By Chaz Ainsworth
Andre Masson, who seemed to be an ordinary artist of the fine arts in his youth, took a turn toward something far from ordinary after World War One. The ideas of the earthly body being more important than the spiritual and physical capabilities of a human became his main focus. He was dissatisfied with societies views of these out of body experiences and wanted the world to know of these possibilities and the evil and good they entailed. Surrealism opened a door for Masson that allowed him to share his views with the world. World War One changed Masson’s state of mind, and he began to paint expressing the trauma, death, life, and the unconscious mind in his works. The Surrealist movement was one that matched the happenings in Andre Masson’s life and became part of him as much as he was part of the movement.
Earlier in Andre Masson’s life, he was a student of the fine arts and was on the path many artists take in learning the techniques and styles of great artists before him. Born in Balagne, France, Masson quickly became interested in the fine arts, or arts that are for aesthetic purposes or conception rather than those meant for practical purposes. At the ripe age of eight, his family moved to Brussels, Belgium, where he studied art and worked in an embroidery studio. This place of business was where the aspiring artist was able to study textures and other branches of art while drawing patterns for the shop. Andre Masson soon moved on to the art school Acedemie Royale des Beaux-Arts, Brussels and then to Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris. Up to this point, Masson was involved in the fine arts studies, the route many great artists, but the happenings of the upcoming World War will change Masson’s path, art style, and lifestyle permanently.
When the First World War broke out, Masson was eager to know the “ecstasy of death” and enrolled as a soldier in 1914. After three years of fighting, Masson is shot in the chest and has the near death experience he spoke of. The happenings of that day were not one of a death wish, but rather of a greater understanding of superficial religion and the unconscious realm of the mind he had yet to access. His desire was to have the intimacy of religion’s teachings presented to him in the ways many speak of during near death experiences, or to “see the light”. “The day a bullet ripped into his chest. He remained on his feet, standing still, unconscious of pain. The world around him became something wondrous and he experienced his first complete physical release, while in the sky there appeared before him a torso of light.” This was described as Masson’s first experience that tested his beliefs of a spiritual world. He became a theologian, or one who studies religion through systematic and rational methods. The transition from such a fine art focus to one of the unconscious mind that Surrealism targeted is through this experience. Post war, Masson was placed in a psychiatric ward, and suffered from insomnia, and repetitive nightmares, the source of his Surrealist paintings. The study of the bible and religious texts was Masson’s way of medicating. As a theologian, Masson interpreted religious works to explain not only what he saw that day but also as a means of calming the effects the war had on him. Surrealism was the perfect transition for Masson to express his unconscious dreams and feelings in a way that helped him and others.
Surrealism has been spoken of as the unconscious mind on paper, but there is much more behind why this movement was so easily developed post World War One. Born out of Dada, a movement based on a response to the ideas of logic that caused the war, Surrealism was a more constructive way to respond to the logic the Dadaists referred to. “Drawing on the psychoanalytic studies of Sigmund Freud”, Andre Breton, the founder and promoter of Surrealism, “tried to expand the mind’s potential by reconciling the apparently contradictory states of dream and reality”. By entering the unconscious through dreams or drug induced states, the founders of this group built works to represent the subconscious and avoid reality. This is what Masson did after his life experience due to his altered state of mind, and it connected to the feelings of the world. Millions of people post World War One were physically, mentally, or financially stricken by the war and the irrationality of this movement seemed to coincide with the emotions that were felt. Although meanings and symbolisms of these works might not have been understood, the initial feelings and thoughts seem to relate to the people after such a traumatic international conflict.
There are many works that Masson creates that expose his frame of thinking post World War One. Although these works fit the surrealist movement, there is no evidence of Masson creating these works by using drugs to induce his subconscious. Rather, his altered state of stability after the war emotionally, physically, and mentally are the roots of the works he produces. Although referenced in the three papers attached to this artist, Ophelia, Emblematic View of Toledo, and Gradiva, are all works that were chosen due to the emotions they convey and the message they deliver. Those of death and life are extremely evident in Gradiva and Ophelia. One both use the woman’s body and instill negative qualities in the woman. She is either positioned as a trap, via the vagina having needle-like projections waiting to ensnare anyone who is willing to get too close, or as a character known for her eventual suicide. Rebirth and revitalization are common factors among all three of these works. The world is going through these processes day in and day out, socially, physically, or through international relations. Surrealisms discontents with the logic that created the world war are encompassed in all the works as well. The Minotaur in Emblematic View of Toledo is a symbol of the man not being able to think logically. The head of the bull symbolizes irrationality and lack of logic, a feeling that surrealists have about those in charge. The evident illogical settings of the works play a role in the fight against logic. Fields with lush greenery become ice flats, barren landscape, or swirls of color. Bugs begin to play instruments and the illogical becomes true in these depictions. Deciphered independently, it is much more evident of the signs, symbols, and emotions that are received when viewing these works.
Although Surrealism might not seem like the most ideal and have the most attractive works or art, the movement and Andre Masson’s contribution to it is one that was fitting to the time it was created. The effects of World War One, and those of the stirring World War Two are encompassed by Andre Masson and executed through his works. Andre Masson spent his life sharing his subconscious with others that felt the same way. He was changed as a result of his participation in the war, and his portrayal of that is appreciated and shared by thousands of others during the time of his Surrealist works.
RoGallery. “Andre Masson, French (1896-1987).” http://rogallery.com/Masson_Andre/masson_bio.htm.
Ries, Martin. Andre’ Masson: Surrealist, Survivor, Sage. Long Island University, published 2009, http://www.martinries.com/article2010AM.htm.
Ries, Martin. “Andre’ Masson: Surrealism and His Discontents.” Art Journal 61, no. 4 (2002): 74-85, http://www.jstor.org/stable/778153.
“Introduction.” Literary Movements for Students. Vol. 1. Gale Cengage, . eNotes.com. 27 Apr, 2012 <http://www.enotes.com/surrealism/>
 Ries, Surrealism and Discontents, 75