Remedios Varo. Part 3. Escape and flight from oppression.

Remedios Varo

Remedios Varo’s six year old marriage to Gerado Lizarraga was in decline and she started a romantic relationship with the young Spanish surrealist painter Esteban Francés, and a short time later, she left the marital home and she and Esteban went to live together in a room in a small house in the city.  Whilst there, the two lovers produced a number of surrealist works.  Remedios also became friendly with a group of surrealist artists known as the Logicophobists, who wanted to bring about a close connection of art with metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, and although she never became an official member of the group in 1936 she exhibited three of her work with theirs at the Catalonia de Barcelona gallery.

The Spanish Civil War broke out on July 17th 1936 between two political groups.  The Republicans who supported the Second Republic of Spain which had been founded in 1932 following a bloodless coup and the Nationalists, led by General Franco, who opposed it.  Remedios’ young brother, Luis, joined Franco’s army but was killed shortly afterwards.  Remedios was devastated by the death of her brother and could never understand why he decided to fight under the banner of the “enemy”.

Benjamin Péret

In October 1936, Remedios Varo met Benjamin Péret, a French poet, a founder and central member of the French Surrealist movement.  Péret had married the Brazilian singer Elsie Houston in April 1928.  Her brother was Mario Pedrosa, a Trotskyist activist, and the next year, Péret and his brother-in-law founded and hosted the Communist League of Brazil, which was based upon the ideas of Trotsky.  Péret was eventually arrested, imprisoned and expelled from Brazil as a “communist agitator” on December 30th, 1931, a few months after the birth of his son Geyser.  He returned alone to France and carried on with the political struggle as a Trotskyist and participated in the Spanish Civil War as one of the many Trotskyists and anarchists, who claimed to fight for a classless society.   When Remedios and Péret first met she was twenty-seven and he was thirty-seven. 

André Breton

Péret was a close friend of the Surrealist painter, André Breton.  In 1937, Péret returned to Paris and Remedios went with him, breaking off her ties with her husband Gerardo and her lover, Esteban Frances, but the latter later decided to follow the couple to Paris. Remedios and Péret were now lovers but the couple’s life was marked by poverty and political uncertainty.  She described the position she found herself in the French capital:

“…It is not easy to live on painting in Paris…Sometimes I did not have more food in an entire day than a small cup of coffee with milk. I call this ‘the heroic epoch’…That bohemian life that is supposed to be necessary for the artist is very bitter…”

Esteban Francés

It is Spring 1937 and Remedios Varo and Benjamin Péret are safe in Paris having escaped the mayhem in Spain caused by the Civil War.   Remedios, through her close relationship with Péret, was accepted into the heart of the Surrealist group.   She commented on her lowly position within the inner sanctum:

“…My position was the timid and humble one of a listener; I was not old enough nor did I have the aplomb to face up to them, to a Paul Eluard, a Benjamin Péret or an André Breton.  Here was I with my mouth gaping open within this group of brilliant and gifted people…”

The Souls of the Mountains by Remedios Varo (1938)

Whilst living in Paris she shared a Montparnasse studio with Péret and Francés and although this ménage-a-trois caused rivalries Remedios managed to enjoy life in Paris.  In 1938 she completed a painting entitled The Souls of the Mountains. In this work, mountains are portrayed as slim volcanic tubes which are seen rising from a light-impregnated mist. Out from the inside of the tallest pair of these mountains emerge a head of a woman each bearing a resemblance to the artist.  Remedios experimented not just with what she depicted but also how she depicted things.  In this work she has used a Surrealist technique known as fumage.  The technique of fumage was invented by the Austrian surrealist artist Wolfgang Paalen in the late 1930s and is achieved by passing a flame quickly across a surface fresh with oil paint.  Paalen found that the smoke would trace unique marks in the wet surface.  In this work by Varo the fumage technique created clouds swirling around the cylindrical mountains, linking the stony peaks and is suggestive of dreams and apparitions. 

Again, we try and get into the head of the artist and work out what the painting is all about.   The encased females in the painting appear to be imprisoned all alone inside the mountain.  Remedios continually harked back to the past and on her feeling of imprisonment within the family home, the constraints made upon her at her convent school and the feeling of isolation and this depiction reminds us of her struggle to break free.  The mountains have a phallic shape and this could be Remedios’ take that she lives in a male-dominated world and that female artists of the time were not looked upon as real painters but were compartmentalised as being the “spouses of artists”.  The overall dark and depressing palette of the depiction was chosen by Remedios so as to give the work a feeling of isolation and disheartening confinement.  The title of the work gives us a clue that the depiction is about a life force under oppression which is deprived of its freedom and entitlement to be acknowledged.  Remedios believes that the souls in the painting should be released from their incarceration so that they may be able to express themselves fully and without any restrictions from their surroundings.  Likewise, Remedios believes female artists should be freed from the restrictions of a patriarchal society.

