Books On Books Collection – André Masson

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard
by Stéphane Mallarmé (1961)

Poéme: Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard by Stéphane Mallarmé (1961)
André Masson © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021
Livre d’artiste. Folio closed: H440 x W330 mm. Folio open: W660 mm , pages. Edition of 102, with 77 numbered copies, of which this is #68. Acquired from Artcurial, 26 May 2021.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Renée Riese Hubert and Judd D. Hubert, the curators of a 2003 exhibition celebrating the influence of Un Coup de Dés on art, took umbrage at André Masson’s homage as these three extracts demonstrate:

Far from continuing or elaborating on Mallarmé’s project, Masson has contrived a systematic substitution of graphics, including calligraphy, for a typographical chef-d’oeuvre, thus enabling an unforeseen and uninvited art form to usurp the territory of another. (p. 508)

… in illustrating poetry he more often than not deserves his usual designation of abstract surrealist, all the more so because he combines automatism with the mythological dynamism so characteristic of his paintings and his drawings. (p. 513)

… Mallarmé’s poem, characterized by its avoidance of anecdotal narrative, its deliberate twistings of metaphorical patterns, its deconstruction of rhythmic continuity, practically precludes figuration. How can any illustration, however abstract, lend visual support to a text that compounds to such an extent the problematics of representation? … How could Masson graphically master a text that perversely withdraws from the reader and pores over itself, like the hypothetically sentient waves it repeatedly evokes, questions, and denies? (p. 514)

His use of only the last four words in Mallarmé’s preface to the Cosmopolis edition (reprinted with changes in the 1914 NRF/Gallimard edition) is a clue that Masson is going to challenge La Poésie as the Unique Source or perhaps confirm it as the source of this very work that, according to the Huberts, runs at odds with Mallarmé’s poem.

But, given that deliberate, selective quotation from the preface, is this work the result of chance-driven Automatism? After all, isn’t the work driven by the poem to which it pays homage and by the engagement with the Amateurs du livre et de l’estampe modernes. While chance-driven Automatism implies a spontaneity that the practice of lithography affirms, that is so only up to a point. Even if Masson were drawing directly on a prepared surface, the production of these colors and imposition would have required careful planning and methodical execution. Much like Mallarmé’s as revealed in the proofs of his unfulfilled deluxe edition.

Although Masson’s layout of the text does not follow Mallarmé’s meticulous adjustments, it does nod in that direction as can be seen above and below, and like Mallarmé, Masson is primarily engaged with the double-page spread as his canvas. The dark green image in the spread above left could be anchored seaweed; the script curling away into the tangle could be words trapped in the shipwreck’s rigging. The gray image in the spread above right is a spectral human form juxtaposed with the words “Le Maître”. But if the Huberts are right that no illustration can lend visual support to a text that challenges the foundations of representation, is this work of homage a failed attempt to continue or elaborate on Mallarmé’s project as they conclude?

There is another perspective. Other of Masson’s works such as Florence at Dusk (1958) and Metamorphosis (1963) display the same technique and color so manifest in this distinctive homage. There is no denying that this artist’s response is anything other than authentic. Isn’t it the case that Masson’s embrace of the chance-driven technique of Automatism and chance puts him at the end of Le Maître‘s voyage where “All thought emits a throw of the dice” rather than at the beginning where there is hesitation in the face of Le Hasard. No surprise then that Masson’s homage does not concern itself with choosing the right typeface, placing the words precisely on the page as they appeared in the 1914 edition or respectfully distancing any artwork from the text. Masson takes Un Coup de Dés as a point of departure for a throw of the dice on his own terms. Masson does not usurp; he appropriates.

Further Reading & Viewing

Ades, Dawn. André Masson. London: Academy Editions, 1994. 

André Masson: A Collection of 91 Works”. 22 May 2019. Learn from the Masters. YouTube. Accessed 30 July 2031.

André Masson”. Artsy. Accessed 30 July 2021. Displays 217 works. “An early Surrealist and devotee of Cubism—who went on to inspire the New York Abstract Expressionists before taking up a late interest in impressionistic landscapes—André Masson was an iconoclast whose abrupt stylistic transitions defy classification. Along with Joan Miró, he explored automatic drawing, seeking to express the creative force of the unconscious. This led to images—like the celebrated Battle of the Fishes (1927), a poetic depiction of conflict and metamorphosis with undertones of primordial eroticism—derived from random gestures and drawn spontaneously in glue, then sprinkled with colored sands for added texture and complexity. His signature violence, evident in the terrifying, fragmented figures of In The Tower of Sleep (1938), reflects the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and WWII, as well as his own troubled psyche in the aftermath of his service in WWI.”

André Masson”. Wikiart: Visual Art Encyclopedia. Accessed 30 July 2021.

Masson, André, and Mary Ann Caws. 2012. André Masson: the mythology of desire : masterworks from 1925 to 1945. New York: Blain Di Donna.

Poling, C. V. (2008). Andre Masson and the surrealist self. New Haven, Yale Univ. Press.

Rubin, William, and Carolyn Lanchner. 1976. Andre Masson. New York [NY]: Museum of Modern Art New York.

Steptoe & Johnson LLP. N.d. “André Masson”. Diversity & Art: A Virtual Tour. Accessed 30 July 2021.

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