JANUARY 28 - APRIL 28, 2001


World War I represented a watershed moment in creative thought. The war left almost ten million Europeans dead and countless more wounded. On the battlefield and in the trenches, men employed new technologies, killing by machine gun, chemical gas, submarine, and airplane. The great powers of Europe, the paragons of democracy, reason and progress, resorted to brutal slaughter in the name of nationalism. André Masson and many other artists of his generation fought in the trenches and witnessed first-hand the horrific reality of war. Many young artists felt betrayed by their faith in reason, science, progress, democracy, and capitalism. They found the traditional notions of beauty and absolute value bankrupt in the face of such carnage.

In the uneasy peace that followed the war, artists turned toward new artistic inspirations in the search of more meaningful truths. The resulting flurry of modern art movements included Cubism, Futurism, and Dada. Dada in particular was a revolt against accepted conceptions of art and its function.

Dada emerged in 1916 in Zürich, Cologne, and New York, and by 1919 was centered in Paris. Prominent Dada artists included Tristan Tzara, Jean Arp, Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp. Seeking to shock the artistic public and force a new manner of viewing art, Picabia put new captions on mechanical drawings, labeling a spark plug as a "Young American Girl in a State of Nudity." Duchamp, for his part, turned a urinal upside down and labeled it a "Fountain."

However, a faction among the French Dada movement increasingly critiqued Dada as a purely negating force, and began to seek an alternative, creative force in its place. They took on the name Surrealists, seeking a truth beyond realism. Similar to the work of the Viennese psychoanalyst Dr. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the Surrealists sought to discover the essence of human life lying outside the realm of conscious thought. They employed experimental creative processes to probe the foundations of human existence. These founders of Surrealism included: André Breton, Louis Aragon, Benjamin Péret, Paul Eluard, and Phillippe Soupault. With André Breton emerging as their leader, the Surrealists eclipsed Dada by 1924 and became a revolutionary artistic movement.


The Roots of Surrealism

The Surrealist Artists

Early Surrealism and Automatism

Spain in the Thirties

American Sojourn 1941-45

Postwar Europe

Andre Masson Chronology

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain 1964
(3rd version, original 1917).

In his first Surrealist Manifesto, André Breton defined Surrealism as "Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express . . . the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations." André Masson used the technique of automatic drawing to escape the control of reason over his creative process. In their attempts to transmit pure, unedited thoughts to the canvas, the other major Surrealist artists developed two techniques: biomorphic abstraction and unexpected juxtapositions.

Jean Arp (1887-1966)

In 1916, Arp rejected the rectilinear grid favored by the Cubists and developed a new pictorial language based on the organic forms of Art Nouveau. Arp's curving forms resemble body parts or vegetation closely enough to provoke an emotional response in the viewer, but their abstract quality thwarts the rational mind's attempts to define and classify them.

Yves Tanguy (1900-1955)
Tanguy uses modeling and perspective to create the illusion of a plain receding towards a distant horizon. He fills this landscape with simple biomorphic forms that appear to stand in for plants or animals.

Joan Miró (1893-1983)

Miró employs abstract organic forms as flat patterns. Miró's distinctive style combines brightly-colored shapes resembling paper cutouts with letters, stick figures, and obscure signs.

Jean Arp, Forest: Earthly Forms 1916-17. Painted wood, 12.75 x 7.75 x 2.25 in. Fondation Arp Musée de Sculpture, Clamart. Yves Tanguy, Detail of A Large Painting which is a Landscape 1927. Oil on canvas, 46 x 75.75 in. Private Collection.
Joan Miró, The Swallow of Love 1934. Oil on canvas, 78.5 x 97.5 in. Private Collection.  

Max Ernst (1891-1976)

To open himself to images that his rational mind might reject, Ernst incorporates chance occurrences into his artistic process. He builds compositions around collage elements, accidental blotches of paint, and rubbings of textured surfaces like wood grain.

René Magritte (1898-1967)

Magritte combines ordinary objects to create surprising and often magical scenes. While the elements in Magritte's compositions are always recognizable, they are rendered simply, with only minimal shading. This slight flatness makes them appear unreal.

Salvador Dalí (1904-1975)

With precise brushstrokes and realistic modeling, Dalí creates powerful illusions. In many works, he presents the viewer with two equally convincing readings of the same image. Dalí called this technique the "paranoiac-critical method", referring to a paranoid person's belief that ordinary images are used to transmit sinister hidden messages.

  Max Ernst, The Great Forest 1927. Oil on canvas, 45 x 57.5 in. Kunstmusuem, Basel.
René Magritte, The Listening Room 1958. Oil on canvas, 38 x 46 in. Kunsthaus Zurich.
Salvador Dalí, Detail of Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire 1940. Oil on canvas, 18.25 x 25.75 in. The Salvador DalĖ Museum, Saint Petersburg, Florida.


During the early 1920s André Masson's studio in Paris was a gathering place for a group of radical young artists, writers and poets. They shared an interest in German Romantic literature and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 - 1900). Masson and his friends soon encountered André Breton, who wrote the first Surrealist manifesto in 1924 and founded the magazine La Révolution SurrČaliste.

Breton believed that art could unlock the inner workings of the human psyche, revealing parts of ourselves that are normally hidden by our conscious minds. He considered his work to be research into the workings of the unconscious, building on the theories of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Breton's primary method of investigation was automatic writing, where every passing thought was quickly transferred to the paper, without stopping to consider grammar or sense.

Masson developed a similar technique of automatic drawing. He allowed his pen to wander, without any thought of composition or subject matter. Executed in a trance-like state, these automatic drawings suggested vestiges of images that the artist sometimes later enhanced. He made any additions in the same rapid spirit as the initial drawing, purposely leaving the image ambiguous enough to allow multiple readings.

