Originally published in http://artandeducation.net/papers/view/8, 2009.
André Masson was born in 1896 and spent his early years in one of the most beautiful provinces of Northern France. Fresh rivers, fertile fields, and the rich forests of the Ile-de-France, celebrated by Barbizon and Impressionist painters, were the backdrop of his childhood and inspired his lifelong love of nature. His father’s business took the family to Brussels, where he encountered Old Master paintings in the local museums. He was admitted to the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts et l’Ecole des Arts Décoratifs at age eleven. In cities all over Europe at the turn of the century young people were enthralled by Art Nouveau, Impressionism, and Symbolism, as well as Nietzsche and Wagner. Something of a drifter in his teenage years, he became a vegetarian, went barefoot, read avidly in literature and philosophy, considered himself a Wagnerian and a Nietzschean, resisted social conventions - and was taken in by the authorities more than once. By 1913 André Masson was in Paris, studying at the École des Beaux-Arts, and first learned of the work of the Cubists through reproductions (he thought they were obsessed with automobile accidents).When war was declared he volunteered because he wanted to experience "the Wagnerian aspects of battle" and know the ecstasy of death.  He experienced that "ecstasy" the day a bullet ripped into the young artist's chest during the offensive at Chemin des Dames in April of 1917 (Adolf Hitler also fought at Chemin des Dames). Stretcher-bearers were unable to get him to safety and he was left for the night, half-dead, on his back, where he was a submissive spectator of the struggle, gazing at the conflict overhead. Masson had spent three years in the trenches in conditions so horrible he was unable to speak of them for years, and his wounds caused him psychic trouble to the end of his life.
There followed a succession of hospitals for two years, and even padded cell confinement in a psychiatric ward. His doctor advised that he never again live in a big city. The war left him nervous with nightmares; he suffered from insomnia and spent long painful hours dreaming new paintings.
A Throw of the Dice is doubtless a reference to Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard, and/or Igitur. Anna Balakian wrote that the “throwing of the dice, of which we had the initial example in Igitur, is the representation of human power, and the “hasard,” which it cannot succeed in mastering…” “Igitur’s life, therefore, is directed toward one single act, symbolized in the blowing out of the candle followed by the casting of dice.”  In contrast to the bareness of Crows, A Throw of the Dice is filled with references to events and personal experiences as well as to acquaintances who gathered in his studio on the rue Blomet (this Cubist-influenced painting was bought by Ernest Hemingway directly from the artist’s studio). Guite Masson, Director of Comité André Masson, identifies the figure throwing the dice as Georges Limbour; the others as Roland Tual, Theodore Fraenkel, and “sans doute Michel Leiris.” Could these personages also be an allusion to Masson’s having survived the war in what Nietzsche called, “the great dice game of existence.” The dice, at bottom center, are about to slip off the bottom of the painting into the unknown - the “néant.” Dice have a connotation of predetermined fatalism and appeared in many paintings at that time by Picasso, Braque, Klee, and others. Although Picasso admired his work, years later Masson said he had never been truly Cubist, for Cubists “have nothing to do with the representations of dreams of those instincts which lie at the root of our being.”
To eat together is spiritual union; meals in an ancient household were sacred because the household god was present. Masson’s close friends, artists, philosophers, and poets, were often portrayed in a variety of shared activities, as in The Repast. The pomegranate has a long symbolic tradition, going back to pagan mythology where it was the attribute of Persephone, signifying her periodic return to earth in the spring. Because of its abundant red seeds it is a symbol of fertility. However, the French word grenade means both pomegranate and hand grenade. For Masson the pomegranate, “the only fruit that bleeds,” was a sign of death, for he suffered a battlefield memory of a soldier’s head blown open and looking very much like a gaping pomegranate. Yet the figure on the right holds a glass of wine, another holds bread - the “liquid of life” and the “staff of life.” Masson affirmed life even with conflicting flashbacks.
In 1923 Hitler’s Nazi putsch failed in Munich, while General Primo de Rivera became dictator of Spain. Cubist influence was evident in the artist’s work but with personal metamorphoses; even his still lifes were charged with an intensity of feeling at odds with the spirit of Cubism. Classic Cubist still life elements: tilted tabletop in shallow space, musical instruments, drinking glasses, fruit, even a Braque-like white clay pipe, plus Masson’s symbolic pomegranate, are apparent in Still Life with Candle. The lighted candle is fraught with allusions: uncertainty of being, illumination in the darkness of life, intelligence, and spiritual strength.
