Gradiva, an oil painting on canvas, is an example of Surrealist art produced by Andre Masson in 1939. The disfigured human shape and variety of colors in this painting tell of Andre Masson’s life experiences, the effects of World War One, and his mentality toward everyday life. Although a thorough analysis of this painting is necessary, a small background check into Masson’s history is needed to understand the deeper meaning behind the structure and form of this magnificent art piece.
Masson, born in 1896, grew up in a place and time much different than the scenes that Gradiva depicts. Brought into this world in a location where “fresh rivers, fertile fields, and rich forests” were not an uncommon site, one would wonder how Masson’s art became so grotesque in nature. After studying classical art in Brussels during his adolescence and then becoming Wagnerian in style, as he grew older, Masson felt the need to know “the ecstasy of death.” While serving in the military, Masson was struck in the chest by a bullet, and was left for dead for a full night. It was this night where Andre was changed by the blinding light of death. This near death experience as well as the global world war changed Masson’s views and produced the grotesque painting style seen in Gradiva.
Gradiva, as a whole, seems like one object with an unclear meaning or symbolism but upon further inspection, it is evident that there is much more going on than the first impression implies. The painting is very balanced with a central object that is human-like. The Human-like figure is both dead and alive implying Masson’s obsession with death and the culture that exists after the war. The flat stone foot on the right symbolizes the stability of death while the flexed foot on the right suggests life and its constant movement. The figures core is leaning heavily to one side, which shows the imbalance between life and death and how the forms of each of these states are not in a balance. The golden hair of life set against the dark stone hair of death weighs the head of the human sideways once again showing the imbalance.
There are many obscure objects centrally located on the human including a slab of meat, a nest of bees, and the extremities of a woman. What was first perceived as flies, which one would assume around a body that is associated with death, is actually a nest of bees with a flow of rich yellow honey running down the purple and gold robes that partially cover the stone leg. It would be assumed that these items relate to the female form in some way. This female is most likely the holdfast that once held him together and is now contorted. This beehive symbolizes a nurturing figure that is the anchor or home for others, while the meat and vagina symbolizes the woman as a figure of reproduction. The meat is raw and resembles the uncovered human figure. The woman’s vagina is large in size and at an awkward forward facing angle compared to the spread legs of the woman. Although these symbols are ambiguous the viewer could analyze them in different ways pertaining to life and death. The background on one side of this figure is growing flowers and the other seems like a path toward a fire. Not only does the background do this, but the altar upon which the body stands contributes to the struggle. The living half is placed upon a smooth clean altar while the stone half is on a broken and cracked section of the raised surface. All of these emphasize the life and death struggle that all of these observations have reinforced.
In relation to history, these symbols and the effect they have relate heavily to the worldwide feelings shared by millions after World War One. The rebuilding of societies and economies after such a costly war is seen in the symbolisms of life and death. Also more simply, the loss of loved ones contributes to the overall post war feeling. The irrational thoughts of most of these artists are evident in these paintings due to this international crisis. These works were not only a way of showing the emotions of certain cultures, but also a means by which the artist could heal himself. There is a certain restorative value that these works contain. The forms that are painted from Masson’s unconscious mind heal the conscious mind and attempt to rehabilitate the figure as well as others who feel the same as members of a changed society.
The palette and forms in this work of art also aid in the analysis of this piece. The color schemes used are heavily saturated reds, yellows, purples of the figures clothing and background, plus the grey and whites of the skin and altar. The dark colors of death and blood fill the background and body, which dominate a majority of the paintings size. The small patches of light color belong only to the clean altar and the live portions of the woman. Again, the emphasis of Masson’s obsession with the awes of death he saw that day while lying on the ground.
All in all, Masson’s Gradiva is a constant message of unity in meaning yet controversial due to the life and death struggle. All of the elements work together to push the point of the contradicting elements: light and dark, life and death, flesh and stone all contribute to the overall meaning that Masson dealt with in his life. Surrealism was Andre Masson’s way of portraying the extremes that he had felt and changed his life.
1. Ries, Martin. Andre’ Masson: Surrealist, Survivor, Sage. Long Island University, published 2009, http://www.martinries.com/article2010AM.htm.
2. Ries, Martin. “Andre’ Masson: Surrealism and His Discontents.” Art Journal 61, no. 4 (2002): 74-85, http://www.jstor.org/stable/778153.