Martica Sawin

"André Masson in America, from nature as myth to nature experienced," essay in André Masson, 1896-1987. Madrid, Reina Sofia Museum, 2004

Masson's immersion in nature study and philosophy, reflected in his 1939 painting, Goethe and the Metamorphosis of Plants, prepared him to experience his natural surroundings in rural Connecticut with a particular intensity.  He saw his New England village retreat as the "pays sauvage" of Chateaubriand and wrote with some exaggeration of its extremes of climate, enormous trees, waist-high weeds, winter ice storms, and abundant wildlife.  Daily exposure to the dynamic processes of  untamed nature inspired him to embark on a new series of paintings dealing with nature as an unending state of flux. However, instead of anthropomorphizing the landscape as he had done in his mythologies, in his telluric works he placed himself within nature and focused on specific or microcosmic aspects in its state of perpetual metamorphosis.  To this end he evolved a way of working that was not only new to him but produced a synthesis that took painting beyond its known boundaries.  As he embarked on this new series he abandoned the illusionism of his late 1930s works, laid his canvases on a flat surface, and applied dark or black grounds, over which he painted with calligraphic brushwork in brilliant color.  Because they forecast the all-over style of American Abstract Expressionism which began to emerge in the mid-1940s Masson's telluric or earth-related works have been assigned a pivotal historic role and he is credited with having influenced Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock, among others.  Although artists and critics in his American audience picked up on the energetic brushwork and non-illusionistic flatness, they largely ignored the underlying philosophical content.  To be fully comprehended, however, Masson's work should be seen not so much as a pivot in an historical progression of styles, but in the context of his philosophical formation, his devotion to the writings of Nietzsche, to the naturalist writings of Goethe, and the philosophical fragments of Heraclitus.  In order to illuminate what drove Masson's artistic innovation, the discussion that follows focuses on the ways in which the artist's encounters with New World nature served as a catalyst for the release of forms embodying his philosophical views.              

Even before Masson reached his final destination, New York, the enforced three-week stopover in Martinique provided an introduction to the abundant and exotic nature he was to find in the new world.  Andre Breton had arrived a week earlier and together the two veteran Surrealists explored the island.  "Wondrous Martinique," Masson recollected.  "We visited the length and breadth of the island.  Breton wrote admirable prose poems and made notes on the political situation in Fort de France.  As for myself I drew after nature, all the while imagining a new vegetal mythology.  Together we wrote the 'Dialogue Creole.'"  Wearied by wartime privation and the coldest winter Marseilles had experienced in a century, the refugees saw the island indeed as the tropical paradise of the European imagination. Even the scars of Mt. Pele's catastrophic eruption early in the century were a source of fascination, the volcano testifying, of course, to earth's fiery core and verifying Heraclitus' theory of fire as the beginning and end of all existence.  However, while they were enraptured by Martinique's natural wonders, they were dismayed by the corrupt and repressive colonial regime and the long reach of the Vichy government. The dual voices with which they speak in Martinique, Charmeuse de serpents reflect these mixed reactions, as well as their own indeterminate situation as refugees, part way between old world and new, having left a homeland under fascism, not yet arrived in the land of their destination and having no notion of how they would survive, once there.

Masson's drawings were a response to "the vegetal energy" of the tropics and included lyrical ink drawings of the island's dense vegetation and of its inhabitants fused with the jungle growth, literal illustrations of his thoughts on metamorphosis and the interconnectedness of all existence.  He drew the tangle of trees and vines as interchangeable with human limbs and bodies and long-fingered hands, recalling Goethe's view of the human as integral with nature, as one with the dynamic relationships of nature’s parts.  Also in Martinique he could see in actuality an "anthropomorphic" landscape, resembling those he had already drawn where "the hills transform themselves naturally into recumbent women stretched out and offering themselves."  This fusion of earth and female body recalls a stanza from Goethe's nature poetry:  

You must when contemplating nature

Attend to this in each and every feature

Theres nought outside and nought within


For she is inside out and outside in


Some of the ink drawings of foliage are made up of calligraphic strokes of his reed pen distributed on the paper's surface in a flat, all-over network made up of looping lines and brief staccato touches.  They convey a pervasive energy in which barely differentiated forms are subsumed.  This new all-over distribution of particles may correspond, intentionally or unintentionally, to Masson's interpretation of  Heraclitus' vision of "wholes and not wholes, convergent, divergent, consonant, dissonant, from all things one and from one thing all."  It will lead to the eliminating of the "vertical" and to the emphasis on surface that characterizes the telluric paintings of his American period.

