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ANDRE MASSONFrench 1896 - 1987

A conflated historical personage, Semiramis is thought to be the forgotten Babylonian princess Sammu-Ramat, who later became a powerful Assyrian queen after assuming control of the Empire upon the death of her husband. Known to later generations through an obelisk inscription found in the prominent city of Ashur, the Greeks later gave her the name Semiramis. Masson’s exploration of Semiramis links to the express Surrealist interest in historical figures who might be considered ‘proto-surrealists’, a group including the Marquis de Sade and Comte de Lautréamont. Masson’s interpretation of Semiramis further demonstrates his affiliation with techniques of the later Surrealist movement. Following the decline of automatic-drawing, Dali’s paranoiac-critical method instigated the mutation of forms through the invocation of a paranoid state in the artist. In Masson’s image, facial features are clearly distinguishable but the mask-like form changes uncannily under the viewer’s gaze, as architectural forms mutate into mountainous landscape.

ANDRE MASSONFrench 1896 - 1987

André-Aimé-René Masson was born in Balagny-sur-Thérain, in the Oise district of France. When he was eight his father’s work took the family first briefly to Lille and then to Brussels. He began his study of art at the age of eleven at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, under the guidance of Constant Montald, and later, in 1913 he moved to Paris where he was admitted to the Paul Baudoin studio at the ‘Ecole National Superieure des Beaux-Arts’. He fought for France during World War I and was seriously injured and spent several months in an army hospital. In 1922 André Masson returned to Paris, where his art was influenced by André Derrain and Cubism. A little later he met the Surrealist artists and subsequently joined the movement in 1924. In 1925 the first surrealist exhibition took place in the Pierre gallery, including some of Masson’s works. In protest against Breton’s authoritarian claim to leadership Masson left the group five years later.

He was one of the most enthusiastic employers of automatic drawing, ‘écriture automatique’, making a number of automatic works in pen and ink. His focus on lines and the free decription of shapes in his graphic works reflect his study of eastern Asian calligraphy. In his swinging lines, drawn in a trance-like state or ecstatically agitated script, Masson often captured wild and cruel visions. Masson experimented with altered states of consciousness with artists such as Antonin Artaud, Michel Leiris, Joan Miró, Georges Bataille, Jean Dubuffet, and Georges Malkine, who were neighbours of his studio in Paris. From around 1926 he experimented by throwing sand and glue onto canvas and making oil paintings based around the shapes that formed. By the end of the 1920s, however, he was finding automatic drawing rather restricting, and he left the surrealist movement and turned instead to a more structured style, often producing works with a violent or erotic theme, and making a number of paintings in reaction to the Spanish Civil War. Nonetheless by the late 1930s he returned to Surrealism.

Under the German occupation of France during World War II, his work was condemned by the Nazis as degenerate. With the assistance of Varian Fry in Marseille, Masson escaped the Nazi regime on a ship to the French island of Martinique from where he went on to the United States. Upon arrival in New York City, U.S. customs officials inspecting Masson’s luggage found a cache of his erotic drawings. Living in New Preston, Connecticut his work became an important influence on American abstract expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock – indeed Pollock is rumoured to have been inspired by Masson’s Pasiphae when it was shown at Buchholz Gallery in Manhattan in 1944.

Masson drew the cover of the first issue of Georges Bataille’s review, Acéphale, in 1936, and participated in all its issues until 1939. In 1945 Masson returned to Paris. He broke with Surrealism once and for all. Masson’s versatile œuvre also includes illustrations of books and stage designs. In 1966 Masson produced a ceiling painting for the Parisian Théatre Odéon. In spite of the fact that , particularly in the USA, he is celebrated as the inspiration of Abstract Expressionism, Masson’s work remained object-related throughout. Masson’s desire was turn his own vision into reality and “not to photograph the event of the day”.

In 1976, Masson’s work was the subject of a retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. He died on October 28, 1987 in Paris.