The Greece of Andre Masson

The French surrealist painter Andre Masson once said that when, in a small study conducted within the surrealist movement during its early days, artists were asked to list the creatures of Greek mythology that interested them the most, they all cited the Minotaur. This deadly creature represented the instinctual forces that the surrealists sought to release in the hope of breaching the dominance of reason. For, according to their thinking, it was reason that had led to the impasse of Western civilization and the crisis of the interwar period. Theseus was the figure of reason and the Minotaur the image of the beastly and of death. The labyrinth – a structure with psychoanalytical connotations as it also symbolized the delving into the unconscious – was the dangerous and often fatal path that man had to take in order to attain wisdom and liberation. The labyrinth offered no way out, yet, in surrealist utopian thinking, death and disaster were necessary for the birth of a new society. Life and death, violence and eroticism were the flip sides of the same reality. The myth of the Minotaur captured human drama in all its range. As an artist at the core of the surrealist movement, Masson (1896-1987) was actually the one who introduced the mythical monster into surrealist iconography. Several years after his well-known «Massacre» scenes, in 1938 he painted «The Labyrinth,» a painting with complex visual symbolism. In this famous painting, a labyrinthine structure and other elements taken from nature fill the insides of a beastly figure – presumably the Minotaur – that towers against the background of a formidable, cosmogonical landscape. The painting is one of the most impressive works of Masson presented at «Ancient Greece and Masson,» an exhibition held at the Basil and Elise Goulandris Museum of Contemporary Art on Andros. Vassilis Goulandris bought the painting in 1977 when the Andre Masson retrospective organized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art traveled to Centre Pompidou’s National Museum of Modern Art. Goulandris donated the painting to the museum; its current display on Andros brings the story full circle. The Andre Masson exhibition helps bring attention to an artist who, according to Didier Ottinger (chief curator of the Musee National d’ Art Moderne and co-curator of the Andros exhibition together with Guite Masson and Kyriakos Koutsomallis) was the most intellectual of the painters who were part of the surrealist movement. In the early 1920s, Masson gathered with artists and intellectuals that went on to become leading figures in surrealism – among them Michel Leiris, Antonin Artaud, Georges Limbour and Joan Miro – in meetings that discussed the poetry of Rimbaud and Lautremont, the writings of Dostoevsky and the Marquis de Sade and the philosophy of Nietzsche which had a profound effect on their thinking and particularly on the work of Masson. The concept of the sublime as expressed in the romantic-symbolist tradition fitted the surrealist rejection of the rational and the concept of an artist as a visionary, while Freud’s analysis of the unconscious provided a theoretical basis for the technique of psychic automatism that the surrealists introduced in art. Masson joined the surrealist movement in 1924, when it was officially founded by Andre Breton, who that same year bought Masson’s «Les Quatres Elements» at the artist’s first solo exhibition in Paris. The painting is one of the earliest expressions of Masson’s keen interest in pre-Socratic philosophy, particularly the thinking of Heraclitus. It also shows his passion for the philosophy of Nietzsche. The Andros exhibition includes a wonderful portrait of the Greek philosopher that Masson painted in 1943 when he was living in New York. Like other European artists and Breton himself, he left Paris because of the war but returned in 1945. In those days, Masson was interested in Asian calligraphy and was inspired by the spiritual contact with nature that was inherent in Asian philosophy. His work had a profound effect on the American abstract expressionists. This connection with nature – which in the New York period took on a certain mysticism – is latent in all of Masson’s works and underlies the themes of metamorphosis, violence and eroticism that dominate his work. It is the dark, «Dionysiac» and «Nietzschean» aspect of Greek mythology that pervades the work of Masson. In the Andros exhibition drawings inspired by the fearsome Horses of Diomedes, the massacre of the Amazons or hideous monsters such as the Gorgons or the Minotaur unfold Masson’s perusal of Greek mythology. «Bataille and I dealt with the dark Greece, the pre-Classical Greece that was filled with abysses and ruins» he once wrote. «According to the Greek myth, the Minotaur is slain. In my version he is the victor, he kills anybody who enters the labyrinth.» His paintings of violence corresponded with the thinking of Bataille who, for ideological reasons, broke off from the Breton circle in 1929, taking with him other dissident surrealist artists and intellectuals. Masson followed suit and his work (especially his «Massacre» series) was published in Documents, the periodical that expressed the group’s beliefs, their interest in the Jungian approach to civilization and their study of ethnology. Together with Bataille, he also participated in the periodical Minotaure, a venture by the Greek publisher Stratis Elefteriadis-Teriade. After a two-year stay in Spain (1934-1936) which enriched his depiction of the myth of the Minotaur with scenes inspired by bullfights, Masson collaborated with Bataille once more, this time in the newly released publication Acephale. Masson designed the cover of the magazine: He drew a headless human figure with a skull in place of the genitalia and a labyrinth for the intestines. The image is one of the most potent symbols of surrealism’s loss of faith in conventional power and the authority of logic. It contains all the violence and dark side that suffuses the work of Masson. But it also expresses the utopian and visionary thinking that lies behind his art. Through his work, Greece became the start for a more profound understanding of human nature and the inspiration for a liberated society. «Ancient Greece and Masson» at the Goulandris Museum of Contem-porary Art on Andros (22820.22444) to Sept 30. A round-table discussion on «Greece and Surrealism» was held on the occasion of the exhibition’s opening. Eleni Glykatzi-Ahrweiler was the coordinator. Art history professor Niki Loizidi (writer of the book «The Myth of the Minotaur»), professor of aesthetics Takis Poulos and psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr Gerasimos Stefanatos were the participants.

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