"André Masson: Ecstasy of Discontent" ["L'estasi del Disagio"] the lead article in the March 2002 issue,  Art e Dossier, vol.XVII, no.176, Florence, Italy.


Martin Ries

André Masson:
The Ecstasy of Discontent


André Masson fought in the Great War because he wanted to experience "the Wagnerian aspects of battle" and know the ecstasy of death; Otto Hahn's biography of Masson explained that ecstasy "the day a bullet ripped into his chest. He remained on his feet, standing still, unconscious of pain. The world around him became something wondrous and he experienced his first complete physical release, while in the sky there appeared before him a torso of light."

Every person is unconsciously convinced of his own immortality, but when he faces his destiny, testing ceases and reality comes into its own. Because of that "ecstatic experience" Masson became a perverse theologian of a world that had suffered a Fall.

From that alembic bullet and that torso of light, death became a total vision for the artist. But the war left him nervous with nightmares; he suffered from insomnia and spent long painful hours dreaming new paintings. He explained that the relationship between life and death is as between two sides of the same coin; in his greatest moments of illumination and metamorphosis he painted what transpired on both sides.


Many young men suffered traumatic war experiences that shaped their lives and changed history. Max Ernst bombarded the trenches in which his eventual close friend, Paul Eluard, was standing guard. Franz Marc and Duchamp-Villon were among those killed; Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka, Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, and many others, all belonged to a generation for whom this slaughter was an overwhelming trial in their lives, shattering their confidence in the moral and rational assumptions of Western culture.

After the war Masson's life was far from serene. He had already developed a masterly cubist style (Picasso praised him highly); but he was subject to fits of rage, and was frequently in a violent, emotional state. There followed a succession of hospitals and confinement in a psychiatric ward. His new gore-scarred art was a meditation on death, concentrating on Masson's realities: metamorphosis, erotic violence, death and chaos. He opened himself to the provocations of Surrealist ideology and his work became a medium of poetic exploration, a realm where dark myths and metamorphoses of the psyche held sway.

The "crisis of 1929" was precipitated over the question of the Surrealist movement's relationship to the Communist Party; Masson left and eventually broke with the movement entirely. He decided Surrealism was a closed system; and any system, as Nietzsche said, lacks integrity. André Masson, that terrifying Cassandra, explored the imagery of his unconscious, consciously projected it as evocative subject matter and creatively opened the way to emotional and philosophic expression. His work was a dreadfully accurate depiction of the psychotic aspects of European life. Just as Heidegger dismissed Kierkegaard as just another religious writer, Masson was often thought of as just another Surrealist, and much of the resentment of his work as that time stems from the very things it predicted. Life can be fearful, but the artist and his work were lifted above fear into a visionary rapture.


The Labyrinth (Le labyrinthe)
1938, oil on canvas,
private collection, Rome.  

Heironymus Bosch, right panel,
The Garden of Earthly Delights 
(c. 1505-15)

Masson's Le labyrinthe, like Heironymus Bosch's central image in the right panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights, depicts a chimera of many parts. And just as Bosch's image, made up of boats, tree trunks, egg and tavern is capped by a self-portrait, so we may interpret Le labyrinthe as largely autobiographical. Although this figure may have overtones of the "torso of light," it certainly alludes to Masson's World War I wounding (almost all his paintings at this time are gaping lacerations). He considered himself a kind of bestial Minotaur: the head has a bull's skull and horns, the body cavity contains the maze, and next to his right "leg" is a swan which is associated with Leda's abduction by Zeus (who also abducted Leda's cousin Pasiphaë).



Pygmalion, 1938, oil on canvas,  
46x55 cm [18-1/8 x 21-5/8 inches]. Mr. Francois Odermatt, Miami Florida.

Meals in an ancient household were sacred because the household gods were present; to eat together was communion. On another plane this ingestion relates to the final digestion of the earth, the dissolution of the body. In Pygmalian, the sculpture on the right becomes a monster at table. Indeed, it becomes the table itself, devouring its contents. The sculpture has an ominous beak-like head, while the chair at the left, with bowed head, is similar to the male mantis about to be eaten, or to Salvador Dali's variations on Millet's Angélus. Mantes appealed to the Surrealists because, while mating, the female devours the male.


Gradiva (Metamorphosis of Gradiva), 1939, oil on canvas, 
36-1/2 x 51-1/4 inches, former Nellens collection, Knokke, Belgium.  

