Published: March 19, 2002
Works from the Gotlieb Collection
By Jeffrey White
CHESTNUT HILL, MASS. – For more than 60 years, André Masson created a startlingly prolific body of work – paintings, prints, drawings and book illustrations – that at once adhered to the surrealist principal of reality outside reason yet often pushed the boundaries of the form into new and unique areas.
But Masson is still relatively unknown among the surrealist artists who began working in the 1920s and 1930s. Even after his death in 1987 at age 91, his work tends to be trumped by that of his contemporaries, Salvador Dalí and Joan Mirò, for instance.
Over the last 10 years, however, there has been a growing attention on Masson’s work among scholars, with several European and American exhibitions focusing on Masson’s paintings from particular periods in his career.
Michael Parke-Taylor, a Masson expert and curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, says that focus on Masson’s paintings usually was at the expense of his other work. “His prints got relatively short shrift,” he says.
That is, until now. For the first time, a comprehensive exhibit of more than 90 of Masson’s prints and illustrations, from the private collection of former Canadian ambassador to the United States Allan Gotlieb, is available for public view.
“André Masson : Works from the Gotlieb Collection,” which covers Masson’s prints and illustrations from 1924 to 1960, is on view at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College through April 28.
“I think part of the problem is that because [Masson] never fixed on a signature style…that may have hurt him in the long run in terms of people not being able to grasp a hold of who he was,” says Parke-Taylor, who curated the McMullen Museum exhibit.
But the prints and illustrations on display at McMullen offer little help to anyone looking to pin down Masson, though they are well organized to give the visitor an understanding of the major periods of Masson’s career.
While the works on exhibit certainly speak to Masson’s involvement in the surrealist movement, many of Masson’s images go well outside surrealism and focus on other concerns: politics, mythology, the natural world and images of other cultures.
Paris In The 1920s
Reeling from the devastation of the First World War, and suspicious of the uneasy peace that followed it, European artists in the 1920s started to search for new, unconventional ways to depict what they referred to as the true function of thought.
Automatism was the answer: place a brush or a pencil onto a canvas and let the mind take over. Strokes and lines ran free until they coalesced into what artists saw as a complete rendering of the imagination.
Leading this new school was André Brenton, a Parisian artist greatly influenced by Dr Sigmund Freud and the idea that the essence of human life lay outside the realm of conscious thought. Brenton at the time was advancing the form of automatic writing, where one quickly recorded every thought that passed through one’s mind without thinking about form or logic.
In 1924, Brenton summarized the essence of his new movement in his Surrealist Manifesto: “Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.”
It was in 1924 that a then 28-year-old Masson met Brenton. Masson had studied at the Ècole des Beaux Arts, and in the early 1920s was painting mostly landscapes. Masson began to use some of Brenton’s techniques, incorporating automatism into his drawing.
Masson’s automatic drawings quickly found a home in the surrealist movement.
It is with these early drawings that the McMullen exhibit starts. In these works, Masson concerns himself with eroticism, and his images are often violent and charged with sexuality. The artist often contributed his drawings to the poetic and erotic surrealist literature of the time. The drawings were never supposed to complement the prose so much as to almost work against it to create a dialogue between words and images.
Masson’s four drawings for Robert Desnos’s (1904-45) erotic work C’est les Bottes de 7 Lieues show renderings of sexual figures: In one, a sweeping image of a horse’s head, breasts, fruit, a dove and human hands.
By the late 1920s, Masson began to distance himself to his surrealist contemporaries and in 1928 he broke with the movement after a falling out with Brenton over artistic control.
But the McMullen exhibit shows that over his career, Masson continually returned his surrealist roots.
From 1931-1933 Masson produced a series of violent and erotic drawings called “The Massacres.” In “L’homme au Couteau,” Masson leaves off the head of a knife-wielding man, creating an image of the anonymous, brutal urges that lie beyond the power of reason.
In another “Massacre” image, a woman’s trusting gesture is contrasted with the look of a crazed, knife-wielding, bald man intent on killing her.
Masson’s work from the 1930s on exhibit also shows an artist increasingly interested in mythology. He uses his automatic style in the retelling of some popular Middle Eastern and Greek myths like those of Orpheus, Diomedes and the Minotaur.