Still Life with Candle,
However, this candle burns but does not illuminate. The primary significance of the flame for Masson stems from the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus, who regarded fire as the fundamental substance, “Everything, like a flame in a fire, is born of the death of something else … the primordial element out of which everything else arises.” Heraclitus, Masson stated, “remains for me the essential philosopher.” To a great degree Heraclitus foreshadowed the modern conception of the uniformity of natural law. If we substitute energy for Heraclitus’s term fire, as Werner Heisenberg  suggests, virtually everything he says about change is acceptable from the modern scientific point of view.
The following year Masson became involved with Surrealism,  and by 1927 there were depictions of physical conflicts in his animal world: fish, birds, insects, and horses engaged in battle, as well as scenes of slaughter, massacres, copulation and rape. Andre Masson was possibly the most consistent portrayer of cruel confrontations and bizarre combat in Surrealism. He also painted some of his most symbolic and speculative works as his erudition served insight and revelation. In Ophelia Shakespeare's female
protagonist is surrounded by a countryside filled with ponds and lush vegetation, like the fertile fields of the Ile-de-France where Masson grew up. Ophelia’s face is made up of floral forms. Flowers are a traditional symbol of life, fecundity, and joy, but Ophelia says: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember; … there's rue for you; and here's some for me … O you must wear your rue with a difference.” Rue was a sign of repentance. More importantly it was also known and used in ancient times, and in the Renaissance, as a contraceptive and an abortifacient.  Rosemary was an established emblem of betrothal, but the Prince must wear his “rue with a difference.”
Ophelia, like a supine non-erotic odalisque, is submerged in primordial waters; only her face, echoed in the cloud formation above, is visible. Life comes from water; immersion in water signifies a return to a pre-formal state, like baptism, with a sense of birth and regeneration on one hand and death and annihilation on the other. The sunlit sky is filled with cosmic forms and astral bodies; Ophelia is transformed into a cosmic planetary constellation not unlike Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne where Bacchus, seeing the deserted, lovelorn Ariadne, leaps from his chariot to embrace her. That event is mimicked by the clouds whose shapes echo the drapery and gestures of the principles, and where the starry crown of immortality awaits Ariadne as a constellation.
is no Bacchic benefactor, but the reaper Death, Claimer of Souls; while
scorpion-like insects (similar to mantes, scorpions show cannibalistic
sexuality ) frolic, play, and serenade Ophelia - as their lives go
on unencumbered by Shakespearean tragedy. As Ophelia said, “We know not what we
are, but know not what we may be” (IV,5,45).
Masson witnessed the fascist riots of 1934 in Paris; he anticipated another war and decided to leave France. Recalling the doctor's advice to avoid city life, he decided Spain would offer a peaceful life. Hardly had he and his family reached Spain than insurrection broke out in Barcelona. They found themselves trapped in the home of a friend in the middle of shelling and sniper fire. Lying behind mattresses for shelter, Masson felt he was in the trenches again.  The Masson family returned to France when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936.
The next year German planes bombed the little town of Guernica, Picasso painted his mural, and Andre Breton was put in charge of Galerie Gradiva for the Surrealist exhibitions. It is likely that Masson, just returned from the terrible scenes of the Civil War, and disturbed by the indifference of Europe to the fascist horror, was making a statement about the existence of dreadful suffering and impending disaster. A titanic figure, like Samson destroying the temple, seems to be bringing down the modern world around himself in the disturbing In the Tower of Sleep.
Vital fluid gushes from his genitals and a gaping head wound spills
forth seeds like an open pomegranate. Blood flows, fires (Heraclitean?)
are burning. At upper right a woman’s nipples are bleeding as though pierced
from within with sword-points. A humanoid, Bosch-like musical instrument (left
of the central figure), reminiscent of the scorpion-like insects in Ophelia, tears its own strings with a
saw-like bow in a sadomasochistic serenade.