Left to right: Victor Serge, Benjamin Péret, Remedios Varo and André Breton in front of the Villa Air-Bel (c.1940-41)

So, what was life like for Remedios Varo and her Surrealist group ?  Maybe the late American art historian, Robert Goldwater summed it up in his publication, Reflections on the New York School, Quadrum 8.  He wrote about the group:

“…international in character, bohemian in a self-confident, intensive fashion….. living as if they had no money worries….[Yet they] existed on the margin of society……As thee latest issue of a long line of romantics, they accepted this situation as a condition of creativity and made it a positive virtue.  They carried with them a warmth of feeling, an intensity and concern for matters aesthetic, a conviction of the rightness of their own judgements and an unconcern for any other…”

This encapsulates Remedios Varo’s lifestyle at the time.  She believed fervently in the importance of art and she was reliant on spontanaity and put her trust in her subconscious instincts. At the time, Péret was working as a proof-reader as the sale of his paintings did not bring in enough money to survive and he would often have to beg for food.  When Remedios joined him, she too had to endure this lifestyle but she didn’t care as she loved this bohemian way of life and revelled in the company of the extraordinary and stimulating group of people with whom she was surrounded.  They too were mesmerised by her and during this time she had a number of love affairs.  However, her joie de vie was to be short lived as politics and war were to change her life once again.  Hitler was on his march towards European domination and with his annexation of the Sudetenland and the takeover of Austria, people in France feared the worst.  By July 1939, the worst had arrived and Parisians were told that if they were able, they should get out of their city which was now paralysed with anxiety.  It was an even more dangerous time for foreigners who lived in the French capital.  They were threatened with deportation back to their own countries.  Remedios, being a former Republican sympathiser, could not return to Spain where the right-wing Nationalists under Franco now ruled with an iron fist and where summary executions of Republican sympathizers were common.   Her former husband, Lizarraga, had fled from Franco’s armies and arrived in France but, as a Spanish refugee, he found himself interred in a French concentration camp. 

 In February 1940, Péret, being an outspoken Communist, was recalled to military service but three months later he had been incarcerated in a military prison in Rennes for his political activities. On June 14th 1940 the Nazis entered Paris.  An independent French government was established in Vichy and the Franco-German armistice was signed.  Included in the treaty was an article which required the Vichy French government to surrender on demand any fugitive wanted by the Third Reich.  Remedios was now in great danger for her connections with Péret.  She knew that because of her left-wing Republican views and past actions, she would not survive if she was deported to Spain and yet to remain in Paris would ultimately mean a journey to an internment camp.  Her friends tried everything to save Remedios from arrest but during the Winter of 1940 she was taken in by the police.  She was eventually released but she knew, despite wanting to stay behind until Péret was released, she had to get out of the French capital.

Oscar Dominguez

She did manage to escape the chaos in June 1940 and through help from her friend, Oscar Dominguez.  She managed to get a ride in a car owned by an American couple who were also escaping from Paris.  She arrived on the south coast at the small fishing village of Canet-Plage which lay close to Perpignan.  It was here she stayed with a number of Surrealist painters who had taken refuge on the Mediterranean coast.  Soon she and a Romanian Jew, Victor Brauner, who had also fled south, paired off and went to live together in Marseilles.  This was yet another of her love affairs.  As a reminder of their time together he gave her a watercolour, probably a portrait of her, and he wrote on it:

“…To my very dear friend Remedios with the memory of an indelible period of my life.  Your admiring friend, Victor Brauner, Marseille, Oct 1941…”

Remedios kept Brauner’s watercolour and a letter from him all her life.

Victor Brauner

Varo and Brauner were now part of a large group of intellectuals, artists and Jews who were trying to escape the Nazis.  They were joined by Péret at the end of the year.  He had managed to bribe the Nazi guards and then made a long and dangerous journey south.  The city of Marseilles was bursting with refugees all desperate to get out of the country.  They were living on little food and the fear of being caught in random but regular police roundups. 

 

Villa Air-Bel

Varo and Péret eventually found refuge at the Villa Air-Bel, a large residence outside the city which was being used by a group calling themselves the Emergency Rescue Committee.  This was a group that officially helped refugees legally obtain visas so they could leave France. The group’s secret agenda was to get those people on the Gestapo’s blacklist – specifically writers, artists and political activists, out of the country, by any means possible,   The organisation was led by an American, Varian Fry.  Fry was one of the founding members and as soon as the Committee was set up, they established a list of people to save in priority, mainly artists and writers, who had fled Germany and Occupied France to hide in the South.

Group of artists posing on the grounds of the Villa Air-Bel near Marseilles (1941)

Remedios Varo, now back with Péret, was in great danger.  Many of their fellow refugees had gained passage to America but Péret had been refused entry to America due to his previous communist activities.  As each month passed in Marseilles the danger of being arrested by the Vichy police became ever greater.  They knew they had to escape.  Their perilous situation was documented in notes in the files of the Emergency Rescue Committee:

“…He [Péret] is in immediate danger as his democratic ideas are opposed to the Vichy government, and he faces persecution.  He and his family [referring to Varo, although Péret did not marry Remedios Varo until 1942, after the death of his first wife] are in danger of starvation, as the problem of the food supply in their region is acute…”

Remedios Varo’s immigration papers (1942)

The Emergency Rescue Committee recognised the couple as “qualified as intellectuals and worthy of attention” and proceeded to try and attain visa for them so as they could leave France.  It was a long and torturous fight to get the documentation and took six months to achieve.  However, it was not just the visas they needed but money, again something they did not have.   Once again it was up to the Emergency Rescue Committee to get them financial help from their American backers.   Their fund-raising pamphlets were quite clear with their message which displayed hard-hitting headlines such as:

“…Wanted by the GESTAPO, Saved by America…”

The pamphlet then asked for contributions of $350, as the price of a life of one escapee.

SS. Serpa Pinto

Remedios and Péret’s thoughts then turned to Mexico as a place of refuge.  They had a number of things going for them with this idea.  Varo spoke Spanish.  The President of Mexico had stated that he would accept all Spanish refugees and to any members of the International Brigade living in France, who had once fought against Franco.  So, the destination for Péret and Varo was decided, now all they needed was to get there and procure a safe sea passage across the Atlantic.  For this to happen they had to travel from Marseilles to Casablanca and then board a ship to Mexico.  They eventually made it to Casablanca and on November 20th 1941, a year after they had arrived in Marseilles, they set sail from Casablanca on the Portuguese freighter Serpa Pinto.  The couple arrived in Mexico at the end of 1941.  They had been battered by the ferocious winter seas of the Atlantic Ocean crossing and also fearful of being attacked by Nazi naval ships.  Remedios remembered the ordeal in a later interview, she said:

“…I came to Mexico searching for the peace that I had not found, neither in Spain – that of the revolution – nor in Europe – that of the terrible war – for me it was impossible to paint amidst such anguish…”

…………..to be continued


Most of the information for this blog, apart from the usual sources, comes from Janet A. Kaplan’s excellent book entitled Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys.  This is a must-read book if you want a fuller version of the life and times of Remedios Varo.

Remedios Varo. Part 1: Surrealism, the early days, family life and schooling.

Remedios Varo

We all have our favourite art genre and within that genre we also probably have our favourite artists.  For me, I like the Golden Age painters of The Netherlands and the Scandinavian artists who were known as the Skagen painters.  For some people narrative paintings are their favourites for others they prefer paintings that have various symbols depicted, each conveying a hidden meaning.  Today I am going to look at an artist who is famous for her painting genre, a genre which is both equally strange and yet somewhat fascinating.  Let me introduce you to the Spanish surrealist painter Remedios Varo who was born María de los Remedios Varo y Uranga.

André Breton (photo by Henri Manuel) 1927

Before I look at the life and works of Varo, first let us try to understand Surrealism.  Surrealism was founded in Paris by the French writer and poet André Breton in 1924.  Breton had been a leading light in the Dadaist movement, an artistic movement which was practiced by a group of European writers, artists, and intellectuals in protest against what they saw as a senseless war, World War I, which had claimed an estimated 37.5 million lives.  Out of Dadaism was born Surrealism, which was an artistic and literary movement.  The Surrealists wanted to put an end to the overbearing dictates of modern society by destroying its mainstay, that of rational thought.  Surrealism was preoccupied with spiritualism, the thoughts of Sigmund Freud with regards psychoanalysis and the political thoughts surrounding Marxism.  Surrealists wanted to achieve the creation of art which came from the artist’s unconscious mind and that lacked any reasoned thoughts.  Surrealism was a forerunner of Automatism which is the avoidance of conscious intention in producing works of art, especially by using mechanical techniques or subconscious associations.  Breton maintained that Surrealism was pure psychic automatism.

Varo family
Back: Remedios and older brother Rodrigo Jnr
Front: Mother, paternal grandmother, younger brother Luis and father

In a series of blogs, I will be looking at the life and work of Remedios Varo.  María de los Remedios Alicia Rodriga Varo y Uranga was born on December 16th 1908 in the small walled village of Anglès which lies ten kilometres west of Girona and eighty kilometres north-east of Barcelona. The village is situated in a Pyrenees valley close to the River Ter.  Remedios was the daughter of Rodrigo Varo-i-Zayalvo who hailed from Cordoba in Andalucía and his wife Ignasia Uranga Bergareche, a large woman of strong character, who came from a Basque family but was actually born in Argentina.  Remedios was the middle child of three, having an older brother Rodrigo Jnr., who would later become a doctor and a younger brother, Luis, who would sadly die in the Spanish Civil War.  Her mother gave her daughter the name Remedios in dedication to La Virgen de los Remedios as a remedy to help her forget the sadness associated with the death of her older daughter who died when she was very young.  Remedios’ connection with her two brothers was very different.  Probably because her older brother, Rodrigo, looked in horror at her life as a bohemian artist, their relationship was not a close one.  On the other hand, Remedios was very close to her younger brother Luis.

Postcard

Remedios’ father was a hydraulic engineer and it was his work on the nearby canal and lock systems which had brought the family to Anglès.  In his line of work, he had to travel all around the country as well as to North Africa.  His wife did not want to be left at home during her husband’s frequent business trips so she and the children would travel with him.  The constant “wanderings” of the family and the disruption it caused had an overpowering effect on Remedios.  She missed her home, and so, as she should did not want to forget her home life in Anglès, all her life, no matter where she went, she always kept with her a childhood postcard of the street in Anglès where she lived.

Father, older brother and Remedios (1912)

Remedios Varo’s religious upbringing was a tale of two parental beliefs.  Her mother, Ignasia, was a devout Catholic whereas her father, Rodrigo, was more receptive to religious beliefs of different faiths.  Remedios was very close to her mother but did not believe in her narrow Catholic beliefs favouring her father’s more varied and less dogmatic religious viewpoint. Varo’s father wanted his daughter to attend a “free” school which was independent from both the State and the Church and which many believed gave a more rounded education and were educationally superior to Catholic schools, but her mother demanded Remedios attended a Catholic school.  Her mother’s will must have been acceded to as Remedios attended a Roman Catholic convent school run by nuns.  A strict belief in Catholicism was demanded of the pupils and to counter this Remedios would immerse herself in books by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas, which spun stories of fantasy worlds.  She also liked to read about mysticism and alchemy.  It was the strict regimented existence at the Catholic convent school which led, in 1931, to her painting the triptych in which she ridiculed the restraints of convent schooling.

Toward the Tower by Remedios Varo (1961)

The three paintings formed the autobiographical triptych entitled Embroidering Earth’s Mantle.  The first of the three works was entitled Towards the Tower and Varo depicts a pack of identical girls following their leader in a trance-like state, bicycling away from a beehive tower in which they were once held captive.  All the girls face the same way, except one, Varo’s inclusion of herself as the heroine.  She depicts herself as the independently minded rebellious one.  Leading the pack of schoolgirls is the Mother Superior and a strange looking man who has a sack over his shoulder from which we see flocks of blue-coloured birds escaping and hovering over the party of cyclists.  Look at the bicycles.  They are fabricated, in part, from the stiffened fabrics of their own clothes. 

Embroidering Earth’s Mantle by Remedios Varo (1961)

In the central panel of the triptych, Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle, we observe the same young women.  This time the setting is a room in the tower where the convent girls are made to work.  The setting is what could be termed a medieval scriptorium, a room devoted to the writing, copying and illuminating of manuscripts commonly handled by monastic scribes.  It is a cramped and isolated space in which the young women are weaving out the surface of the earth under the intense supervision from the Great Master who reads from the book of instructions whilst at the same time, stirring a boiling broth in the same alchemical vessel from which the women draw their embroidery thread.  Behind him a veiled figure sits playing a flute.  Each and every young woman works alone embroidering images of the landscape onto a continuous fabric which tumbles 0ut from table-height battlements around the sides of the tower.  This act of embroidering and needlework was considered to be a skill suitable for cultured young women

Hidden image of the lovers

Varo has added an ironic twist to the painting although it may not be very clear in the main picture.  Remedios’ rebellious heroine in this triptych has embroidered an upside-down image of her and her lover within the folds of the cloth that emerge from her table.

The Escape by Remedios Varo (1962)

In the final panel, Varo reveals The Escape; Varo’s heroine has successfully fled with her lover on a fantastical furry inverted umbrella which floats on a foggy mist.  Both the clothes of the girl and her lover billow behind them in the wind and act as sails.  For Varo the triptych is all about imprisonment and the chance to liberate herself from the strict academic confines of convent school life and her determination to free herself from the facelessness of being one among a homogenous many.  It was her determination to escape isolation and be free.  Her freedom was to come in 1930 when she was twenty-one and left home after marrying Gerrado Lizaraga a fellow art student.

Portrait of Grandmother Doña Josefa Zejalvo by Remedios Varo (1926)

In order to keep his daughter, Remedios, amused on his business trips he would allow her to redraw his blueprints, and at the same time explain the function of the various systems. Remedios’s knowledge grew as did her inquisitiveness.    This was the start of her artistic tuition.  Her father was a hard taskmaster and would make his daughter repeat technical drawings until they were right.  Over time her draughtsmanship  constantly improved and her pencil lines gradually became more accurate as she became self-assured.  This infused in her the lifelong characteristic of meticulousness.  She had started to become a perfectionist.    Besides his training of Remedios in draughtsmanship, her father encouraged her love of art, by taking her to museums and art galleries.

Mother and daughter – Pencil sketches by Remedios Varo (1923)

By 1924 the family had relocated to an apartment on calle Segovia, one of Madrid’s main streets and because fifteen year old Remedios had shown a love of art the family arranged for her to attend the city’s Escuela de Artes y Oficios (School of Arts and Crafts) and later the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, where she became one of the first female students of the academy.  Like all the major art Academies of Europe, the Academia was known for its strict observance of the methodology of the Old Masters.  They would not compromise and those who became disruptive were expelled.  The year Remedios started at the Academy was the same year that fellow student, Salvador Dali, returned from his one-year expulsion for leading a student protest over a professional appointment at the Academia.  Two years later he was permanently expelled.  Despite this strict observance of academic art Remedios became interested in Surrealism.  Of her education at the Academy, she said:

“…”I took advantage of all that I learned, in painting the things that interested me on my own, which could be called, together with technique, the beginning of a personality…”

In Janet A. Kaplan’s book, Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys she quotes a story from Remedios teenage years, an erotic fantasy she had endured in a dream:

“…One night, a strange being entered through the window and threw itself on top of me; it was like the devil.  I resisted, but his eat was immense.  The following day and with out having said anything at the table my grandmother said to me ‘Remedios, what has happened to you?  Your hair is burned’…”

All her life Remedios would believe in the power of such dream images and in her mind, there was little to differentiate between reality and dreams.

Pencil sketches of Paternal grandmother by Remedios Vara (1925 and 1923)

Her “personality” was her strong attraction to Surrealism, which had gained a foothold in the Madrid art culture.  Whilst studying at the Academia she would make many visits to the Prado and became fascinated with the works of Primitive painters, including tribal art from Africa, the South Pacific and Indonesia, as well as prehistoric and very early European art, and European folk art.  She also loved the works of Hieronymus Bosch and also the mainstream art of El Greco and Goya.  In 1930, she graduated from the Academia with a drawing teacher diploma.

…………………………….. to be continued.


Most of the information for this blog, apart from the usual sources, comes from Janet A. Kaplan’s excellent book entitled Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journeys.  This is a must-read book if you want a fuller version of the life and times of Remedios Varo.

Gradiva by André Masson

After my last two blogs looking at the exquisite artistry of the American landscape painter, Frederic Church, I am going to give you something completely different today.   I was going to facetiously say that I was moving from the sublime to the ridiculous but I know that labelling Surrealism as “ridiculous” is a rather facile and childish statement.   Not being an artist, I would be curious to know if the upbringing of an artist and how life has treated them has any bearing on their painting style.  For example, Frederic Church came from a happy and financially sound family background and lived close to a very picturesque countryside and in some ways the works he produced mirrored not just the environment around him but the peace and tranquillity of his mind.   My featured artist today probably felt little of that peace and tranquillity in his life and that may account for some of the disturbing images he produced.  My artist today is André Masson and the painting of his I want to look at is entitled Gradiva which he completed in 1939.  It is not just about a painting but about a German novel and a renowned Austrian neurologist who was hailed as the founding father of psychoanalysis and along the way I will delve into the world of automatism in art!

