“The dream is not content to compensate desires dead from inanition, it may also give life to what is cold and abstract in our waking thought” (Masson qtd. in Alford 42).
This essay will determine whether or not André Masson’s 1938 painting Le labyrinthe (see fig. 1) complements the mission and intentions of the Gallery of Modern Art exhibition “Surrealism: The Poetry of Dreams” by examining the life and influences of André Masson, the goals of the Surrealist movement, and what Masson’s critics had to say about his works.
Fig. 1. André Masson. Le labyrinthe. 1938. Centre Pompidou, Paris.
According to its website, the Gallery of Modern Art’s mission with this exhibition is to present:
an exhibition that will provide a fascinating and comprehensive overview of this… movement [by] charting its evolution from Dada experiments in painting, photography and film, through the metaphysical questioning and exploration of the subconscious (QAG 2011).
In the April of 1917, twenty-one year old André Masson, a French volunteer soldier, was shot while fighting in the Great War. Masson claimed he experienced the “ecstasy of death” and saw a “torso of light” in the sky as he lay on the ground, wounded and waiting for the stretcher bearers (Masson qtd. in Ries 2002 75). During his time at the front line, Masson witnessed first-hand the horrors of war and was deeply affected by it. Afterwards, he suffered from insomnia and when he did sleep, he had nightmares. In these nightmares Masson dreamed new paintings (Ries 2002 75). Masson’s mental health deteriorated and he was institutionalised. His fascination with death and violence featured heavily in his paintings.
In 1924, Masson met the founder of the Surrealist movement and author of Le Manifeste du Surréalisme, André Breton. Soon after, Masson pioneered automatic drawing during which, the artist’s hand would move freely about the paper as the pen would trace its random trail. This style of drawing, which seemed to originate from the subconscious, complemented Breton’s definition of Surrealism:
Surrealism, noun, masc., Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations (Breton qtd. in Waldberg 1965).
Robert Short argues that “Breton’s [Surrealist] movement was a successor to and a derivation of Dada” (1979). Dada was an artistic movement which began in Zurich, Switzerland in 1916 during World War I and quickly found its way to Paris. Bell defines Dada as “a counterattack against a world that seemed bent on self-destruction” (2006). Dadaists defined Dada as being undefinable.
Patrick Waldberg argues that Surrealism can be divided into two classes, although “not absolute” (8). The first class which he calls “emblematic”, which includes painters like Mason and Ernst, for whom “the idea is simply suggested without concern for exact representation” (7). The second class, which includes the artists like Magritte and Dali, which Waldberg calls the “descriptives” or “naturalists of the imaginary” (7). He explains, “[T]he scene is unreal, but the setting, the objects, and the human figures which comprise it are painted with fidelity” (7). Masson himself saw two distinct styles of Surrealism and even went so far as to put forth an ultimatum as to which of the styles his fellow Surrealist painters should follow. “[I]t is high time to decide,” Masson wrote, “between the two types of surrealism” (Masson qtd. in Waldberg 38). Masson had “kept faithful” to the original style that set the movement of Surrealism apart from its predecessors, although later in life, Masson would describe himself as “more [of] a sympathizer [sic] with Surrealism than a Surrealist or a non-Surrealist” (Masson qtd. in Ries 2002 76).
In 1929, due to an “ideological conflict within the Parisian group” (Chadwick 1970 417), Breton expelled Masson, along with other artists from the movement. Masson and others did not agree with the Surrealist movement’s “relationship to the Communist Party” (Ries 2002 76). From the 1930s onwards, Surrealism’s goals were to hold on to the techniques that helped define the creation of Surrealism such as automatism and the investigation of dreams, but now those techniques, according to Breton, were to be used to “broaden the traditional definition of reality” (Chadwick 1970 417).
Chadwick believes that it was through the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche that Masson was introduced to the symbolism of Grecian mythology (1980 10). While studying the tragedy of existence, Masson learnt of Nietzsche’s fascination with Greek mythology and in an issue of Acephale, “editors Masson and Bataille publicly acknowledged a need for Surrealism to find sources in pre-Classical Greece” (1980 10).
Masson was confronted by another war when he moved to Spain in the mid 1930s and was also greatly influenced by the bull, an important figure in Spanish culture. Birmingham contrasts Picasso’s representation of the bull as being, “from the playfully erotic to the pathetic” to the bulls in Masson’s works which are “ruthless monsters – unequivocal symbols of darkness and brutality” (284).