Following an inauspicious arrival in New York where they stayed briefly in a hotel, the Masson family moved to a rented house in Washington, Connecticut, which Louisa Calder helped them find.  This small village, which Masson liked to call "Washington d'ici," was located in a rural area about 100 kilometers north of New York City.  In the early fall he and his family moved to a converted barn in the neighboring village of New Preston, which the artist described in a letter to Kahnweiler as "tres Fenimore Cooper."  He also described his surroundings as typifying the "pays sauvage de Chateaubriand," seeing it perhaps in the light of the novelist's romantic exaggeration and allowing his imagination to re-populate the region with Iroquois when actually the local Weantinock Indians were affiliated by language with the Algonquins, not the Iroquois, and the survivors lived on a reservation in the town of Kent a short distance away.  He noted in detail both in writing and in his art the many indigenous forms of animal and plant life, from wildcats and tortoises to the gigantic weeds among the tomato plants in his Potager or Victory Garden.  The Masson sons, Diego and Luis, recall their years in New Preston as a time of running free in the woods, climbing the hill in back of the house, and swimming in the nearby lake, without much parental interference. 

Although most of his fellow surrealist refugees found temporary homes in New York City where they attempted to carry on the group activities of pre-war Paris, not all of Masson's ties with his earlier life were severed by his choice of a remote location.  The Massons had come to northwestern Connecticut because they knew Eugene Jolas and Alexander Calder who lived there.  The presence of Jolas and Calder had drawn other artists and artist-refugees to the area, including Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy, Sage's cousin, David Hare, the art dealer Julian Levy, Arshile Gorky, Naum Gabo, and Hans Richter; also in the area were former expatriate writers Malcolm Cowley, Mathew Josephson, and the art critic for The New Yorker, Robert Coates.  Among the many visitors from New York were Pierre Matisse, Claude Levy Straus, Mark Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Georges Duthuit, Kurt Seligmann, and Andre Breton.  Some visited the Massons in their rented house in New Preston, others he saw when Calder would drive over to New Preston to bring the Massons to a gathering at his home in Roxbury.  On occasion there would be a Surrealist event, an exhibition opening or a collaborative publication, that drew Masson into New York City.  On these rare forays he visited the Metropolitan Museum where he greatly admired two Aspara sculptures from India, looked at medieval manuscripts with Meyer Schapiro or Coptic textiles with Dikran Kelekian, or made prints at Hayter's Atelier 17.  Hayter had transferred to the premises of the New School for Social Research the print workshop he had maintained in Paris during the 1930s.  It became a place where European and American artists worked side by side using the experimental techniques Hayter advocated, and a number of Masson's plates were printed there. 

Doubly isolated by his inability to either drive a car or speak English, Masson, as he said, "turned inward," immersing himself in the rhythms of New England nature, with its extremes of climate change, its thick vegetation, its paintpot autumn colors, and the magical transformation when shimmering ice coated the winter landscape.  Up to this point he had intellectually embraced the core theory of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, that one cannot grasp any mortal substance in a stable condition, that all is dissolving and in flux.  In rural Connecticut he could see its embodiment daily and sense himself a part of the unending dynamic.  "Metaphysical interrogation, a theme that I had pursued before my American sojourn, was transformed by this feeling of truly possessing nature, something I had never experienced before so strongly and so continuously."

Selected Works

Art History
The surrealist artists flee wartime Europe and change the course of American art.
An artist triumphs over early seeing disorder, poverty, and crippling polio in mid-life.
Masson flees wartorn Europe for rural Connecticut where the natural surroundings make a transformative impact on his art.