André Masson
André Masson

Andre Masson was born in January 1896, in Balagny-sur-Thérain, in the northern French province of Oise, about sixty miles north of Paris.  Although born in France, because of his father’s business, he spent most of his childhood in neighbouring Belgium.  The family relocated to Lille in 1903 and then later moved to the capital Brussels.  In 1907, aged 11, he enrolled at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts et l’École des Arts Décoratifs in Brussels where he received tuition from the Belgian painter and muralist, Constant Montald, who would later teach the likes of Rene Magritte and Paul Develaux.   It was on Montald’s advice that Masson decided to leave Belgium and travel to France.  In 1912, Masson moved to Paris and attended the illustrious Parisian art college, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts where he attended Paul Albert Baudoin’s studio to study fresco painting.   In 1914 he was awarded a scholarship from the École des Beaux-Arts and this allowed him to travel to Italy, along with his fellow art student, Maurice Albert Loutreuil.    Whilst in Italy, Masson studied the art of fresco and discovered the works of Paolo Uccello.

These were exciting times for the youth of the day.  Art Nouveau, Impressionism and Symbolism were dominating the art scene and the music of Wagner and the thoughts of Nietzsche were often foremost in their minds.  Like many of his fellow art students of the time, André was a person who railed against convention and authority and had many run-ins with the police.  He embraced vegetarianism and would often be seen walking bare-footed along the streets.  He avidly read the great works of literature and philosophy and became a follower of the German poet and philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.

In 1914, France entered the First World War and there was a call to arms.  Many of the young eagerly put themselves forward to support their country.   Some, like Masson, looked on the fight that lay ahead in terms of a grand Wagnerian battle with little concern about their own mortality.  In an interview he gave the American magazine Newsweek in 1965 André Masson said that when war was declared he volunteered because he wanted to experience “the Wagnerian aspects of battle”.  Like many who marched off patriotically to the front line, they were mere “cannon fodder” and would never return home.   Although Masson, an infantryman, was not killed in the war, in April 1917, he was badly injured during the Second Battle of the Aisne when several French army battalions stormed the German lines on the Chemin des Dames ridge.  (It is interesting to note that one of the German soldiers at this battle was Adolph Hitler!)

The battle was short-lived and, for the French, it ended catastrophically in a matter of a few weeks.  Thousands of French troops were slaughtered.  Many others mutinied and the career of the French army’s Commander-in Chief, Richard Nivelle was destroyed. The attack, which Masson had taken part in proved disastrous and he was gravely wounded and lay helpless on the battlefield all night and it was not until the following day that stretcher bearers were able to reach him and take him to a field hospital.   The wound to his chest and abdomen was of such severity that Masson remained in hospital for the next two years.   Not only did he suffer horrendous physical injuries but the battle and his witnessing the death and maiming of many of his colleagues left him mentally scarred and he had to undergo a long period of psychiatric rehabilitation to treat the devastating effect it all had on his mind.   His patriotic rush to serve his country resulted in constant physical pain, nightmares and insomnia for the rest of his life and he was advised by psychiatrists to stay away from the noise and chaos of cities.

In April 1919 Masson went to Céret, a town which lies in the Pyrénées foothills in south-west France.   Céret was, around this time, a popular meeting place for artists, such as Picasso, Modigliani, Andre Derrain and Matisse.  Whilst living there Masson met Odette Cabale, who became his wife. Odette became pregnant and Masson decides to return to Paris where his parents could assist her.  In 1920 their daughter Lily was born. Masson sets up a studio at 45 Rue Blomet in Paris which soon became a local meeting place for aspiring artists as well as some influential people such as the author Ernest Hemmingway and the writer and art collector Gertrude Stein.

Battle of the Fishes by André Masson (1926)
Battle of the Fishes by André Masson (1926)

In 1924 the German-born art historian, art collector and art dealer, Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, organised Masson’s first solo exhibition at his Galerie Simon. One of the viewers at the exhibition was André Breton and he bought a work by Masson entitled The Four Elements.   Breton was the founder of the Surrealist Movement and later that year published Manifeste du surrealism, his Surrealist Manifesto, in which he had defined surrealism as “pure psychic automatism”.   Masson, who had been invited to join Breton’s group of Surrealists, was influenced by the ideas Breton had put forward and began to experiment with “automatic drawing” or automatism.  Automatism was a way of creating drawings in which artists smother conscious management of the movements of their hand, and by doing so, allow their unconscious mind to take over.  Breton and his Surrealists believed automatism in art was a higher form of behaviour.   For them, automatism could express the creative force of what they believed was the unconscious in art.   Masson’s work could be categorised as a semi-abstract variety of Surrealism, which is experimental use with unusual, such as sand.  His so-called sand pictures were works which his automatic drawing would be first put on the canvas using glue.  Then before the glue had dried he would sprinkle coloured sand over it.  The canvas would then be shaken and the sand would only remain on the glue.  One of his most famous and most successful  “sand paintings” is Battle of the Fishes, which he completed in 1926 and is now housed in the MOMA in New York.  I read a piece about this work which described it as:

” a work which a primordial eroticism is revealed through an imagery of conflict and metamorphosis, poetically equating the submarine imagery with its physical substance…”

Is that how you see it ????????