From then, André Masson often used figures from Greek mythology in his works and the Minotaur in particular. Two of his sketches that were featured at the exhibit; his 1935 sketch, Le secret du labyrinthe, and his 1936 sketch, Dionysos, show drawings of the mythical beast along with other symbols from Ancient Greece including an Athenian temple, grapes, and the head of Medusa. These ideas are repeated in his 1937 painting L’unisers dionysiaque in which Masson incorporates the labyrinth inside the body of the Minotaur. This idea evolves even further in his 1938 painting, Le labyrinthe as the Minotaur grows more grotesque than the previous versions and the labyrinth inside him is much more complex. The body of the beast, once strong and muscular in earlier works, now withers away into a deformed, white husk.
In Metamorphoses, Ovid describes the Minotaur as a “hybrid monster” (8.133); and as Minos’ “monster son, half man, half bull” (8.169); a product of an “adulterous queen” and a “fierce-eyed bull” (8.131-132). According to the myth, the Minotaur was held captive in a labyrinth built by Daedalus until it was killed by the heroic Theseus. In Inferno, Dante and Virgil encounter the Minotaur to which Dante refers as “the infamy of Crete” (12.12) who is quick to anger at Virgil’s taunts.
Ries believes that it was André Mason who was responsible for the resurgence of the Minotaur in Twentieth Century art (1972-1973 142). The mythical beast, the “symbol of darkness and the loss of reason” (Ottinger 208), was frequently used in paintings by Surrealist artists and also lent its name to the Surrealist publication Minotaure edited by Albert Skira from 1933-39.
In Le labyrinth, which was painted in 1938 in his “second Surrealist period” (Masson qtd. in Birmingham 279), Masson has created a dismal setting reminiscent of a scene from The Divine Comedy. The sea, deep green and violent, crashes against a rocky shore which gives way to a pit of black. The sky is clouded and grey, lightning strikes at the ocean provoking its rage even further. This place is in the deepest, darkest recesses of our subconscious where the monsters are found and where we bury unpleasant memories.
The Minotaur stands tall with its insides on display like an unfinished autopsy. Its bones and organs have been replaced with stone stairways, mazes and Grecian pylons. There is no way Ariadne’s string could help Thesus find his way out of this labyrinth. Masson’s fascination with nature is represented in the outer shell of the Minotaur as it is adorned with the skin of fish, feathers, flora, and even a whole swan at one of its feet. The once hybrid man-beast has become a hybrid beast-labyrinth and in doing so, has lost virtually all of its recognisable features; two horns, one attached, one not, and the bovine-shaped skull are all that remain of the Minotaur’s once powerful form. The loss of reason frequently associated with the myth of the Minotaur has eroded away the Minotaur’s identity. It has become the maze which it was kept prisoner in for so many years.
Clement Greenberg, one of Masson’s critics asserts that there is “little of the dull or second-rate” (99) in Masson’s works and also believes that it is Masson’s foundations in Cubism that would allow him to achieve greatness. On the other hand, Greenberg is concerned that Masson concentrates on how he paints rather than what he paints. That the “ambitious painter” (208) uses colour in such a complicated way which Greenberg describes as a “raging sickness” (208). He also suggests that Masson is “obsessed by a singular nostalgia for the monstrous” (208), an obsession which is clearly evident in many of his paintings especially Le labyrinthe. Chadwick adds, that Masson’s work, and in particular, Le labyrinthe, suffers from an “unfortunate over-literalness” (1980 43) and that the ideas he is trying to represent in his work are “too grandiose and too philosophical” (1980 43). However, in saying that, Chadwick still believes that Masson was a great influence on the Surrealism movement as whole (1980 103).
I’ve been debating with myself as to why I chose this piece. There were other truly beautiful pieces to choose from, paintings that I could look at for hours on end. Judith Reigl’s Flambeau de noces chimiques and Max Ernst’s La dernière forêt were far more visually appealing than this hideous looking creature. Maybe that is why; it wasn’t the beauty that I was looking for but the gore factor. Horror is one of my favourite genres to read, write and watch so I’m always on the lookout for things that are dark and off kilter to inspire me, to take me to that place of shadows where I can create my own demons to put on the page.
