Masson, André

Andre Masson (1896-1987) was one of the major early French Surrealist painters. A close friend of Andre Breton, Joan Miro and Max Ernst, he joined the Surrealist movement in the early 20s, then disassociated with it in the early 30s, focusing instead on the human condition – the fundamental impulses of love and hatred – and reacting to the Spanish Civil War. In the early 40s, Masson moved to America and became interested in mythical imagery. Many of his paintings from this period show a focus on African American and Native American myths, and the style of his expression and brushwork influenced many young American painters.

Although Masson is most often associated with Surrealism, his work evades definition through any one twentieth-century movement. In some ways, the identification with Surrealism has been confusing. Not only has it focused attention on a partial aspect of his career, but has obscured profound differences between them. If it is true that some of his finest paintings were produced when he was closest to Surrealism, it is also the case that they were generated by deep tensions: as he wrote himself, “Painful contradictions are sometimes the source of the greatest riches”.

Masson had especially close relations throughout his life with poets and writers, and they in turn responded to the qualities in his work that spoke to their shared concerns. But that is not to say that he was a literary painter. Andre Breton, for instance, celebrated the “chemistry of the intellect” that marked, for him, Masson as the painter who understood the full implications of the surrealist project. But before his encounter with Surrealism in 1924, others had made him their elective artist: Michael Leiris, Georges Limbour, Antonin Artaud, and a little later Georges Bataille. For them, who were to be the “dissident” surrealists, or, in the case of Bataille, “Surrealism’s old enemy from within”, Masson’s work possessed another, Dionysian, character, as Leiris called it, that was to challenge Surrealism on its own grounds.