masson, ophelia, 1937


Ophelia is an example of Surrealist art produced by Andre Masson in 1937. This work of art is an example of Masson’s use of scenery to depict the ideas behind surrealism including life, death, conflicts in the physical world, as well as a unique relation to a famous sixteenth century tale. While portraying these concepts, his style has not fully developed into the one subject works we see later in his life, but rather are still scenes tossed in confusion.  This is where the difficult task of analyzing Ophelia comes in.

First off we must answer the question of who the character Ophelia is. Ophelia is Prince Hamlet’s lover.  As Hamlet becomes madly in love with her, a cascade of events leads to him killing her father, Polonius.  Upon her father’s death Ophelia leaves the castle one day, falls from a tree, and is drowned in the river.  There is much more to this story than can be gathered from such a general description that would give more insight to the interpretation of Ophelia by Andre Masson but this is sufficient for a mild comprehension.

The composition known as Ophelia contains many different aspects that do not seem to coincide with one another.  Centrally located in the work are two ponds in a meadow.  One of these ponds contains the head of Ophelia that has flowers growing from it.  The head is large and not in proportion to the setting.  The meadow in the foreground is a bright yellow color while the background is dark.  The rolling hills of the background contain flats of ice, and gardens next to one another.  This is quite contradictory since nothing grows in ice wastelands.  To the left and right of the meadow, there are trees growing at odd angles and are colored darkly even though they are living.  This is not what is usually expected since trees are usually bright greens and full of life.  In the meadow, there are also bugs playing instruments and curling their bodies into awkward shapes.  Perspective of these objects is obviously not shown true.  The subjects are shown from different angles and odd things are happening.  This is also seen in the two ponds.  One pond is normal where the other is both a waterfall and a pond.   On one end, the water is falling down and on the other it is collected as in a normal standing water source.  This work is one that contains contradictory images and has a dreamlike quality rather than one depicting a scene of reality.

The main subject, who is also awarded the title of this work, is one that a very true understanding can be derived from.  Centrally located is the face of Ophelia.  The face submerged in the water is a symbol of reflection or the absence of it.  The face is expressed only above the water, and although the silhouette of the face is somewhat echoed by the reflection of the clouds on the water, the details of the  face are not reflected.  The lack of true depiction with Ophelia’s reflection has much to do with the dream-like depiction of this scene.  Not everything, including this reflection is presented in a manner that seems logical.  The Surrealist movement is doing something new and innovative rather than looking back on past movements such as the return to order, where subjects are painted much more realistically, and recreating them.  This is somewhat ironic to find such an old icon in a movement that is so innovative and new in style.  This work is not the first of Masson’s works to incorporate previous art.  Masson is an artist that rejected previous artistic movements, and using these old icons in paintings that are hard to decipher is a way of discrediting them.

Ophelia herself is a symbol of life and death.  She is blossoming with flowers and expresses life while the tale of Hamlet and her gray appearance indicate death and misery.  She was a character of love but after being ridden with sadness, she killed herself.  There are many things that this figure could stand for in this work.  The despair of women among the post war era is one of great prevalence.  Many women no longer had husbands or were left to take care of them upon their return.  The madness that is in this work as well as Ophelia’s state of mind leading up to her death was witnessed by millions of people during the First World War and the hard times after it’s commencement as well.  There are multitudes more feelings that a viewer of this work could feel relating to them individually when looking at Andre Masson’s Ophelia.

It has been found that some of the main ideas Masson wishes to invoke subconsciously are the ideas of conflict and cruelness[1].  There are many things that conflict in this work including the orientation of objects and perspective.  There are many objects such as the trees and plants that grow at strange angles.  There are a few noticeable arthropods in the painting that are in strange positions such as the stick bug curled up with it’s abdomen flexed, and a dragonfly playing what looks like two flutes.  These emit a sense of conflict among the painting’s meaning.  There are patches of ice in the background where the foreground is a luscious valley.  All of these items are set up to create a confusion of setting and conflict among the ideas of the work.  Ophelia is a character ridden by madness, despair, and irrationality.  This painting echoes the irrational throughout by having these combating angles and subject matter.  Ophelia does give a sense of despair when viewing it much more thoroughly. The death in the foreground seems enhanced by the bareness of the ice flats in the background, and many other objects in the painting add to the ominous quality of the work.

After viewing Ophelia, the time period in which it was produced echo the feelings that are derived from this work.  People all around the world recently witnessed the cruelness of World War One, and Masson is definitely showing the conflict that Fascism, Democracy, and Communism is soon to bring in the upcoming World War Two.   The struggles that have been felt by all of the world’s citizens through depressions and world wars are being seen in this work, because of the escalating political movements that are stirring the pot for another soon to be war.






  1. Ries, Martin. Andre’ Masson: Surrealist, Survivor, Sage. Long Island University, published 2009,

[1] Martin Ries, Andre’ Masson: Surrealist, Survivor, Sage, Long Island University, published 2009,


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