Progression of Art
This chaotic and multifaceted drawing demonstrates Masson's use of the automatic method. The linework is varied, ranging from thick to thin and includes some broken lines that show the unpremeditated nature of the work; he drew as inspiration came to him. The curves of these lines and bodily elements are complex.
Masson described automatism as "a kind of writing. A thing I used to do would be to throw a string onto a blank sheet of paper: what you see appear are movements of an undeniable grace." The string or line that connects all of these elements acts as a stream of consciousness, temporally binding them together. Yet, eventually all the elements blend together and one cannot determine where it begins or ends. This piece thus provides an example of quintessential automatism and gives the viewer a valuable insight into the processes behind it.
The viewer's attention is drawn to the center of the piece, which evokes a human presence. The amorphous nature and biological quality of the form suggests a conflict of multiple identities through the automatic method. Masson incorporates varying facial forms, which appear to be melting and hands, which grasp at nothing. But while the viewer can locate the presence of human features, they do not fit together to form a coherent figure.
Ink on paper - Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, NY
In the Tower of Sleep
A central figure is crushed by his surroundings while all around him are symbols of eroticism, death and destruction. Masson stated that the image "came from a memory of war...a figure lying in the trench with his head split open." There are several allusions to the trauma and aftereffects of war throughout the piece. The skinless nature of the figure alludes to the vulnerability of the body and the fragility of life as Masson witnessed in the trenches. Additionally, the agricultural elements and fire may also harken back to the setting and experience of warfare.
Human figures metamorphize into musical instruments and disintegrate into incomplete forms. The animated string instrument sawing its own strings with a bow suggests both sex and destruction while the main figure is shown without a phallus and instead leaks bodily fluid from a cavity. This theme is amplified by the woman who is transforming into a harp, but also remains a grotesque, fleshy distortion. These joint symbols of destruction and eroticism explore the longstanding associations between sex and death.
Another thread running through this painting is Greek mythology. The split skull resembles the pomegranate from the story of Persephone, who is doomed to remain with Hades in the underworld because she ate its seeds. This is reinforced by setting of the tower within an abyss from which there is no escape. The viewer is trapped in a nightmare. Like Persephone, Masson appears caught in a metaphorical underworld derived from his war trauma.
Oil on canvas - Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), Baltimore, MD
The Metamorphosis of the Lovers
In an image of swirling, intertwining, erotic forms, Masson mingles symbols of life and death. Two large figures can be deciphered, but both display elements of male and female genitalia. The female figure sits to the right, disemboweled, with a large shell-like vagina while her arm drapes across a phallic trunk. She leans back, an apple in her mouth to evoke the narrative of Adam and Eve, with its implications on both the origins of life and sexual temptation. The male figure's torso is also splayed as he tilts his head back, touching the female's shell (vagina) in an act of coital pleasure. From his open mouth emerges a flower, which scholar and curator Carolyn Lanchner has likened to a vulva; his genitals are thus central to the biological reproduction as "the entrance to life and the exit to death...the eternally recurring cycle." From the linked musculature of the two figures grows a flower, which art historian and author Martin Ries interprets as the production of a fertilized egg: "if her internal organs evoke the germinal force of fertilized seeds, does the growing flower represent their progeny?"
Posing a sharp contrast to these symbols of life and regeneration are the eviscerated torsos of both figures. Ries suggests that this juxtaposition is thus representative of the ongoing metamorphosis of the natural world; as one of Masson's favorite philosophers, Heraclitus, stated, "Out of life, comes death and out of death life...the stream of creation and dissolution never stops." Masson's piece is a meditation on humanity's unequivocal cycle of life, death and reproduction. The piece brims with juxtaposition and inner conflict between nihilism and optimism, and questions whether human existence is thoughtful and rational or simply animal.
