Whitehot Magazine

André Masson: There Is No Finished World

Benjamin Péret - Automatic Drawing (circa 1925) 31.7 x 23.2 cm, photo by the author


A speedy, semi-automatic, revelatory mode of shape-making typifies André Masson’s There Is No Finished World––an exigent retrospective of his multifaceted work at Centre Pompidou-Metz. The show nicely dovetails with the centennial of the first Surrealist Manifesto of Surrealism––the movement Masson joined but would leave and re-join several times. 

From late-1923 on, seemingly opium-inflected automatic drawings of Nietzscheian self-contradictory suggestibility dominate. Following an initial and meek Cubism period and a transitional drawing series of jam-packed sex orgy scenes, such as the lesbian litheness of Erotic Scene (1922), wounded-wandering lines take over––produced more and more through a trance-like psychic automatism. Masson’s beautiful, drowsily-drawing automatic technique adapted the écriture automatique method of André Breton and Philippe Soupault, who with it composed Les Champs Magnétiques (1919), the first surrealist text. 

Following the all-over sex scene series of drawings, Masson begins to play hard with chaotic chance––his becomes a loose image-making performed in a generative expanded-field that positions figures as both decentered and randomly distributed. These automatic drawings evidence an artistic method that plays in the area of the orgasmic––a capricious alliance that associates discourses of chance operations with organic sexuality: an association that opens up both notions to mental connections that enlarge them. A good example is the automatic drawing Louis Aragon (1924) as it has a jittery antagonism set up between the litheness of curves and floating figurative forms. A dreamy drawing where phantasmagorical figure motifs merge with non-anatomical fragments, it suggests that Surrealist poet Aragon is an involuntary character still taking shape within the weaving of a net of ideas. Likewise, the drawing A Paul Éluard (1924) has a dream-like, dilettante quality––fluid-broken lines move the eye between partial figure-objects that may be (or not) Éluard. Perhaps it best demonstrates what Gertrude Stein once quoted Masson as saying about himself: “…What Stein called ‘the wandering line’ is probably a key characteristic of my work. But it wasn’t the line that was wandering, it was me.” 

I think this wounded and wandering line explains why Masson’s automatic drawings varied in style, but continued to reflect the horrors of war on the human psyche. A wounded veteran of World War I, Masson was plagued by a post-traumatic stress disorder that became so severe that he was habitually hospitalized for it. Yet more than works of horror, Masson’s automatic works strike me as examples of divinatory practice––of finding within a chaotic field important, if vague, meanings where the sum feel is of obtaining immersion into occultist ferment. 

Erotic Scene (1922), photo by the author

Louis Aragon (1924) Dessin à l'encre sur papier, 32 × 24,5 cm, Collection particulière Copyright : © Adagp, Paris, 2024 © Galerie Natalie Seroussi 

A Paul Éluard (1924) 30 x 24 cm, photo by the author

Automatic Drawing (1925) 27.2 x 21 cm, photo by the author

With Automatic Drawing (1925) Masson’s rapidly-drawn melting body scene extends to the mind a hypothetical flexing, allowing the viewer to probe the opaqueness of the world and discern concealed forces. It is a magickal neurotic network of lines that seem fluid but hectic––at times even staccato-like––that enmesh, hinder, alter, and disrupt the mundanity of elementary visual communications with a chimerical game of hide and seek. Such an expanded field of decentered and distributed play pervades Masson’s visual lexicon based on speed, chance, and intuition coupled with reflection and artistic strategy. For Masson was also an art critic (his studio on Rue Blomet a meeting place for numerous artists, poets and writers like Antonin Artaud, Roland Tual, Michel Leiris, Georges Limbour, André Breton, and Joan Miró) and he was an insatiable reader with an encyclopedic cultural passion for mythology and Far Eastern philosophy. Masson also was a remarkable poet and theorist, yet he began his automatic drawings with no preconceived composition in mind. Like a medium channeling a phantom spirit, he let his pen travel hastily across the paper without conscious control––soon finding hints of images emerging from the abstract, lacelike webs. 

In the early 1930’s he created, using this technique, a series of massacres and abattoir scenes done in reaction to the violence he experienced on the WWI battlefield. This work explored the themes of archaic sacrifice, tragedy and (as always) mythology. Although he broke with André Breton’s Surrealism movement, he continued to exhibit with Surrealist painters, contributing his work to the periodicals Acéphale and Minotaure. Masson’s relations with André Breton first deteriorated in early 1927, when he felt Breton’s brand of Surrealism becoming something binding––like religion––and in 1928 he rejected the collective surreal project called for in the Second Manifesto. Rather, he swung back towards erotic paintings, such as La terre (The Earth) (1939), where Masson’s twisting and interlacing lines permit the magical germ of a sexual idea to grow within the unconscious mind so to express itself to consciousness. But for Masson, artistic intentions should just escape consciousness. Art alludes to potential meanings rather than giving one. 

Such fluid intentions establish for his paintings twisting-interlacing forms––such as in La métamorphose des amants (The Lover’s Metamorphosis) (1938), where some shapes are discernible amidst abstract forms while others seem open to interpretation. Thus allowing the viewer to use her subconscious to decipher content. Le Labyrinthe (1938) is another virtuoso display of convoluted forms, made up of mercurial symbols apparently withdrawing from their role as steady representation. Labyrinthe compels us to take notice of the various ways that conventions mold our responses. In the informational abundance of the Labyrinth image, endless transmission seems already the endpoint.

La terre (1939) Sable et huile sur contreplaqué, 43 x 53 cm, Paris, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne Copyright: © Adagp, Paris, 2023 / Photo: © Hélène Mauri - Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI /Dist. RMN-GP

Le Labyrinthe (1938) Huile sur toile, 120 × 61 cm, Paris, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne Copyright: © Adagp, Paris, 2023 / Photo : © Philippe Migeat - Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI /Dist. RMN-GP

Drip Paintings (early-1940s), photo by the author 

Mary Ann Caws points out in her book Robert Motherwell: With Pen and Brush that Motherwell suggested that Abstract Expressionism should have been called Abstract Surrealism. The end of the show makes this aesthetic connection with a wall of Drip Paintings that Masson made in the early-1940s. It is well documented that Jackson Pollock was fascinated by his Surreal idea of a spontaneous, automatic transfer of internal feelings into compositions that are practically arbitrary. Thus the automatism of Masson offered Pollock an opportunity to depict the negation of figuration. In the November 1959 issue of Arts Magazine, William Rubin—later the director of the painting and sculpture department at MoMA—drew just such parallels in a comparison of Pollock and Masson. 

Chiara Parisi, curator/director of the Centre Pompidou-Metz, has done us and Masson a great service by recuperating the power of Masson’s automatism, making it central to rebellious and resistant-intended contemporary art made in defiance of the society of control.  

André Masson: There Is No Finished World is on view at Centre Pompidou-Metz, 1, parvis des Droits-de-l’Homme, Metz, France, through September 2, 2024. WM

Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an American artist and writer currently living in Paris. His The Viral Tempest limited edition art LP was recently published by Pentiments Records and his newest book of poetry, Styling Sagaciousness: Oh Great No!, by Punctum Books. His 1995 cyber-sex farce novella ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~venus©~Ñ~vibrator, even was published by Orbis Tertius Press in 2023.

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