The flayed figure "came from a memory of the war,” explained Masson, “a figure lying in a trench with his head split open;”  it all takes place in a tower "from which there is no way out except into the abyss."  In ancient and medieval warfare, a tall tower was used in storming fortified castles, and terrible carnage ensued. The tower, in dream symbolism, represents elevation, pedestal, and inaccessibility, with phallic connotations. Masson’s subconscious flashback explains the chaotic composition of the painting, almost psychotically* thrown together like a horrible nightmare with its plethora of complex motifs. As with the infamous “Famine Tower” where Ugolino and children were immured, horrific images grow in the imagination. Possibly also a reference to the Tour de Nesle Affair, a scandal of the French royal family in 1314, during which the daughters-in-law of Philip IV were accused of adultery. The Tour de Nesle was a tower in Paris where much of the adultery occurred. The scandal led to torture, executions and imprisonments, with lasting consequences for the final years of the Capetian dynasty. The knights suffered horrific deaths: flayed, broken on the wheel, burned with hot lead and sulfur, genitals thrown to the dogs, and decapitation. Is Masson making a comment on “the final years” of European dynasty?
Masson had wide-ranging fascination and interest in all things throughout his life. Sigmund Freud's essay of 1906, "Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva," translated into French in 1931, impressed the Surrealists more forcefully than his other writings. It was an analysis of a novel about an archeologist so devoted to his profession that he had no place in his life for women. He visited Pompeii where he met "Gradiva," who turned out to be a childhood friend who, in love with him, conformed to his delusions in order to cure him. Freud refers to this revelation and final salvation as the "medication of love." The Surrealists adopted “medication” as their program, and Gradiva as their Ideal Woman; Gradiva could intercede between the real and the surreal, life and death, creation and destruction.
Masson's Gradiva retains the right foot "in erection,"  as in the ancient marble relief of Gradiva in the Vatican Museum - and similar to the stance of a preying mantis. The body of Gradiva is in both a birth and death stance, like a combination Aztec birth goddess and an Ariadne sleeping pose.
Masson, other Surrealists, Freud's paper, Breton's essay, all used the Gradiva theme as a myth of metamorphosis and regeneration of life.
Le rêve d'Ariane, (1941, Francois Odermatt Collection, Paris) 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 - similarities and parallels to motifs in Ophelia and the Heraclitean concept. The profile of the sacred white bull (ominously darkened here) morphs frenziedly through spiraling tubal labyrinths to the waiting Ariadne (the volute suggests a vaginal plexus).
W.F. Jackson Knight cites Hommel as
finding Cretan and Babylonian evidence of a connection between the spiral
labyrinth and the internal organs of the human anatomy, one being a microcosm
of the other.  Indeed, in Leiris' novel, Aurora 
the act of descending stairs is a descent into the self, a characteristic
surrealist form of a pursuit of self-knowledge:
Does Ariadne’s labyrinthine umbilical-thread help Masson to represent the “dreams of those instincts which lie at the root of our being”? or the "medication of love"?Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, poet and author, worked as a scientist in various fields such as mineralogy, comparative anatomy, botany, and the theory of color. There were years when science occupied him more than poetry.
In Masson’s Goethe and the Metamorphosis of Plants, Goethe, who wrote “the eye both
perceives and speaks,”  gazes intently at a gorgeous vision of
primordial-looking germinations, crystalline radiations, and prisms. Perhaps
the geometric “prism” between Goethe and the plants is a reference to Isaac
Newton’s rationalistic documentation of color that Goethe resisted. Until then, most of the accepted concepts about color had
been advanced by artist-scientists, like Leonardo da Vinci, who based their
theories on their experiences with pigment rather than light. Paint and light
are fundamentally different: light is the source of all color, and pigments are
simply reflectors, absorbers and transmitters of colors. Eventually the
sensation of color is in our brain. Like Masson, Goethe knew that the
sensation of color was a psychological and sensual experience of the mind; his
“Theory of Color” (a premise now known as phenomenology of colors) he regarded
as proof against Newtonian optics.
In his epoch-making, Essay on Metamorphosis of Plants Goethe set out to trace "the specific phenomena in the magnificent garden of the universe, back to one simple general principle." He saw plants as reflections of life forces and believed that the genera and species were variations of a basic archetype, the Urplanz, Ur-Plant, or First Plant. He published his scientific theory, but botanists and scientists snickered and advised him to stick to poetry. He took their advice and rephrased his views in a poem, “The Metamorphosis of Plants.” Gradually his theory accumulated supporters, and is today the foundation for much of the study of plants, just as his color theories have new adherents through Color Field paintings. Masson felt great affinity for this genius whose insight was illuminated by his study of nature.
