Andre Masson (1896-1987)
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The classically trained French painter, printmaker and designer Andre Masson was one of the leading figures within the Surrealism movement, which dominated modern art in Europe during the interwar years. He was a pioneer of Automatism in art, and exploited chance and accident as part of his creative technique. However, although active in the movement and a close friend of Joan Miro (1893-1983) and Max Ernst (1891-1976) - two of the leading Surrealist artists - he remained his own man, borrowing motifs and ideas from Cubism and other trends within the Ecole de Paris. Indeed, after joining the Surrealist group in 1922-3, he then left it in 1929 to focus on the human condition. Later, as a refugee from Occupied France, he made a notable contribution to Abstract Expressionist painting in America. A talented draftsman, Masson's work is characterized by the use of sinuous lines in the style of biomorphic abstraction. As an individual, he was emotionally scarred by his experiences during the First World War, when he was seriously wounded, and he remained a pessimistic person with a restless curiosity in the destiny of Man and the nature of the Universe. He devoted much of his painting and printmaking to the exploration of these concerns, focusing on themes of violence and pain, as well as eroticism, self-sacrifice and the precarious nature of human life.
Born Andre-Aime-Rene Masson in Balagny-sur-Therain, Oise, he was raised in Belgium, where he first studied art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels in 1907, under Constant Montald. In 1911, at the recommendation of his teachers, he travelled to Paris for further study. In 1915 he was drafted into the French Army and fought at the Somme. In 1920, after a spell in the south of France, he settled in Paris where he took up painting in a studio close to Miro and Jean Dubuffet (1901-85).
Although he would soon be drawn to Surrealism, Masson's earliest pictures (1922-23) were modelled on the work of Andre Derain (1880-1954), and (a little while later) Analytical Cubism. He continued to use Cubist motifs in many of his early paintings, so it was appropriate that Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler - Picasso's original agent - organized Masson's first solo exhibition at the Galerie Simon in Paris (1923). One visitor to the show was Andre Breton, who purchased The Four Elements (1923, Private Collection), and promptly invited Masson to join the new Surrealist group.
Andre Masson was a relatively early convert to the emerging Surrealist tendency. From 1923, attracted by the movement's focus on Automatism in art, he produced a number of automatic pen and ink drawings, by letting his hand move rapidly over the paper, forming a web of lines out of which images began to emerge, which Masson either left alone or developed further. In the clearest examples of this type of drawing there is an unusual coherence, a textural unity. Others have signs of sexual imagery, such as entwined bodies. The effect of these automatic drawings on his oil paintings - up to this point, relatively inflexible, downbeat, and heavily indebted to Cubism - was immediate: his oils became much looser. During this period Masson resorted to other less formal methods to suppress his conscious state and thus get closer to his subconscious mind. Either he would go for days without sleep or else turn to drugs. Two of his early drawings were reprinted in the first issue of Revolution Surrealiste (December 1924).
Masson's other contribution to surrealist automatism dates from 1927 and involved a series of sand paintings (cf. sand art) made using chance as a substitute for conscious control. He began by spreading a canvas haphazardly with areas of glue. Next he tossed handfuls of sand onto the canvas, tipping the canvas to ensure that it retained only the sand that adhered to to the glue. Finally, at great speed he added lines or patches of paint (sometimes direct from the tube) to the canvas. The result was a series of random configurations, textures and patterns. In the beginning, the images tended to be exceptionally brutal. And as they became more specific, horrific creatures tended to emerge.
In 1929, despite the fact that his (and Miro's) abstract paintings continued to be highly rated by fellow surrealists, Masson felt somewhat restricted by Breton's theories. As a result, he left mainstream Surrealism (Breton claims he expelled Masson) to join a rival group of modern artists led by Georges Bataille (1897-1962), the editor of the art journal Documents. Bataille also shared Masson's fascination with violence and eroticism. During the 1930s, Masson's imagery became less intense, though less evocative.
From 1930-37, Masson alternated between the south of France and Spain, until the Spanish Civil War forced him to remain in France. During this period he experimented with ideas from Greek mythology, Spanish literature and the Spanish Civil War, in which images of massacres prevailed - see, for instance, the painting Massacre (1933, Private Collection), and the illustrations Mithra, Osiris and Minotaur (1936). In addition, in 1936 he produced a set of stage designs and costumes for the ballet Les Presages, choreographed by Leonide Massine, after which he completed designs for Hamsun's La Faim (1939), Cervantes's Numance (1937) and Milhaud's Medea (1940).
In 1937, with war approaching, Masson returned to Paris and was reconciled with Andre Breton. At the same time, perhaps influenced by the representational art of fellow surrealists Salvador Dali (1904-89), Rene Magritte (1898-1967), and to a lesser extent Yves Tanguy (1900-55), Masson's painting - at least for a couple of years - became more figurative.
In the early 40s, Masson sought refuge in the United States, settling in New Preston, Connecticut. Once again moved by the horror of war, he reverted to more "automatic" procedures. He and his work had a significant impact on Arshile Gorky (1904-48) and through him on the Abstract Expressionism of the New York School, especially Jackson Pollock's paintings. In particular, Masson's use of automatism seems to have influenced Pollock's unique trance-like style of action painting. In addition, Masson returned to mythical imagery, showing great interest in themes and myths drawn from American Indian art and Pre-Columbian art.
In 1946 Masson returned to France and settled in Aix-en-Provence, where he focused on landscape painting. He also showed a growing interest in Impressionism, and Chinese art, including a style of calligraphy. He began using pastels and a more luminous palette. In addition to painting, he was also involved in colour lithography, and book illustration and a number of designs for the theatre. His most prestigious commission came from the French culture minister Andre Malraux in 1965: it involved the ceiling of the Theatre de l'Odeon in Paris. Seen alongside Picasso as a major contributor to Surrealism (despite himself), he received major retrospectives in Basel (1950) and New York (1976).
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