with its clamorous show. The Chateaubriandish attitude he'd brought to America—everything was so fertile, so big, so new—yielded a bit to his own keenness for origin stories, and his artist's instinct for the old, and further, for the archaic. Living in an area where there had historically been an Indian settlement, he began imagining an ongoing Indian presence residing in the flora and fauna of the local forests. He had his American myth.
      The American period yielded a large body of work, including a number of Masson's masterpieces. In some of these works—Meditation on an Oak Leaf (1942), Meditation of the Painter (1943) and Iroquois Landscape (1942), Masson lays down a dark, virtually black, ground, and paints on it with jewel-toned hues. His line thins to a vividly coloured membranous edge, an umbilical cord swirling around and into a Wordsworthian whorl of wild and natural forms. The small scale and dark grounds of these paintings invite us to look into them, and their stained-glass colour suggests a kind of inner light; in some of them lit-up animal eyes peer back out at us, as if from a dark cave. Like lyric poems, they both hide and reveal their author. The 'Indian' pictures seem to me epochal in their answer to the whiteness of his earliest Cubist works: lightness or buoyancy—analogising perhaps both Apollonian and Dionysian intoxication—is now a function of hue rather than just tone. In this use of a full chromaticism free of local, descriptive colour, Masson makes way for the wonderful saturated fields of colour in his later work.
      Masson returned to France in 1945. 'If painting is going to end, it will end in France', he said. He was barely 50 and in his full maturity. The extraordinarily productive decades to come were hardly represented in the Madrid exhibition. They were years when Masson kept finding new ways to represent all the transformations that he had always believed to be the basis of his becoming. And displacement continued to stimulate memory. A wartime encounter with the Asian collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts sent Masson off to one of the distant origins of drawing: immersing himself in Zen painting and calligraphy, he discovered the picture as writing, through writing as picture. In the radical distillations of calligraphy Masson found a heightened version of his own drawing. Returning to an opened contour that recalls his automatic drawing, he arrived at a new tautness, in images seemingly urged out of the interstices between drawn signs. At the same time, by reversing his own youthful journey into Cubism, he revisited the coloured atmospheres of Impressionism and the Venetians, and arrived at the saturated, dazzlingly hue-soaked grounds of his great 1950s Migrations series. In these small-scaled epics of the twentieth century's upheavals, Masson flings across their grounds a newly simple but exquisitely vibrating calligraphy, which subsumes in the purest lyricism a grand movement of many figures.
      Masson never forgot that he had almost lost everything in the beginning, and his life was shadowed by the wound that he had received in the First World War and by the physical restlessness that had made the doctors tell him, 'Never live in a city again'. This Surrealist who cast a sceptical eye on the psychoanalytic view of neuroses might have said that this wound was the scar that marked his birth as a poet. The scar, the breach of his own flesh, was an opening into experience—and Masson chose to open it again and again. The wound inspired Masson's violent self-analysis—and a life dedicated to the pure poetry of sensual images.

André Masson (1896-1987) was at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, from 29 January to 19 April.

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