In 1925, Masson participated in the first Surrealist exhibition, at the Galerie Pierre, alongside Picasso, Ernst, Klee, Man Ray. However, André Masson fell out with Breton and his Surrealists mainly due to Breton’s authoritarian leadership of the group and his dogmatic attitude.  Masson also came round to the fact that automatism was becoming too much of a constraint on his art and so in 1929 he severed ties with the group.  It was that same year that Masson and his wife Odette parted company after almost ten years of marriage.

Masson spent some time in the Provencal hills around the town of Grasse, where he met Matisse.  In 1934 Masson returns to Paris but that February he is alarmed by the right-wing Fascist riots which take place in the city that February.  He decided to flee the turmoil that has beset the French capital and headed south to Spain and the city of Barcelona.  He was accompanied by Rose Maklès, sister of the wife of his best friend and the well-known author Georges Bataille. In December 1934 André and Rose married in Tossa de Mar on the Costa Brava, and in June 1935 their son Diego was born, later, in September 1936. a second son Luis was born.   Masson’s decision to relocate to Spain, to avoid the chaos of riots in Paris, was an unfortunate one as in October 1934 the Spanish city was hit by a violent insurrection of its people and Masson and his family became trapped in a friend’s house which was at the heart of the city and which was being subjected to constant shelling and sniper fire.  This was just the scenario his psychiatrists had told him to avoid when he was discharged from hospital at the end of the First World War.  The situation deteriorated further in 1936 with the start of the Spanish Civil War and Masson and his family quickly headed back to France.  His return to France also coincided with his return to the Surrealist fold as he and André Breton settled their differences and the following January, Masson exhibited works at the Surrealist Exposition of Paris which was held at Georges Wildenstein’s Galérie Beaux-Arts.

The year 1939 was marked by the start of the Second World War and in January 1940 the German army marched into Paris.   Masson found himself in a precarious situation.   His artwork had already been deemed as degenerate by the Nazis.  The Nazis looked upon the Surrealist Movement and its artists as having close ties to the Communists and to top all that,  Masson’s wife Rose was Jewish.  He realised that for he and his family, in order to survive, had to flee France.  From Paris they headed south to Auvergne and then on to Marseille.  Here a group of Americans led by Varian Fry, a journalist, had set up a European Rescue Committee which helped Jews and Germans blacklisted by the Nazi authorities to escape to the USA.   Varian Fry hid the refugees at the Villa Air-Bel, a chateau on the outskirts of Marseille and then took them via Spain to neutral Portugal, or shipped them from Marseille to Martinique and from there on to the USA, which was Masson escape route.

André Masson and his family, along with some of his artwork, landed in America in 1941 and one would think that his troubles were over but alas the US Customs thought differently as when they examined his drawings they declared five of them to be pornographic and tore them to pieces right in front of the artist’s eyes !!!   For a short while he lived in New York before moving to Connecticut.   In 1945, with the war over, the Masson family returned to France, where they lived for a while with his wife’s sister, Simone.  In 1947 they moved to the small town of Le Tholonet, which lies close to Aix-en-Provence in southern France.   He continued to paint and received many lucrative commissions including one from the French Culture Ministry to paint the ceiling at the Parisian Théatre Odéon.  A series of solo and retrospective exhibitions of his work are held all over Europe and America.  He visited Rome and Venice in the 1950’s and from these trips, he produced a beautiful series of coloured lithographs of Italian landscapes.

Masson’s wife Rose died in August 1986 and Masson himself died in Paris in October 1987 aged 91.

Gradiva by André Msson (1939)
Gradiva by André Msson (1939)

The painting of André Masson I have chosen today is entitled Gradiva which he completed in 1939.  So who is Gradiva?   Gradiva, is Latin for “the woman who walks and in the Vatican Museum, there is a Roman bas-relief (a projecting image with a shallow overall depth), of Gradiva.    This sculpture depicts a young robed woman who we see raising the hems of her skirts so as to be able to stride forward at pace.  This sculpture was the basis for the novel written by the German author Wilhelm Jensen, entitled Gradiva.    He originally published his fictional tale, it in a serialised form, in the Viennese newspaper, Neue Freie Presse in 1902.