When the Germans occupied France in 1939, Masson was in danger of persecution by the Nazis because of his “degenerate” work, because the Surrealists had ties to the Communist Party, and because his wife was Jewish. Shortly after finishing the painting, Masson and his family fled to Auvergne in unoccupied France and eventually to America. Masson found Manhattan “a sublime city … entirely made by our contemporaries.” Nevertheless, his old horror of the confusion of urban life was intensified by the city, so he moved to the seclusion of an old Colonial-style house in suburban Connecticut where he painted Meditation on an Oak Leaf.
The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the U.S. declared war. Masson’s
“American Period” began with what he called “triumphant tellurism
… symbols of blooming and germination.”
 During the war Americans were urged to grow their own food in "Victory Gardens;" accordingly the artist dug into the dark rich Connecticut earth and grew his own vegetables. He was impressed by the fertility of American soil; years later in France he exclaimed: "In New England there are oak trees three times larger than here, the leaves also! The weeds are three times larger than here and the insects gigantic, for there is an astonishing fauna and it remains very wild 250 kilometers from New York ... so I put a wildcat in my painting.” 
No Cartesian meditation, no contemplation on the Tree of Life, Meditation on an Oak Leaf is organized in organic, cartouche-like compartments, pinched in the middle like cell division; the entire configuration is a kind of totem pole of private myths of pod and womb-like forms. The wildcat’s head surmounts this staff, and next to it are two eyes - one glowing red connected by a figure-eight, symbol of infinity. The painting is in primary colors: red, blue, yellow; and white, on a black ground that stands for earth, as the source of growth and regeneration, like Goethe’s “reflections of life forces.” Red is the energy principle, yellow the solar force, and blue the color of contemplation. “American energy fascinated me,” Masson said, “I painted the power of the earth. The magic. The climate.” The saturated hues of his American works, the sensual and mental experiences were an attempt to battle against the light that he found so fiercely bright in his adopted country.There are suggestions of roots and tendrils in the painting, of growing things weaving throughout the composition. Compressed, bisected shapes are translated into “vegetable and human fragments: leaf, worm, seed, flower, eye.”  Below the oval, womb-like compartment is a depiction of the quiescent artist in meditation (not unlike the pose in Matisse’s Girl Asleep, or Le Rêve, and reminiscent of the
figure in Repast, slumped over with his head in his arm and
a pomegranate in (Masson’s?) hand,
along with the umbilical threads of Le rêve
d'Ariane . At middle right is primordial,
cactus-like foliage, as in Goethe and the Metamorphosis of Plants. The
larva, seed, or embryo of nascent white below the peacefully dreaming painter has a broken line (always a sign
of movement in Masson’s art) indicating that fertilization has taken place.
Masson designed a curtain, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, in 1942 for a Society of American Friends of France ceremony that showed his involvement with France’s plight in the midst of war. Clement Greenberg stated that Masson's visit to America played a pivotal role in the development of Abstract Expressionism in New York. Jackson. Pollock's Totem 1 (1944) is considered an extrapolation of Masson's Meditation on Oak Leaf,  and his Pasiphaë (1943) was painted soon after Masson’s work of the same title, while Gorky’s Garden in Sochi series (early 1940s. They were neighbors in Connecticut) has parallels with Masson’s art of those years.
With the end of the war, Masson returned to his native France where he was the subject of retrospective and solo exhibitions throughout Europe. He won France's National Prize for Painting in 1954. He had seen the large collections of Chinese art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and at the Boston Museum in Massachusetts, and recognized sensibilities toward nature that paralleled his own. “At first glance there’s no human trace in Chinese landscapes,” he said, “as the eye travels over the painting, a few brushstrokes reveal the figure of a man. A grain of dust in that world” - reminiscent of William Blake’s “To see the World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower…” In the mid 1950s, calligraphic forms derived from Chinese and Japanese ideograms began to appear in Masson’s works. He was enthralled by the play of spontaneity and control in Asian art and was drawn to the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. Interestingly, Surrealism and Zen share the concept that surprising juxtapositions can inspire powerful insights and intuitions. “Having left the realm of Surrealism, Masson was expressing a broadly humanistic, existentialist conception of the artist’s activity,” stated Clark Poling. “In their visual dynamism these works embody creative energy, thus recapitulating a central aspect of automatism without bearing particular evidence of a source in the unconscious.” 
