By Valery Oisteanu, June 1, 2012
The second floor of the Carlyle Hotel is the site of Blain|Di Donna, where a magical rendezvous with 34 works by an artist/philosopher invites us to surrender to a trance state of mind. André Masson (1896-1987), whose early works are on view here, was a key figure in Surrealism. Curated by Emmanuel Di Donna, this exhibition is the largest and most comprehensive survey of Masson’s art to be shown in New York since the 1976 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. The accompanying catalogue essay, written by Mary Ann Caws, underscores Masson’s position in the hierarchy of Surrealism; in her view he has been (or should be) celebrated by his peers.
Like Dante, Masson had been to the proverbial hell and back. Wounded severely in World War I and interned in psychiatric facilities for insubordination for years, he could recount narratives of fear, death, and survival with a brilliant eloquence. As a painter, Masson’s figuration melted into the abstract; his Cubism met the metaphysical. He was a pioneer in the technique of automatic drawing, and this authentic Surrealist creativity eventually gave birth to biomorphic abstraction. “Mediumistic painting” was Masson’s signature: post-Cubist creations, sand paintings, and, later in life, calligraphism. Often he escaped into the fantastic in an attempt to remember his dreams and repressed desires, but he was also comfortable making figurative drawings, even cartoonish compositions such as “Allégorie de le Séduction” (Allegory of Seduction, 1940), an ink on paper work hanging by itself in a small passageway.
To journey through the historical evolution of Masson, we have to bypass the first two galleries and start in the third with “Les Corbeaux” (The Crows, 1922), a painting of a forest invaded by black crows, which evidences the early expressionistic influences of his art schooling in Brussels, as well as his knowledge of James Ensor and Odilon Redon. Another painting of the forest, even more abstract with vertical strokes, severe gray tones, and a dead bird on the ground, is titled “Sentier Sous-Bois” (Trail through the Woods, 1923). “Le Rève du Prisonnier” (The Dream of the Hostage, 1924) dominates the room, somewhat à la de Chirico: a grand, claustrophobic Cubist symphony of classic statuary body parts are surrounded by architectural geometric objects.
For the latter half of Masson’s 1920s we return to the second gallery, where we can view “Torse de Femme” (Woman’s Torso, 1926), a minimal line drawing on paper, iconic and erotic. In the winter of 1926, noting the myriad tonal nuances in the drifts of sand on a beach in Southern France, Masson was struck with the idea for a method of bringing together the compositional techniques of his oil painting with the instantaneous activity of his automatic ink drawing. “Têtes D’Animaux” (Animal Heads, 1927), a collage of sand and feathers mixed with oil paint, and “Cheval Attaqué par un Poisson” (Horse Attacked by a Fish, 1939) demonstrate the material results of his sand compositions, made of glue and colored sand.
According to the writer Malcolm Haslam, in the 1920s Antonin Artaud, Michel Leiris, Joan Miró, Georges Bataille, Jean Dubuffet, and Georges Malkine, among others, were neighbors of, and therefore “habitués” at Masson’s studio in Paris at No. 45, Rue Blomet. Together, the group experimented with altered states of consciousness, smoking hashish and opium added to wine and music, discussing Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, and even Sade. With the help of “écriture automatique” (automatic writing), which is derived from the subconscious, Masson tried to explore the depths of the irrational and the psychological roots of art. A natural draftsman, he used sinuous, expressive lines to delineate biomorphic forms that border on the totally abstract.
Masson’s paintings and drawings from the late 1930s and 1940s, on view in the first gallery, are turbulent, suggestive renderings of scenes of violence, eroticism, and physical metamorphosis. In “La Graine et “L’Étoile” (The Seed and the Star, 1942), strong, mysterious eyes stare out from the darkness. Masson’s interest in Native American culture inspired a number of paintings here, including “Le Cimitière de Sioux” (Cemetery of the Sioux, 1942), in which he explored various states of consciousness through the mysticism of the native people. A portrait of Heinrich von Kleist from 1939 opens the Pandora’s box of nightmarish pre-psychedelic colors that characterize Masson’s work following this period. This work is a masterpiece yet to be recognized for its full value and influence.
For André Masson, the mythology of desire was present in everyday life–in the flora and fauna, in the bees and giant praying mantises, in horses and bulls all cavorting with or fighting with humans, all responding to “the call of desire.” This exhibition delineates the most important period in Masson’s creativity and is a must-see for scholars and lovers of Surrealism.