As the Surrealist movement developed, Breton increasingly demanded tight control over the politics and artistic practices of the group. Masson valued collaboration among equals, but refused to relinquish his independence. Breton soon lost interest in automatism, and declared that the Surrealists would focus on dream images instead. By the end of the 1920s, Masson and Breton parted ways.
André Masson, Soleils bas 1924. Etching with drypoint, 25.3 x 9.7 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario.

The fascist riots in Paris on February 6, 1934 prompted Masson and his wife-to-be, Rose Maklès, to depart for Spain. They eventually settled in Tossa de Mar, where they immersed themselves in Spanish culture and politics. Masson supported the Republican government's attempts to create educational reforms, redistribute land, and improve living conditions for factory workers and rural laborers. His art from this period reveals his concern about the rising influence of the Nationalist party, led by General Francisco Franco.

After Franco staged his 1936 coup, the Italian and German governments came to his aid. The Soviet Union and International Brigades from European countries and the United States volunteered to fight for the Republican side. To many foreign politicians and intellectuals, the conflict in Spain became a symbol of the wider conflict between democracy, Communism and Fascism in Europe. By March of 1939, Nationalist forces entered the Republican stronghold of Madrid, forcing Republican armies to surrender. Franco's regime abandoned the social reforms that had begun before the war and maintained bitter divisions between the victors and the defeated. Spain did not become a democratic nation until 1977, two years after Franco's death.

Masson and his family returned to France when civil war broke out in 1936, but the artist remained deeply concerned for the Spanish people.
André Masson, L'Espagne Assassinée 1938. Etching, 8.0 x 10.9 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario.
André Masson, Orphée c.1933. Etching, drypoint and aquatint, 17.5 x 21.5 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario.

When the Germans occupied France in 1939, a group of concerned Americans set up the Emergency Rescue Committee. The committee sent Adrian Fry (1909-1967) to France to help some 1500 scholars, artists and activists on the Nazis' blacklist escape to America. Masson was in danger of persecution by the Nazis because his work dealt with themes of violence and sexuality, because the Surrealists had ties to the Communist Party, and because his wife Rose was Jewish. In 1941, the committee arranged for Masson to travel to the Caribbean island of Martinique, and from there to enter the United States. The Masson family settled in New Preston, Connecticut.

Although Masson never learned English, he used his years in exile to educate Americans about contemporary French art. He lectured on art and collaborated with other European exiles on conferences and publications. His first solo museum exhibition was held at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1941. His work was also exhibited in New York and in South Hadley, Massachusetts. The American critic Clement Greenberg believed that Masson's visit to America played a pivotal role in the development of Abstract Expressionism in New York. With the end of the war in 1945, Masson returned to his native France.

André Masson, Improvisation 1945. Engraving and aquatint, 32 x 25.2 cm. Art gallery of Ontario.

In the early 1950s, Masson began to incorporate luminous atmospheric and transparent effects into his work. In particular, MassonÖs evocative prints of Venice and the Italian landscape reveal his interest in the Romantic landscapes of J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) and the Impressionism of Claude Monet (1840-1926).

In the mid 1950s, calligraphic forms derived from Chinese and Japanese ideograms began to appear in MassonÖs works. Masson was fascinated by the play between spontaneity and control in Asian art. He was also drawn to the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. Zen and Surrealism share the idea that surprising juxtapositions can give us powerful insights into the human character. Zen practices including meditation on the paradoxical phrases known as koans are designed to shock an individual into enlightenment by breaking through the boundaries of everyday, logical thought.

While Masson pursued new interests in his later work, he also deepened his exploration of the powerful forces of sexuality and metamorphosis. The artist continued to create engaging new works almost to the time of his death in 1987.


1896: Born 4 January at Balagny, France.

1913-1914: Enrolls at Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

19151916: Infantryman in French army. In 1916 sees combat in the Somme.

1921: Moves to Paris. Masson's studio is next door to Joan Miró's.

1922-23: Meets various artists and writers including Michel Leiris, Georges Limbour, and Jean Dubuffet. Offered a contract with the Parisian dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler.
André Masson, Nu vert 1950. Color lithograph, 38.4 x 28.2 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario.
André Masson, Message de mai 1957. Lithograph, 65.5 x 51.0 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario.
1924: Meets André Breton.

1929: Breaks with Breton and the Surrealist group.

1931-33: Produces a series of violent and erotic images known as the Massacres.

1934: Fascist riots in Paris. Moves to Tossa de Mar, Spain. Marries Rose Maklès in Barcelona on 28 December.

1936: Spanish Civil War begins. Masson is involved with the struggle against fascism. Reconciles with Breton.

1940: War forces the Massons to take refuge in Marseilles.

1941: With help from the Emergency Rescue Committee, the Massons sail to New York via Martinique. They settle in New Preston, Connecticut.

1943: Definitive break with Breton over political differences.

1945: War ends. The Massons return to France.

1948: Work develops in new directions, reflecting Masson's interest in Chinese calligraphy, the Impressionist paintings of Claude Monet, and the Romantic landscapes of J. M. W. Turner.

1951: Trip to Italy leads to an important book of color lithographs, Voyage à Venise.

1963: Allan Gotlieb begins to collect Masson's work.

1987: Dies at home on 28 October in Paris.
André Masson, Le génie de la fertilité 1969. Color lithograph, 31.2 x 24.6 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario.
André Masson, La Légende du Maïs 1942. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 56.2 x 76.3 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario.