This painting is typical of Masson’s style of the early 1920s. The placement of the musical instruments (a mandolin and the curving body of what appears to be a guitar) on a tabletop, and the rhyming of straight and curved lines, allude unmistakably to the pre-war cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963).
Although the neck of the mandolin appears as if seen from more than one perspective, there is no real attempt to employ the facets, planes or abstruse signs of cubist form language. Instead the painting seems largely realist in conception, with overt references to traditional still-life painting in the presence of the flowers, fruit and dead bird. In this sense, the painting could be seen as reflecting to some extent the themes – if not the values – of the post-war ‘return to order’ movement in France, which advocated qualities of clarity and harmony, and a modern reading of traditional art. But the unexplained elements, the strange spatial qualities and bleached coloration of his paintings of this period indicate a new and individual approach.
Recalling the works of this period, the poet Georges Limbour – a friend of the artist from the earliest days – stressed the unnatural atmosphere of Masson’s paintings. He described the painter as a ‘magician’ who concealed secrets and mystery behind everyday appearances. ‘Wand in hand, and putting objects back to rest in their forms, André Masson seemed to approach painting along the path of calmness. But this calmness was all appearance. Behind it lurked disquiet and a certain metaphysical passion.’ The bleached tones lent his imagery an ethereal quality. Masson, Limbour wrote, ‘used a great deal of white, broken by a variety of reflections, the emotional substance of his dreaming. His early still-lifes were touched with those bewitching whites, and every object had a disturbing and somewhat nocturnal appearance: they seemed to be wearing a sort of white mask’. (Limbour 1947, p.v.)
Behind this white mask were indeed not only dreams – suggested perhaps by the spherical cloud forms in the background – but also darker emotions. If the flowers and dead bird could be seen as evoking life and death in somewhat conventional terms, the red pomegranate halves expressed an altogether more bloody and violent vision. The fruit’s seeds can be said to symbolise the force of life and regeneration, but the red interior also evokes viscera. Later Masson was to acknowledge that the pomegranate – the French word for which also means grenade – evoked for him the memory of the blown-open skull of a soldier in the battlefields of Champagne. His experience of serving in the trenches for three years in the First World War, and of being left for dead in a battle, had scarred him profoundly both physically and mentally, and surfaced in the violent and carnal imagery of some of his later work.
Georges Limbour, ‘Scenes of Everyday Life’, translated by Douglas Cooper, in Michel Leiris and Georges Limbour, André Masson and his Universe, Geneva and Paris 1947, p.iv-vii
Dawn Ades, André Masson, translated by Jacques Tranier, Paris 1994
Jennifer Mundy, ‘André Masson’, in Jennifer Mundy (ed.), Cubism and its Legacy: The Gift of Gustav and Elly Kahnweiler, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2004, p.74, reproduced p.75 in colour
Revised by Giorgia Bottinelli
Technique and condition
Masson’s Still Life with a Mandolin was painted on a single piece of medium-weight linen canvas. The support has been subsequently glued onto a secondary linen lining canvas, probably with animal glue. The two pieces of fabric are attached to a four-membered expandable stretcher with ferrous tacks at the edges. The stretcher maybe original. The support is in a good condition although there is a slight damage to the rear of the left stretcher bar, where the outer part of the wood appears to have collapsed into a tunnel. This area runs for approximately 90 mm along the grain of the wood.
There maybe some tears in the support and thus why it has been lined. There are certainly two strips of retouching, which may be covering damages to the fabric. The largest tear is located 195 mm from the top and 130-190 mm from the left edge and a smaller one is visible at 105 mm from the top and 210-230 mm from the left. There are also a previous set of tacking holes visible around the edges and two additional holes are seen on the face of the painting at the top edge, 120 and 330 mm from left.
The ground preparation is obscured by a pigmented ground above and the lining canvas beneath. It appears to consist of a commercial oil priming of 1-2 thin layers. The canvas weave is still very evident. The paint appears primarily matt but its appearance was obscured by the thick, glossy varnish. The paint is vehicular but varies in its consistency from a paste to very lean paint. It was applied with a brush in a varied manner. Many areas are extremely thin, the mandolin for example, whilst there is some appreciable impasto in the details of the flowers and the dead bird.
There is some abrasion to the ground in the two main areas of paint loss and at all four corners. These abrasions have been retouched obscuring the extent of paint loss. This retouching now appears significantly whiter than the surrounding area. It lies above the varnish layer and will be removed during varnish removal. The varnish layer is possibly the original and is now extremely yellowed and thus very visually disturbing. There is also a thick layer of household dust over the varnish, which renders the painting rather dull and grey.
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