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Neil Cox

The Origin of Masson's Massacres

It is widely agreed that the series of drawings and paintings executed by André Masson (1896-1937) on the theme of Massacres between approximately 1930 and 1933 are in some way responses to his experiences of combat during the First World War. Taking it for granted that the series represents as such a 'return of the repressed'; this article offers an explanation for the trigger of this psychologically traumatic event, and attempts to reposition the apparent misogyny of the drawings in terms of a masochistic fantasy. It does so by exploring the range of past art that interested Masson, particularly via articles on the 'Baroque' published in the surrealist journal Minotaure in 1933, and then through Masson's own writings on European 'Old Masters' that he considered important. Exploring works by these artists that represent scenes of violence, including the subjects of the Massacre of the Innocents and the Rape of the Sabines, the argument then focuses in particular on Delacroix's The Death of Sardanapalus, with its scenes of men butchering women, as an important precedent for Masson's Massacres. The claim is then made that the crucial trigger for the series was none of these - rather it was the publication in 1929 in the journal Documents of a painting from 1566 by Antoine Caron, representing a Roman massacre, and more importantly the interpretative essay published with it by Michel Leiris, that led to the return of Masson's repressed war memories in the form of the Massacres. Arguing that Leiris' essay is all about masochistic fantasy, the article argues that this is what drives Masson's immolation of countless women in his drawings, even if the literal 'text' of the images appears entirely sadistic. The article concludes by mentioning Masson's encounter with another of Delacroix's great works: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel in Saint-Sulpice. The allegory in this painting of a struggle within the soul or self is considered another long buried clue to the significance of Masson's Massacres, giving significance to the dating of the encounter to 1914, the period that Masson saw in terms of his own pre-war moral innocence.

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