In several illustrations for Georges Batailles’s Sacrifices, Masson explores themes of sacrifice, Eros and death through the myths of Middle Eastern and Greek gods who die.
The Spanish Civil War
Masson’s work in the late 1930s starts to concern itself increasingly with politics. The fascist riots in Paris on February 6, 1934 prompted Masson and his wife to flee to Spain. There, Masson became politically involved with the Republican government’s attempts to institute social reforms.
When Francisco Franco’s Nationalist Party launched its coup in 1936, the Republican government quickly destabilized. While Masson returned to Paris in 1936 to escape the fighting, he watched as Franco’s regime slowly supplanted the Republican government in Madrid, wiping out many of the social reforms that had barely started to take effect under the ousted government.
In one of Masson’s more telling and symbolic images in the McMullen exhibit, “L’Espagne Assassinée,” a large bird claws at its own eye with a giant talon, and blood pours out of it, a metaphor of how Franco’s regime blindly attacked their own people.
Exile In America
When Germany invaded and occupied France in 1939, Masson and many of his former surrealist contemporaries, including Brenton, fled to the United States. Masson settled with his family in New Preston, Conn., and began once again to collaborate with Brenton.
Some of Masson’s images on exhibit from the early 1940s show a continuing commentary on politics and war and what he saw as the inevitability that man would eventually destroy his own species. In Masson’s sweeping “Rêve d’un futur désert,” we see a landscape devoid of vegetation, asteroids bomb the Earth and a futuristic city takes on the shape of so many skulls. Masson’s experiences as a soldier during the First World War, and later with the Spanish Civil War, led him to believe man would eventually turn everything to desert.
But this concern for the natural world was made manifest in other, non-political works. During his time in America, Masson also started to focus on images of nature, and some Native American myths about it.
Wheat is a central image in works like “Le génie de l’espèce” and corn is used in “La Légende du Maïs,” a rendering of the legend of the Native American corn maiden.
Postwar Europe And Beyond
Masson returned to Europe in the late 1940s, and quickly shifted back to some of the themes he favored before World War II: a lot of half violent, half sexual images of human encounters with mythic looking beings.
Works on exhibit like “Etres Encheuetres” and “Hesperide,” show Masson still remaining loyal to the early, automatic style of his work. But in others, such as “L’oeuf cosmique,” Masson shows that he has gained more skill in the printmaking process. He begins using several different colors to make, in this case, a swirling image of the world beyond creation.
“Masson was one of those artists that got very interested in the work of other artists and could absorb that into his own work,” says Parke-Taylor of the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Some of Masson’s later works in the McMullen exhibit show this to be true. In the early 1950s, Masson begins to produce more travel pieces and landscapes in the tradition of Claude Monet and J.M.W. Turner, creating prints of Venice, and the Italian and French landscapes.
Some of the more compelling works on exhibit from these years incorporate Chinese and Japanese ideograms. While in the United States, Masson had the chance to view an Asian art exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and quickly saw the connection between Zen Buddhism and surrealism.
In some of his works, like “Acteurs Chinois” and “Message de Mai,” Chinese calligraphic forms are dominant.
The last few of Masson’s works on display at the McMullen exhibit seem to have been chosen so that, although the artist pushed the boundaries of surrealism from 1924 to 1960, he could never break completely away from it.
Nor did he want to.
By the end, the visitor has watched as Masson’s early work, rife with mythological images of sex and violence, gradually evolve into political and social concerns about the relationship between man and nature, and the struggle of man against the confines of reason.
Yet, in one of the last images, Masson depicts the feast of the Greek god Pan. Pan was a half-human, half-goat god who routinely deceived people and was known for his unbridled sexuality, not unlike some of themes evident in Masson’s “Massacres” of the early 1930s.
While the McMullen exhibit does not make Masson any easier to categorize, it is faithful to the idea that an artist can grow and evolve while continually drawing support and insight from a solid foundation. In Masson’s case, that foundation was surrealism and the fight against rational thought.
The McMullen Museum of Art is located in Devlin Hall at Boston College, 140 Commonwealth Avenue. Hours are Monday through Friday, 11 am to 4 pm and Saturday-Sunday, noon to 5 pm. Admission is free. For information, 617-552-8100.
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