Andre Masson, One of Surrealism’s Great Exponents

Times Staff Writer

Andre Masson, whose turbulent paintings and graphics led him into exotic and controversial areas of linear movement, died early Wednesday at his Paris home, his son said.

He was 91 and “died in his sleep,” Luis Masson told the Associated Press.

One of the last great exponents of surrealism, Masson had in his final years come to be known more for his influence than for the body of work he produced.


Destiny of Mankind

Conscious throughout his lengthy career of the conflict between science and etherealness, Masson developed a troubled curiosity about the destiny of mankind, some of which was attributed to a severe wound he suffered fighting with the French army in World War I.

Despite prolonged treatment in hospitals and lengthy psychotherapy, Masson remained emotionally scarred.

Masson developed what came to be known as “automatic writing,” spontaneous linear expressions that reflected his curious metaphysical credos.

Jean-Paul Sartre credited him with “retracing a whole mythology of metamorphoses: (transforming) the domain of the mineral, the domain of the vegetable and the domain of the animal into the domain of the human.” Masson referred to himself as a “painter by instinct.”

Those instincts took him into Cubism, to painting portraits of his friends and into book illustrations, many of them condemned as pornographic.

In the 1920s he shared an apartment building with Joan Miro through whom he met poet Max Jacob, and Masson was to remain intrigued by literary figures throughout his life.


He met American expatriates Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway in Paris and one story, possibly apocryphal, has it that Hemingway taught Miro and Masson to box.

His first one-man exhibition was held in 1924, and his painting “The Four Elements” came to the attention of Andre Breton who invited Masson to join the newly formed surrealist group of artists.

The group was fed by the postwar blossoming of artistic movements and the cumulative effect of such writers as Charles Baudelaire and Guillaume Apollinaire. Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, published in 1924, helped define the movement’s philosophy.

“For us, surrealists of 1924, the great prostitute was reason,” Masson wrote. “It was cool reason, after all, that had led mankind into the war to end all wars.”

“Rational” painting, they believed, was too much a part of society to realize art’s role as social maverick.

“All movements are in reaction to something,” Masson said. “Surrealism was part of an attitude that said, ‘We have to have something new.’ ”

Created ‘Automatics’

But within a few years he distanced himself somewhat from the hard-core surrealists, albeit briefly, and was creating his “automatics” by drawing on canvas with adhesives and spreading colored sand about to obtain random shapes that he then pushed about with a brush.

His drawings reflected conflict and combat, with animals or mythical creatures devouring one another or men and women participating in macabre massacres.

A favored subject was the ancient myth of the Minotaur with its bull-like head and human body and concomitant sexual suggestiveness.

His work reflected strife and suffering and, as explained in “History of Modern Art,” was “a passionate hope, through painting, to be able to find and express the mysterious unity of the universe hinted at in primitive myths and religions.”

In the late 1920s and early ‘30s Masson traveled in Germany, exhibited with Miro in New York and then moved to Spain where he did several series during the Spanish Civil War reflecting his intrigue with violence. He designed ballet and stage settings and in 1940 moved to New York where he remained through World War II.

Some say he fell under the influence of the “action school” represented by Jackson Pollock while in this country. He returned to France, settling in Aix-en-Provence where he designed sets for a production of “Hamlet” and rendered landscapes of the French countryside.

In 1955 he was awarded France’s Grand Prix National des Arts and in 1976 a comprehensive retrospective of his work was staged by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Perhaps his latent acceptance in his native land was best reflected in 1965 when Andre Malraux, Charles de Gaulle’s minister of culture, commissioned him to paint the ceiling of the Odeon in Paris. Many consider the 180-square-yard brightly colored circular panel--depicting a sweeping dramatic range with likenesses of Agamemnon, Lysistrata and Falstaff--his masterpiece. Masson called it “the synthesis of all my various periods,” while Jean-Louis Barrault, the actor and mime, said delightedly, “At last we have a sun over our heads.”