On this day in 1896, the great painter André Masson was born. It is hard to classify him, which is what makes him so great. The clearest aspect of his painting is surrealism, especially that of Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí. But I also see Paul Klee and M C Escher. At least, that’s what I see in his mature work in the 1930s and 1940s. His earlier work is experimental with a lot of automatic drawing, which probably is why he became a major influence of the abstract expressionists much later. I like to think that he was laying the groundwork for his later work — the way that the last dream of the night combines elements of the earlier, simpler dreams.
When the Nazis took over France, they did not like Masson’s work. But really: whose work did the Nazis like? They considered it “degenerate.” So he managed to escape from France and make it to the United States. When people from the customs department found some of his art work that he had smuggled with him, it was pronounced pornographic and destroyed. I know that some people have a real problem with my attitude, but there is really something that connects Germany and the United States. And it ain’t good. They (We!) are a parochial people. And while I’ll allow that Germany is much improved since the Nazis, the United States has regressed in many ways since the New Deal.
In 1938, having seen the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the general rise of fascism throughout Europe, Masson painted In the Tower of Sleep. It is simultaneously horrific and transcendent. He wrote of the central figure whose skin has been flayed off that it came from having seen while fighting in World War I “a figure lying in a trench with his head split open…” I think it’s a masterpiece that better renders the time and place than anything I’ve ever seen:
Happy birthday André Masson!