Masson’s Death in the Arena (1936)

The art of André Masson, a modern French Surrealist, is like all art traditional. In this drawing of a bull-fight several features are derived from medieval and Renaissance works including the composition which turns the St. George and the Dragon theme upside down. Here the bull, an updated dragon, overcomes the unseen matador who, unseen, is probably the artist in front of the bull. His sword sits in the bull's back but, sadly for him, his horse is dead in the upper right corner. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

André Masson, Death in the Arena (1936) Ink on paper. Private Collection.

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Masson identifies with both sides of this struggle. As the saint he has plunged his sword - metaphorically, the artist's pen - into the bull's shoulder with blood leaking out like ink blots on paper. The sword's hilt resembles a lower-case for André while its ergonomic grip, turned sideways, includes an M for Masson. Indeed the enraged bull is about to kill the unmounted artist-matador too because, as I explain elsewhere, death and execution often signal the completion of an artwork.  

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Masson's Death in the Arena

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Yet Masson is also the bull which has a fierce or determined gaze like the one he sometimes has in self-portraits. This example from 1944 includes the flared nostrils of an animal too. Even his hair flowing backwards gives the impression that he is lunging forwards.  

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Masson's Death in the Arena (1936)
R: Detail of Masson's Self-portrait (1944)

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Now note how the horse's intestines in the upper right corner help form an eye-shape directly across from the bull's eye. Furthermore, the bull's forelegs, as substitutes for the artist's hands, rest on the lower edge of the image apparently "drawing" the ground. Is it the ground of the bull-ring or the artist's paper? The same word describes both.
 

Captions for image(s) above:

André Masson, Death in the Arena (1936)

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Just as in Carpaccio's St. George and the Dragon from 1502 lunar and solar symbols are included.The bull's horns are exaggerated so that each recalls a moon. Together, though, they seem sun-shaped as if forming a disc. The moon represents imagination; the sun, rational perception. Masson was probably inspired by the ancient Egyptian bull-god, Apis, who is often shown with a sun-disk in the same place (right). If the bull is divine, so is Masson.

In sum this image, regardless of any modern content, is traditional as it should be. How else can it be art?

 

Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Masson's Death in the Arena (1936)
R: Detail of a sculpture of Apis, the Egyptian bull-god (2nd cent. B.C.) Palazzo Altemps, Rome.

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More Works by Masson

Notes:

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 01 Nov 2013. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.