Surrealist | Modern | Post-War Art

6 June 2012

“Desire Causes the Current to Flow”: André Masson’s Innovations in Taste


by David Carrier

Le rêve du prisonnier (1924) finds André Masson (1896 -1987) deconstructing classical cubism. He inserts into the center of this portrait images of fragmented organic forms, shapes like those that soon will dominate his compositions. For now his palette is predominantly pale brown. Nature Morte (1925) contains many objects—playing cards, a guitar, and an apple– associated with cubist still lives. But now some of these things are brightly colored and they spill out of the picture, pressing beyond the boundaries of the frame. Very quickly, Masson’s style then goes through a bewildering variety of changes. Torse de femme (1926), a slyly erotic charcoal drawing moves into Salvador Dali territory.  Jeaune fille soufflant sur le feu (1927) sets wandering lines on a intense flat yellow background, not unlike that found in some paintings by Joan Miró. And Nus (1928), with its green and violet forms bordered by gracefully drawn curves resembles an unusually large Paul Klee. None of Masson’s French contemporaries showed greater capacity for innovation.

In the 1930s, when Masson lived and worked in Spain, his style changed dramatically. Some of his images of bullfights and monsters, Pasiphaé (1937) for example, appear indebted to Picasso’s paintings of this period. But Corrida au soleil (1936), a close up whirling image of bull, horse and matador is a resoundingly original composition. And Aube à Montserrat (1935), an intensely red, molten hot Surrealistic landscape with a whirling spiral in the sky comes from a world which Masson created. The same is true of La ronde (1937), a close up view of ferocious insect life.  And L’homme emblématique (1939), with arcing energy rays flowing from the genitals of the central male figure and the breasts of the woman on his right, figures set against a cool blue background is a remarkable body image. “Desiring-machines are binary machines,” (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972)), “because there is always a flow-producing machine, and another machine connected to it that interrupts or draws off part of this flow . . . . “  Masson very presciently illustrates this worldview in which “desire causes the current to flow.”

Set Masson’s Les Captives (1932) alongside Jackson Pollock’s figurative paintings from the late 1930s, and you see how much that American artist learned from him. Indeed the long horizontal  L’histoire de thésée (1943) is strikingly similar to some early Abstract Expressionist pictures. Sybille (1944), for example, resembles Arshile Gorky’s last paintings, but with hot Spanish colors enclosed in graceful black waves. But if some of Masson’s all-over figurative compositions lead towards Abstract Expressionism, his late 1930s works lead in a very different direction. They anticipate the neo-expressionist painting which made such an impact in New York during the 1980s. His Portrait du poète Heinrich von Kleist (1939) is a truly over-the-top anticipation of Julian Schnabel’s aggressively anti-aesthetic paintings of the 1980s.  

Masson has a modest place in the familiar histories of modernism because when during World War Two he (and the other Surrealists) were exiled in the United States, they inspired Pollock and his peers. That part of his story is very familiar. This marvelously ambitious exhibition shows that there is more to be said. Because Masson learned how to put the bad taste associated with ‘kitsch’ at the service of serious art, this exhibition speaks cogently to the situation of painting right now.