Oil on canvas - Private collection
Masson's Gradiva references both an ancient the marble relief, of Gradiva from the Vatican Museum and its early 20th-century appearance in a novel by Wilhelm Jensen that inspired Sigmund Freud. Jensen's novel traces an archaeologist's obsession with the ancient Roman relief, an obsession that crosses between consciousness and dream-states as he pursues a mysterious young woman. Freud studied this novel as a psychoanalytical case study of transference and the power of repressed memory. The Surrealists adopted Gradiva as a "muse" who could walk between real and surreal, the conscious and subconscious. When they founded a Parisian art gallery in 1937, they named it Gradiva.
The story of Gradiva also references the Pygmalion myth from Ovid's Metamorphosis, in which Pygmalion's marble statue of Galatea comes to life before his eyes, fulfilling his artistic and sexual desires. Masson's Gradiva embodies just the opposite of this awakening; half-stone and half-flesh, his Gradiva is cobbled together in the imagination of the artist. While her flesh is pink and supple, her stony half is white, hard and hollow. Her torso is a massive beefsteak and her vagina a shell. These qualities simultaneously overemphasize her sexuality and undervalue her humanity, as if she is only a slab of meat with genitals. She represents the liminality between the real and the surreal; she exists both in reality and in the dream of the artist and her physical state remains forever in flux.
Yet, unlike Pygmalion's Galatea, Masson's Gradiva represents a breakdown rather than fulfillment. The dreamscape surrounding Gradiva becomes fragmented as the viewer watches her turn to stone, reversing the narrative and conflating reality and dream. Her transformation is mirrored by the juxtapositions in the background, including the prominent eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which serves as an image of violent death, but also as a metaphor for sexual completion. What initially appear to be flies, a symbol of death, are actually regenerative bees flying out of Gradiva's knee with an overflow of rich honey.
Oil on canvas - Private collection
Meditation on an Oak Leaf
Meditation on an Oak Leaf reflects Masson's reconnection with the natural world, as he and his family settled in Connecticut. Fleeing France in 1939, he had initially relocated to New York, as did many of the Surrealists who were escaping the war and Nazi persecution. It was, however, after they moved out of the city that he experienced a remarkable artistic revitalization, inspired by the changing seasons and a new feeling of ease within the natural world.
Although abstract, this piece is based in the natural world, organized in a series of cellular forms that suggest both plant pods and maternal wombs. Together, they form a feline form that contains multiple gestating fetuses within itself. Reproduction and metamorphosis are central in the composition and the significance of the piece, as are the biomorphic forms of plant roots and branches that weave throughout the work.
These interwoven motifs mimic the natural world's symbiosis between flora and fauna, unifying plant and animal life into a continuous, but ever-changing whole. The entire piece is dominated by the titular oak leaf, which art historian Doris Birmingham has suggested references both long life and death from being severed, calling it "his painterly fantasy on nature's organic processes." Masson's contemplation on the oak leaf and the gestating female invoke life's complex processes; while living creatures change and die, the natural balance remains continuous.
Tempera, sand and pastel on canvas - Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, NY
Pasiphaë, mythological goddess, queen of Crete, and mother of the minotaur (following a sexual encounter with a bull), represents the fertility of earth itself in this painting. Her genitals are clearly rendered, suggesting the importance of female sexuality, but also the bestial lust which led to Pasiphaë's disgrace. Inspired by the volatility of Masson's wartime memories and the dynamism of New England weather, the piece captures the explicit eroticism and deeply intimate nature of the union between Pasiphaë and the white bull, which occurred while she was under a curse from Poseidon. Masson claimed that, unlike other depictions, this was not overtly about coitus. He argued "there is a more interior union here. You can't see very well where the bull begins." Indeed, the boundaries between the two figures are obscured as they merge together.
In Masson's own words, "As for the sex of the woman, it is found in the center of the painting almost in an oblique line with the testicles of the bull. It is an entanglement...the second breast becomes a constellation. Everything in the universe in fusion." This piece positions coitus as more than an act of pleasure: it becomes a metaphor for the never-ending genesis and metamorphosis of the cosmos. In this reinterpretation, Masson shifts away from a literal illustration of the mythological story, instead using its themes of violence, sex, and reproduction to suggest more general, cosmic meaning. Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko would build on this modernist approach to classical mythology.
Oil and tempera on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York