Painted with a loose brushwork and hot colours, Riez presents a recognisable view of the historic part of the small Provençal town of the same name, sometimes known as Riez la Romaine because of its classical ruins. The canvas shows a well-known landmark, a ruined temple with four six-metre high columns of polished granite with marble capitals and pediment. To the right are faint indications of a medieval village, including a cemetery and tower, which sits at the foot of Mont Ste. Maxime.
In 1951 Masson’s art took an unexpected turn. In the wake of a trip to Venice he began to paint classical landscapes in a style inspired by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), the nineteenth-century British artist who painted many famous scenes of Italy, and by the French impressionist painter Claude Monet (1840-1926). It was an extraordinary step for an artist associated with the avant-garde and known for his visceral, and often violent, vision of the relationship of man and nature.
Masson described the sea change as the result simply of fate deciding to expel him from ‘the Hades of art’, thereby obliging him to focus on the poetic and happier aspects of painting. Writing in February 1953, from his home in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, he announced: ‘I uncover boundlessness, expansion through light, universal fusion ... A delicate sensualism makes me burst the last chains that still bind me to the “spirit of weightiness”. I learn to know the genuinely open and discontinuous form ... From the object, which has become free and no longer oppressive, there emanates a tension more and more diaphanous, prolonged in echoes in every direction, to the very limits of the given surface. The supreme lesson of Turner and the spiritual message of Zen painting have come to me: that which goes counter to the prevailing taste is, for me, the most precious of things.’ (‘Towards Boundlessness’, in André Masson: Recent Work and Earlier Paintings, 1953, [p.4].) For an article in the magazine Verve he urged young artists to rediscover Monet, declaring his belief that ‘contact with the irreplaceable instant’ would allow them to move beyond the intellectual impasses of the period. (‘Monet le Fondateur’, in Verve, VII, no.27-8, January 1953, p.68.)
Masson’s friend and art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler found this shift towards a new romanticism a source of ‘consolation’ amid the uncertainties of the Cold War. He denied that this change represented a regression, arguing that Masson’s discovery of Chinese painting was a fresh element in the artist’s plastic language. ‘Let anyone look at Masson’s recent canvasses with an unprejudiced eye and he will see that no detail is imitative but that only the whole, an actual plastic writing, is apparent. He will see that there is no longer anything of the conventional occidental theatre-set with its centre-stage, its wings, its backdrop ... The viewer, within himself, finds that he is in the middle of the picture; so to speak, within a “space which has become active, growing, ripening, vanishing”, to use Masson’s own words.’ (Kahnweiler, ‘André Masson’, in André Masson: Recent Work and Earlier Paintings, 1953, [p.8, 10].)
André Masson: Recent Work and Earlier Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Curt Valentin Gallery, New York 1953
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.78, reproduced p.79 in colour
Revised by Giorgia Bottinelli