French painter, draftsman, printmaker, sculptor, writer, and stage designer who sought refuge in the United States during World War II. Born 1896 in Balagny-sur-Thérain, France; died 1987 in Paris.
Masson played a significant role in the development of surrealism, and his work strongly influenced American abstract expressionist painters. The artist received early art instruction at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts et l’Ecole des Arts Décoratifs in Brussels, with further training in Paris. In the mid-1920s, through his dealer, Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, Masson met André Breton and joined the surrealist circle. Masson’s relationship with Breton and the surrealists waxed and waned throughout his career, but during his exile in the United States, Masson actively exhibited and worked with the group.
Masson’s first solo exhibition premiered at Kahnweiler’s Galerie Simon in Paris (1923) with paintings influenced by analytic cubism. Between 1924 and 1929, Masson experimented with automatic drawing (the use of random gestures) and biomorphic abstraction, making compositions such as Battle of the Fishes (1927, Museum of Modern Art, NY) by drawing with glue directly onto canvas, then sprinkling colored sand to complete the image. After Breton expelled Masson in his second surrealist manifesto (1929), Masson, with other dissident surrealists, contributed to Georges Bataille’s journal, Documents. During the 1930s, Masson lived in the south of France and then in Spain, where he and Rose Maklès, his future wife, settled in March 1934. This period witnessed one of Masson’s most famous series known as Massacres (1931-1933) and a collaboration with Bataille entitled Sacrifices (completed 1936). More consciously conceived than his earlier work, Massacres and Sacrifices addressed eroticism and violence, themes made pertinent by the Spanish civil war.
The rise of Hitler and the occupation of France forced the Masson family into exile. Aided by Varian Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee and by Saidie A. May, one of the artist’s major collectors, the family embarked from Marseilles and arrived in New York (via Martinique) on May 29, 1941. They soon relocated to Connecticut, remaining there until the end of World War II. Masson was already well known in New York; in the 1930s, his work had appeared in solo and group exhibitions, including the Museum of Modern Art’s important Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (1936). Maintaining an active professional life in the United States, Masson participated in every surrealist exhibition (he had reconciled with Breton in 1937) and major exhibition of exiled artists. Among his most important works of this period, Meditation on an Oak Leaf (1942, Museum of Modern Art, NY) reflected the New England autumn, which looked to him “as if the sky had poured pots of paint over the vegetation.” He worked closely with American and European artists at Stanley Hayter’s Atelier 17, experimenting with lithography, drypoint, and engraving. Masson also produced antiwar paintings and made public statements against fascist aggression. At the end of the war, Masson returned immediately to France, where he worked until his death.
Bataille, Georges; Breton, André; Fry, Varian; Painting; Surrealism; World War II.
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