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Speaker: Gerard Bellaart, Member, on 21 September 1999
"My work is an errant one. I can't stay very long in one place; I have preferred the mental labyrinth full of snares to roads that were safe and straight." André Masson
André Masson was one of the great painters of the 20th Century. Born in 1896 in Balagny, France, he enrolled in 1913 at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Paris to study fresco painting, and one year later, obtained a government scholarship to study the subject in Italy. In 1915 Masson joined the French infantry as a private and was seriously wounded and left to die in the mud on the Somme. A man of great vitality, he observed the confusion of the stretcher bearers, managed to attract their attention and persuaded them to pick him up. He then blew his top and was put in a lunatic asylum for several months. On discharge he received a small pension for his pains.
In 1919, he visited Ceret in the South of France, and resumed painting. In 1920 he returned to Paris, where he lived on Rue Blomet, which became the centre for young artists and writers: Miro, Dubuffet, Gris, Leiris, Artaud, Aragon and others. Hemingway and Gertrude Stein bought his paintings. In 1925 he became a member of the surrealist party and his automatic drawings were reproduced in their first manifesto. In 1929 he separated from Breton and the surrealists— he wrote that he did not consider himself part of any group. In the 30s he illustrated several issues of Acephale, an art magazine edited by Battaile, including the double one devoted to Nietzsche, and worked on a suite of ink drawings for Mythology of Nature, Anatomy of the Universe and Mythology
of Being, accompanied by his own text. In 1939, at the suggestion of Max Ernst he wrote Painting is a wager, published in Horizon in 1943. With the fall of France in 1940, Masson left for America where he exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1945 he returned to France where he rediscovered impressionism, illustrated André Malraux's L' Espoir and designed stage sets and costumes for Hamlet in production by Barrault. In 1947 he produced a series of 22 large drawings on the theme of desire, prefaced by Sartre. He then settled at le Tholonet, near Aix en Provence with Cézanne's Mount St. Victoire in full view. Landscape became a major theme in his paintings and drawings. Three years later he exhibited with Giacometti in Basel and published Plaisir de Peindre. Then, he became increasingly drawn to Zen Buddhist art. In 1956, Un Peintre de l' Essentiel, a study of oriental wash paintings by Masson, was published, and also two volumes of his writings. 1958 was a year of recognition: a large retrospective of 147 of his graphic works at the Albertina in Vienna and in Tokyo, a whole room devoted to his work at the Venice Biennale, a retrospective at Marlborough Fine Art in London, with a catalogue introduction by Wm. Rubin, and a lecture — Peintre et Regardant — at the College Philosophique in Paris. In 1960 Sartre's André Masson et le Temps was published, a book which included illustrations of Masson's large ideogramatic canvases on the relation of writing to painting. In 1977 he had a large retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, organised by Wm. Rubin.
Three years later he abandoned painting, because he was no longer able to walk: he always needed to move before the easel. In 1985 Michel and Louise Leiris bequeathed their collection to the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Masson's work and that of Picasso are given equal space. Two years later David Sylvester curated a retrospective of his drawings at the Hayward Gallery, London, and Masson made his last journey to see it. He died in 28 October 1987 in Paris.
Gerard Bellaart, a professional painter in Bath and life-long admirer of Masson, illustrated his talk with slides of many of Masson's drawings from all periods, and most memorably his self-portraits. Masson appears as a great original painter and draughtsman, not tied to any school, who continuously sought new sources of inspiration and reinvented himself. A man of great passion, he found balance, i.e. he got rid of his habit of getting needlessly excited, by the end of his life.
One could say that the audience was captivated by this talk about an artist relatively unknown in Britain.