In Pursuit of Hatchings and Germinations is a study Masson made for a Gobelin tapestry. Over an earth-brown underpainting is a fusion of subtle depictions of a bird, a floating figure with fruit, heart-fashioned vagina, fish, insects, leaf, worm, seed, flower, eye, egg and embryo shapes, - images that have long intrigued Masson - and trailing hatchings of colorful meandering calligraphic lines, veins and streaks. Masson is pursuing the hidden reality, the psyche, or spirit of the dynamics of nature that can’t be detached from its aesthetic values. Zen, the meditative method of reaching serenity and imbued by a deep sense of the cosmic order of creation, opened the way to inner tranquility and enlightenment for Masson.
In 1976 Masson was honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; four years later he had to abandon painting because of ill health. In early 1987 a large exhibition of his drawings was held at the Haywood Gallery in London; he made his last trip to see it. He died, age 91, in his Paris home in October of that year.
Without “a renunciation of instinct” André Masson sought the “ecstasy of death” as a young man. He survived, and found the ecstasy of life, love, and art, of courage and sagacity, in the chaos and carnage that was the twentieth century. Sophocles ended King Oedipus with: “… learn that mortal man must always look to his ending, for none can be called happy until that day when he carries his happiness down to the grave in peace.” Masson’s valor and acumen, his affirmation of life in the face of devastating odds, earned him the ancient Greek maxim: “Satisfaction, all passion spent.”
 Interview with Masson, Newsweek magazine, 15 November 1965, vol. 2, no. 35, p. 106.
 An allusion to Tristan und Isolde’s Liebestod where death is the only consummation. Isolde’s final words were höchste Lust [highest bliss].
 Anna Balakian, Literary Origins of Surrealism: A New Mysticism in French Poetry (New York, King's Crown Press, 1947), p. 129, p. 92.
 Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy, NY: Harper and Row, 1958, p.71; as quoted in Robert Nadeau, Readings from the New Book on Nature: Physics and Metaphysics in the Modern Novel, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1981, p. 21.
 Masson introduced the idea of the Minotaur and labyrinth to the Surrealists, “… it was Masson and Georges Bataille who suggested Le Minotaur as well as Labyrinthe as titles for Albert Skira’s publications”: Martin Ries, “Picasso and the Myth of the Minotaur,” Art Journal, XXXII/2, Winter 1972/73, p.142.
 John M. Riddle, J. Worth Estes, and Josiah C. Russell, "Ever Since Eve . . . Birth Control in the Ancient World." Archaeology vol. 47, no. 2 (March/April, 1994), 29-35.
 Mantes, unlike other insects, do not eat plant life; they are the cannibals of the insect world and devour members of their own family. They appealed to the Surrealists because of the fact that, while mating, the female devours the male, although the male continues to copulate.
 Dawn Ades, André Masson, NY: Rizzoli, 1994, p.17.
 Jean-Paul Clébert, Mythologie d'André Masson, Geneva:Cailler, 1971, p. 57. Cited in William Rubin and Carolyn Lanchner, André Masson, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1976, p. 227, n. 94.
 Freud described her foot as "perpendicular," in Jensen's 'Gradiva', (Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey, London, 1959, IX, pp. 10, 28, 46, 95).
 Knight, W. F. Jackson, "Maze Symbolism and Trojan Game" Antiquity, December 1932, vol. 6, #24, p. 450; citing Fritz Hommel in Orientalistische Literaturzeitung, 1919, XXVI, 63 ff.
 J. H. Matthews, Surrealism and the Novel, Ann Arbor 1966, p. 108; citing Michel Leiris, Aurora, Paris: Gallimard, 1946. p. 23.
 "The ear is dumb, the mouth deaf, but the eye both perceives and speaks," Naturwissenschaftliche Schriften, [Nature Studies] vol. 5, p.12.
 Andre Masson, Entretiens avec Georges Charpentier, Paris: Julliard, 1958.
 Ades, p. 21.
 William Rubin and Carolyn Lanchner, André Masson, NY: Museum of Modern Art, 1976, p. 67.
 Clark V. Poling, Andre Masson and the Surrealist Self, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008, p.162.
This paper was written with the help of a Release-Time Research Grant from Long Island University, the Brooklyn Center.Martin Ries studied art at the Corcoran Art School and American University in Washington, D.C., at Pratt Graphics, and Hunter College in New York. He studied art history at Hunter College with Leo Steinberg, Ad Reinhardt, William Rubin and E. C. Goossen. He has exhibited his art in this country and abroad.