Sigmund Freud's essay of 1906, "Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva," was an analysis of a story concerning an archeologist so devoted to his profession that he had no place for women. The archeologist visited Pompeii where he met "Gradiva," who turned out to be a childhood friend who, in love with him, conformed to his delusion in order to cure him. Masson's iconography for The Metamorphosis of Gradiva is a Freudian illustration drawn directly from the Jensen story.


The Louis XVI Armchair (Le fauteuil Louis XVI)
1938, oil on canvas, 73x60 cm [29-1/4 x 24 inches], 
Mrs Henry A Markus collection, Chicago

J-L David, Death of Marat, 
1793, Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels.

Louis XVI, like Hitler, was representative of the Almighty. The armchair of Louis XVI refers to a pseudo-throne, without the stability customarily attributed to thrones. This "seat of government" is in a stagnant pool, which refers to Louis' inability to consummate his marriage as well as to Dali's famous onanism. Louis holds the Veto, just as Jacques Louis David's Marat holds the note from Charlotte Corday, and suggests the attempt of Louis to exercise the veto assured him by the Constitution of 1791, one of the causes of the French Revolution.


Mansion of Birds (Hôtel des oiseaux),  1938, oil on canvas,   
81x130 cm  [31-7/8 x 51-1/4 inches]

A room without doors or windows evokes an artificial existence, like Danaë in the tower. A room in a brothel suggests shrouded thoughts and illicit actions as well as repressive sexuality. Instead of a door to the room, the chair is greeted by a Juana diaboli, or gate by which devils enter, a patristic epithet for woman. The curtain, an old symbol of revelation, has been torn down and, instead of being used as swaddling clothes in the crib of the Hôtel des oiseaux, was now used as a shroud for Western civilization.

A subtle ennui had collected in Europe prior to World War I and Sigmund Freud accused it of developing a timid "museum" culture. However much he loathed barbarism, he gave it a certain therapeutic sanction and saw "The War to End All Wars" as a painful chastisement to an over-refined society that looked down on passion and excitement. Wars, Freud explained, return us to our sense of reality where "death will no longer be denied." The argument of Civilization and Its Discontents says that the energy that made civilization possible subtracted from direct erotic experience. It is no coincidence that Surrealism, in its early Dada phase, began as an anti-civilization movement. Is it a coincidence that Hitler's ultimate purpose was aimed at the destruction of European civilization?

Thus Masson's "torso of light", like Dali's Invisible Man,* was a manifestation of Nietzsche's "Last Man" whose feeling was ennui, or a portrayal of Freud's Urmensch, man debilitated and exhausted by the struggle to live beyond his psychological means and suspicious of his own morality.

*This painting (1929-33, oil,) coincided with Dali's initiation into the Surrealist movement and with Masson's expulsion.

Salvador Dali (1904-1989)
Invisible [Man L'Homme invisible], (1929-33)
Vicomte de Noailles Collection, Paris.

The specter of death haunts Masson's work and the twentieth century as one of the signs of the times. By asserting that death held sway over all things, death became a tutelary divinity as he attempted to purge memories of horrible events. He fused his dreams with broader and higher levels of meaning, and his personal myths were expressed in images that are themselves difficult to understand pictorially as well as interpret verbally.

Masson's work is full of archetypal content; the ingenious complexity of his mental processes, his randomness of composition, and his non-formalistic paintings suggest to a younger generation that he is saying something else (to use one of Rilke's favorite words, unsäglich, something extreme and unsayable - or even unpaintable). Picture-making as a neat Gestalt package was dissolved as art served revelation. Surrealism, essentially literary and psychological rather than plastic and formalistic, was hyperbolically ready to trust its effects to the morbid shocks of repugnant objects in an attempt to endow the absurd complexity of our world and our psyche.

Masson invented new labyrinths to search for new Minotaurs without regard for the dependability of Ariadne or her thread. Whether he encountered the Minotaur, or was transfixed by the torso of light or found his way out of the maze, this did not concern him; he contemplated the experience of the journey. He would not slay the Minotaur but interrogate it for revelation; he would portray the line of Ariadne's thread wherever it led as he drew each beholder into the vital unstable center of his energy. Masson's art is a means of knowing; the intricate passages of his thought are so flowing as to leave the door open for others to find their way to the essential center. The highest achievement of man, he seems to say, is a program of discontent; and within the blight of our dislocated sensibilities Masson's Surrealism was a form of wisdom and courage.



This article is a shorter version of the academic "André Masson: Surrealism and His Discontents" (Art Journal, vol. 61, no. 4, winter 2002) and written for the general reader.





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