André Masson Ecstasy

The term ‘surreal’ has become commonplace today, and somewhat watered-down, inferring a rather harmless visual oddity, dreamlike imagery or non-logical narrative structure. In its infancy, however, Surrealism was far less accommodating to viewers’ sensibilities. As the movement’s founder, André Breton, noted in his ‘Second manifesto of Surrealism’, published in the journal La Révolution surréaliste in December 1929:

Surrealism has no fear of making as its dogmas absolute revolt, total refusal to submit, and sabotage in principle, and … it expects nothing now except through violence. The simplest Surrealist act consists in going down into the street, revolvers in one’s hands, and firing at random, wilfully, into the crowd.

Convinced that the conservative forces of nationalism, religion and family values had all contributed to the carnage of the First World War, the Surrealists, as they expressed themselves in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, engaged in a war against middle-class values and morality. ‘We have united to ruin the bourgeoisie’, the poet Paul Éluard thundered in Cahiers d’Art in 1936, ‘to ruin its well-being and beauty … this well-being enslaved to ideas of property, family, religion and fatherland, that we fight together’.

André Masson’s Ecstasy (Extase) (conceived 1938, cast 1987), a major new acquisition for the National Gallery of Victoria’s sculpture collection, encapsulates the Surrealists’ determination to challenge conventional morality by embedding frank depictions of violence, sexuality and sex within their art. These themes preoccupied Masson throughout the 1930s, when he created paintings and drawings imaging the slaughter of animals in abattoirs, massacres of defenceless women, battling insects and violent tales drawn from ancient Greek mythology. These obsessions have usually been equated with Masson’s horrific experiences during the First World War; but they can equally be read as reflecting his and the other Surrealists’ fascination with the transgressions of the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814), who spent much of his life imprisoned for cruelty to women. The Surrealists hero-worshipped this perverted aristocrat who wrote scurrilous and blasphemous texts at the time of the French Revolution, recognising that in de Sade they had found a weapon with which to attack the sadism and misogyny they perceived to be inherent within French Catholicism.

In 1928 Masson made drawings illustrating de Sade’s Justine (1791), and in 1930 Tériade (Stratis Eleftheriades), the Greek-born artistic director of the last great Surrealist journal, Minotaure, wrote that Masson’s work possessed ‘the nervous sensibility of a Marquis de Sade’. The equivocal duality of de Sadian ‘love’ resonates in Ecstasy, one of a group of small sculptures Masson modelled in 1938 and then revisited in 1987, scaling it up in size. This powerful sculpture is disturbingly ambiguous in its depiction of sexual fulfilment. In places sensuous and in others sharp and angular, its penetrative interplays blur unsettlingly the distinction between caress and attack. The sculpture’s insectoid forms deliberately reference the praying mantis, a species that also fascinated the Surrealists due to the tendency of its females to cannibalise their male partners during the reproductive act. Like Breton and Éluard, Masson raised praying mantises in his own home in order to directly observe their violent mating ritual, in which new life is accompanied by death, as the female bites off the head of the male at the moment of impregnation.

Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2014)