Bas-relief of Gradiva
Bas-relief of Gradiva

It is the story of Norbert Hanold, a young archaeologist who became totally obsessed with a woman who did not even exist. He had visited the Vatican museum when he was struck by the beauty of a bas-relief of young Roman woman, very light on her feet, whom he baptized “Gradiva” (she who walks). He purchased a reproduction of the sculpture, which he hung on the wall of his workroom. He becomes fixated by the image and mystery of this enigmatic young woman. One night he dreams that he is in Pompeii in AD 79, just before the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. There he meets Gradiva.  He desperately tries to warn her about the horrific events that are about to occur, but he finds himself powerless to rescue her.  After waking, he is overcome by the longing to meet Gradiva. He immediately sets off for Pompeii, where he meets a young woman, very much alive, whom he believes is Gradiva. In the course of the meetings that follow, he tries to rationalise his fixation for the girl by interpreting signs such as the fact that Gradiva appears at noon, the ghost hour, and other such signs. Gradiva, in turn, seeks to cure him by gradually revealing her identity to him. Through this adventure, Norbert finally sees Gradiva for who she really is: his neighbour and childhood friend Zoe Bertgang (“Bertgang” is the German equivalent of “Gradiva”), who also travelled to Pompeii.  For years he had not seen her and had no desire to see her, but without realising it Norbert was still in love with her and he had substituted his love for Zoe with his love for Gradiva, the young woman of the bas-relief. Happily, his fixation for Gradiva finally yields to reality, and Norbert is cured.

In 1906, Sigmund Freud had been made aware of this story by Carl Jung , who believed Freud would be interested in the dream sequences of the story.  Freud, who frequently cited his Interpretation of Dreams which he published in 1900, suggested in his review of Jensen’s novel that even dreams invented by an author could be analyzed by the same method as real ones. He fastidiously analyzed the two dreams which were the basis of Jensen’s story, and linked them to happenings in Norbert’s life. By doing this Freud attempted to demonstrate that dreams were substitute wish fulfilments and established that they constituted a return of the repressed.   According to the pschoanalysist, the source of Norbert Hanold’s fixation was his repression of his own sexuality, which caused him to forget, his past love, Zoe Bertgang, in order to keep him from recognizing her.  This he termed as “negative hallucinations”.  Freud concluded that the way Zoe treated Norbert when they met in Pompeii was in the manner of a good psychoanalyst, cautiously bringing to consciousness what Norbert forgot through repression.

As an interesting footnote to the Freud story, four months after he published his essay on Gradiva and Jensen’s story, he visited Rome and during the trip he went to see the bas-relief representing “Gradiva” at the museum of the Vatican, the very same one that had inspired Jensen to write his story. Just as Norbert Hainold, the character in Jensen’s story had done, Freud bought a copy of the bas-relief of Gradiva and hung it in his office in Vienna, at the foot of his divan. There it remained until he left Vienna, and took it with him to London in 1938, where it can be found on the wall of his London study which forms part of the Freud Museum.

In today’s featured painting, Masson  iconography for Gradiva (The Metamorphosis of Gradiva) is a Freudian illustration drawn directly from the Jensen story.  In the painting we see a large woman, half flesh, half marble sprawled on a marble plinth, the base of which is starting to crumble.  Her legs are splayed apart and between them we see a beef steak and a gaping shell-like vagina.  To the right of her, on the wall in the background, we see the erupting volcano.  To the left of her we see a large crack in the side wall signifying that the building she is in, is about to collapse.  Another strange addition to the painting is a swarm of bee-like creatures which seem to swarm in arc-like fashion behind the figure of the woman, similar to the arc formed by the way her marble arm arches over her head.  Why depict bees?   The whole of the painting is bathed in a flickering reddish light which highlights a clump of poppies which can be seen in the left foreground of the work.  I have tried to explain some of the iconography of this painting but I will leave you to try and figure out if there are more hidden meanings to what you see before you.

The novel, Gradiva by Wilhelm Jensen
The novel, Gradiva by Wilhelm Jensen

Finally for those of you who would like to read the complete version of Wilhelm Jensen’s Gradiva then you can get a copy from Amazon.com:

http://www.amazon.com/Gradiva-Pompeiian-Fancy-Classic-Reprint/dp/B0094OOP36

or  Amazon.co.uk:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Gradiva-Pompeiian-Fancy-Classic-Reprint/dp/B0094UEIIW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1364119670&sr=8-1

I must apologise for the length of this blog but once I got started researching the life of the painter, the painting itself and the story of Gradiva I was loathed to cut anything out.   Not being a master of the art of précising, I don’t think I would make a good journalist !!!!!