‘These studies are more about imagined corridas rather than precise representations of tauromachia, but they are composed with all the elements of the real thing’ -André Masson
Dating from the final months of André Masson’s acclaimed Spanish period, Corrida mythologique stands as a highly dramatic, personal reflection of the intense anxiety the artist felt regarding the Civil War which threatened to engulf the nation he had called his home for several years. Masson’s first encounter with Spain came in March 1934 when he took a short trip to the country with his wife Rose, visiting Madrid, Avila, Córdoba, Grenada and Almeria, taking in cultural and artistic masterpieces in each city, from the paintings of El Greco and Jérôme Bosch, to the beautiful architecture of the Mosque and the Medina at Córdoba. Charmed by the country’s unique culture, rich history, and pleasant climate, the artist decided to move to the Catalan village of Tossa de Mar in June of that year. Masson’s decision to relocate to Spain was in part motivated by the deteriorating political situation in France at the time, and the rise of increasingly violent fascist groups across the country. Haunted by his experiences during the First World War, and fearing another conflict, Masson fled Paris for Spain in search of refuge and peace, a self-imposed exile from Fascism which would ultimately prove a futile endeavour.
Masson’s art reacted immediately to his new surroundings, taking inspiration from Spanish art, culture, traditions and the unique
landscape, which he believed possessed a mysterious, magnetic quality. Perhaps the most enduring theme of his time in Spain was the corrida, the dramatic, ritualistic bullfights steeped in ancient traditions which took place regularly around the country. These suspenseful, danger-filled performances typically featured a cast of players, from the team of sword-wielding toreadors in their elaborate costumes, to the enraged, powerful bulls driven demented by their movements and the jabs of their weapons, and the sacrificial horses the toreadors rode into the ring which often bore the brunt of the bull’s initial attacks. Intrinsically linked to the country’s national identity, these elaborate and bloody performances offered spectators a heady mix of perilous violence, theatrical showmanship and intense spectacle. Describing his attraction to the corrida, Masson explained: ‘The visual aspect, the spectacle… is magnificent; when man and beast seem wedded. There are sublime moments’ (Masson, quoted in W. Rubin & C. Lachner, André Masson, exh. cat., New York, 1976, p. 142). The subject occupied Masson almost obsessively between 1935-1937, inspiring an array of compositions and drawings of increasing complexity, exploring various moments in the performance, from the dynamic movements of the toreadors’ whirling capes to the clash of bodies in the midst of the fray, and the final, tumultuous moment of the killing of the bull.
In a letter to Michel Leiris, Masson wrote that these ‘tauromachies’ were born from a strange hallucination that ‘triggered a whole series of visions that I tried to transpose immediately, and since that time, without stopping, I live with the bulls…’ (Masson, quoted in D. Ades, ‘André Masson,’ in André Masson, Catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre peint 1919-1941, vol. I, Manchester, 2010, p. 57). Masson certainly attended bullfights, in Barcelona and closer to his home in Tossa de Mar, and occasionally would sketch from nature, using his elevated position within the stands to capture an aerial view of the unfolding events. Other compositions present a condensed, swirling view of the intense fight between the protagonists in the corrida, emphasising not only the confusion and turmoil of the confrontation between man and beast, but also the inherent danger of the performance, which at any moment could descend into serious injury or death for all involved.
In Corrida mythologique, these themes of performance and death collide in the centre of the ring, as the characters converge in a heaving mass of bodies, each of them fighting for their own survival. A pair of charging, manic bulls meet the rearing form of the torreador’s horse, which struggles against the onslaught, and attacks the first thing it can reach, biting the flailing legs of a nude, male figure hurtling through the air above the milieu. Lashing out in pure fear, the horse - typically cast as the sacrificial victim in the bullfight - becomes the aggressor, injuring the man, whose face creases in an anguished scream. Tossed into the centre of the clash between the animals, this nude figure is clearly not a part of the performance, but rather an unintended victim caught up in the conflict. Similarly, to the right of the crowd of clashing bodies, a bare-breasted young woman falls beneath the hooves of the enraged bull, her lithe form trampled by its massive body. These two characters appear as unwitting victims of the clash, their complete lack of costume and weaponry implying they have been caught unawares, and are merely a pair of innocent bystanders who have been engulfed in the violence that surrounds them. The toreador, meanwhile, remains on the edge of the conflict, his skeletal form and vacant stare lending him a strange, demon-like quality, as he conducts the ‘performance’, and yet remains untouched by its horrific violence. This nightmarish vision, dominated by bright, crimson reds, takes place in the centre of an otherworldly arena, the rhythmic arches in the background curving around to envelope the figures at the centre of the composition, adding to the overwhelming, claustrophobic atmosphere of the scene.
Such fantastical, surreal, and visceral visions of the corrida were among Masson’s most striking explorations of the theme, and were almost immediately interpreted by his contemporaries as a direct response to the growing tensions and eventual conflict of the Civil War which engulfed Spain in July 1936. Masson had been left deeply scarred by his experiences during the First World War, and the artist lived in constant fear of another conflict which would plunge Europe into madness once again. His despair at the outbreak of hostilities in Spain is evident in a letter to Jean Paulhan, written during the opening weeks of the Civil War, in which he described the overwhelming atmosphere in Spain as the conflict began to engulf the country: ‘Violence, fanaticism – so much love and so much hate – exceeds anything I had imagined…’ (Masson, quoted in in C. Morando, André Masson, Catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre peint 1919-1941: Biography, Manchester, 2010, p. 161). Although unable to bring himself to join the fighting directly, Masson felt desperate to contribute in some way to the anti-Fascist cause, designing several insignias for the International Brigades fighting against Franco’s forces, as well as a series of grotesque satirical drawings attacking the Fascists. However, it was in the canvases he created during this time that he truly channelled his anxiety about the outbreak of the war, with each composition becoming a highly personal howl of despair in the face of what he saw as the wanton slaughter of a pointless conflict, in which only the innocent suffer. As such, it contains strong affinities to Picasso’s monumental Guernica, created in the wake of the bombing of civilians at Guernica in April 1937.
Corrida mythologique was first exhibited upon Masson’s return to Paris in the winter of 1936, featuring in a one-man show dedicated to the artist’s most recent works from Spain and organised by his dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. Freed from the confining atmosphere of the conflict and inherent dangers of being an outspoken protagonist against the Fascist regime, Masson was able to fully express his vehement condemnation of Franco and the conflict. As he explained, ‘Les peintures et les dessins que j’ai faits de la guerre d’Espagne ne sont pas du tout obscurs. Je voulais faire un timbre-lutte: clouer ouvertement au pilori des dictateurs que je considérais comme malfaisants’ (Masson, quoted in D. Ades, op. cit., p. 54).