André Masson



In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
André Masson 1896–1987
Original title
Lithograph on paper
Image: 528 × 435 mm
Purchased 1985

Catalogue entry

André Masson 1896-1987
P77114 Childbirth 1955
Lithograph 528 x 435 (20 3/4 x 17 1/8) on Arches paper 661 x 508 (28 x 20); printer and publisher not known
Inscribed ‘André Masson' below image b.l. and ‘48/50' below image b.r.
Purchased from Galerie Lahumière, Paris (Grant-in-Aid) 1985
‘Childbirth' depicts a naked female fluidly drawn and floating in an indeterminate space activated by curvilinear strokes and several star motifs. The background is predominantly grey, the body delineated in black and white and the right hand and shoulder are picked out in a vivid red. The uppermost star is also in red.
The mid-1950s were a fertile period for Masson, during which he felt unrestrained by any dominating thematic or technical modes and drew on his own past practices as well as pushing forwards in new directions. During his war-time stay in the USA, Masson had seen Chinese painting for the first time and its impact, as well as his intensive studying of Zen, had a profound influence on his work. According to Carolyn Lanchner:
A great attraction of Zen for Masson was its emphasis on the immediate mystical experience as the way to ultimate truth ... On the surface this seems identical with the old Surrealist concern with automatism ... Masson himself well understood that, as an Occidental and an artist who had been passionately engaged for over thirty years, he could not attain the spiritual void or creative passivity of the Zen of Ch'an painter. In practice, conjuring the void brought forth in his painting a spontaneous effusion of his own past art whose tides were stemmed or redirected by the formal concerns of the sophisticated European artist (Carolyn Lanchner, ‘André Masson: Origins and development' in André Masson, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York 1976, p.186).
Masson himself described this new and all embracing activity:
The mythic elan has reappeared ... The line, banished, is once again favoured ... Along with lyric inventions appalling realities are encountered ... I have to obey my visions having to do with the subterranean forms of fecundity, with germinations, telluric energy, as well as the half-seen characters who make up the Quartier des Halles, a tumultous city in the heart of Paris; then too the mysteries of sidereal space: tourneys of comets or stars rearing before the abyss (André Masson, Metamorphose de l'artiste, II, 1956, p.122).
While the melding of Eastern and Western forms pushed Masson generally towards increasingly abstract forms, one major group of paintings clearly relates to P77114 in theme and treatment. This is the series of paintings entitled ‘Feminaires' of 1955-59. According to Lanchner they were
inspired by the prostitutes that Masson, who was beginning to spend more and more of his time in Paris, saw around the rue St-Denis. Figuration in these pictures is rendered by rapidly brushed, vertically orientated, curvilinear hieroglyphs of the female body that fade in and out against a ground totally differentiated as subtly as the hazes of a night sky. A sense of the canvas as part of an engulfing space is reinforced by the absence of any perspectival ordering. Although in the quick, synoptic outlines of these feminine figures a certain secularity of gesture relating them to work such as ‘Street Singer' of 1941 is intended, they are ideationally closer to the female as earth figure of the late thirties ... they are the first perceptions of an equation of space and the female body, more clearly shown in such related works as ‘Flesh' of 1955 and ‘Celestial Body' of 1956, in which breasts, nipples, anatomical curves, and the vulva are the constellations of a night sky (Lanchner 1976, p.188).
Procreation is not a theme that one can delineate easily or progressively through Masson's oeuvre, although alongside war, death and sex it is a recurrent source of imagery, often symbolic or allegorical from the early twenties until his death. However, the artist rarely dealt with the theme in such an explicit way as in both the drawing and the title of ‘Childbirth'.
The appearance of the stars in P77114 is notable. Cosmic allusions are very evident in Masson's work of the mid to late 1920s, in drawings and in sand paintings. Such works, in which Masson attempted a degree of automatism in execution, occasionally deploy the star motif in place of an expected feature; stars stand for breasts in ‘Birth of Birds' 1925 (repr. Lanchner 1976, p.109) and for a head in ‘Massacreurs' 1927 (repr. André Masson, exh. cat., Musée des beaux arts, Nffmes 1985, p.155). The star motif continued to appear in Masson's work, often as a decorative, gestural full stop to a line or, with cosmic overtones, as shooting stars, for example in the ‘Pasiphae' works of 1943. The star is, however, more than a component in Masson's complex calligraphic vocabulary. In P77114 the positioning of the stars is highly evocative. The female figure is shown to be literally touched by stars which meet her shoulders while the area of the womb is filled by a star which appears to metamorphose into the form of a baby. Masson rarely gives the star such a central importance. In one important drawing the star motif has an even more fundamental rôle. ‘The Number Five' 1938 (repr. Lanchner 1976, p.157) was reproduced in Masson's Anatomy Of My Universe (New York 1943). The drawing depicts two figures flanking a five-point star which stands as the vaginal opening of the earth-mother figure. Poised at the entrance to the recumbent female is the figure of a naked man. The first chaper of the publication, entitled ‘The Demon of Analogy', is, according to Lanchner, ‘a mystic, esoteric treatise on the unity of the four elements and the three kingdoms, with particular emphasis on correspondances between forms' (ibid., p.155). Lanchner argues, drawing on both Masson's text and the writing of Michel Leiris, that the five-point star ‘as a configuration that can be drawn with a continuous line symbolises the endless knot - the ever-repeating cycle of birth and death. And five, the sum of its points, is the unity of opposites' (ibid., p.156). The five-point star also represents the Vitruvian figure (illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci) whose stance is mirrored by the naked man in ‘The Number Five'. Masson presumably had this image in mind when he wrote in the Prologue that ‘the royal structure of the human body is no more beautiful than the radiolaria, an oceanic star with solid rays'.
Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.413-14

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