The painting hung on against a red wall, in the corner surrounded by other paintings and sketches of the Minotaur, the Golden Calf, all equally gruesome looking. At first glance the figure in the painting reminded me of the creature used to portray Grendel in Robert Zemeckis’ visual effects-laden film Beowulf (2007), with its enlarged head and mangled body; a creature whose name has survived for centuries because someone, somewhere, wrote it down. That is a kind of longevity that all writers hope for. It was then that the comedy writer in me kicked in; I was almost hoping that was a saying that went with this painting along the lines of: You can take the Minotaur out of the labyrinth, but you can’t take the labyrinth out of the Minotaur. While the idea was comedic at first, I then started to appreciate the brilliance of such an elegant twist—don’t put the Minotaur in the labyrinth; put the labyrinth in the Minotaur. Simple. Genius.
I argue that André Masson’s painting Le labyrinthe does conform to the missions and intentions that the Gallery of Modern Art outlined when compiling works for this exhibit. Although Masson describes himself as a sympathiser of Surrealism, not a Surrealist, is influence on the movement was great as the pioneer of automatic drawing. He introduced the works of Friedrich Nietzsche to the Surrealist movement which, in turn, saw an emergence of the themes and imagery from Greek mythology in artistic works of the time. Masson’s fascination with the human condition, the psychology of man, and his quest for the “ecstasy of death” which he claimed he experienced during World War I, align with the intentions of the Surrealism movement and why it was originally created. It was these experiences, combined with his reinterpretation of the symbols in Greek mythology that produced Masson’s painting Le labyrinthe which complements the intentions of the gallery’s exhibit.
List of works cited
Alford, John. “The Universe of André Masson.” College Art Journal Vol. 3.No. 2 (Jan., 1944): 42-46. Print.
Bell, Fraser. “Art is dead to Dada. (Critical essay).” Queen’s Quarterly. Queen’s Quarterly. 2006. HighBeam Research. 5 Oct. 2011 <http://www.highbeam.com>.
Beowulf. Dir. Robert Zemeckis. Perf. Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie. Paramount Pictures, 2007. DVD.
Birmingham, Doris A. “Masson’s Pasiphaë: Eros and the Unity of the Cosmos.” The Art Bulletin Vol. 69.No. 2 (Jun., 1987): 279-94. Print.
Chadwick, Whitney. “Masson’s Gradiva: The Metamorphosis of a Surrealist Myth.” The Art Bulletin Vol. 52.No. 4 (Dec., 1970): 415-22. Print.
Chadwick, Whitney. Myth in Surrealist Paintings. 1929-1939. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research, 1980. Print.
Ernst, Max. La dernière forêt. 1960-70. Oil on canvas. Centre Pompidou. Paris.
Greenberg, Clement, and John O’Brian. Clement Greenberg: the Collected Essays and Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1986. Print.
Masson, André. Dionysos. 1936. Ink on paper. Centre Pompidou. Paris.
Masson, André. Le labyrinthe. 1938. Oil on canvas. Centre Pompidou. Paris. Didier Ottinger. South Brisbane, Qld.: Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, 2011. 209
Masson, André. Le secret du labyrinthe. 1935. Pencil and pastel on paper. Centre Pompidou. Paris.
Masson, André. L’unisers dionysiaque. 1937. Ink on paper. Centre Pompidou. Paris.
Ottinger, Didier. Surrealism: the Poetry of Dreams : from the Collection of the Centre Pompidou, Paris. South Brisbane, Qld.: Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, 2011. Print.
Ovid, and D. A. Raeburn. Metamorphoses: a New Verse Translation. London: Penguin, 2004. Print.
Queensland Art Gallery. “Surrealism: The Poetry of Dreams.” Gallery of Modern Art Exhibitions. 25 September 2011. <http://qag.qld.gov.au/exhibitions/current/surrealism_the_poetry_of_dreams>
Reigl, Judith. Flambeau de noces chimiques. 1954. Oil on canvas. Centre Pompidou. Paris.
Ries, Martin. “André Masson: Surrealism and His Discontents.” Art Journal Winter 61.4 (2002): 74-85. Print.
Ries, Martin. “Picasso and the Myth of the Minotaur.” Art Journal Winter Vol. 32.No. 2 (1972-1973): 142-45. Print.
Short, R. “Paris Dada and Surrealism.” Journal of European Studies 9.33-34 (1979): 75-98. Print.
“Surrealism: The Poetry of Dreams.” Gallery of Modern Art. Stanley Place, Southbank, Brisbane, QLD 4101. 18 September 2010.
Waldberg, Patrick. Surrealism. London : Thames and Hudson, 1965.