"Le Couple represents a family of refugees, fleeing before the horrors of war depicted in the background of the painting. The figures are represented in vegetable like forms because they have been uprooted.”
In October 1940, following the enactment of the racist law on the "premier statut des Juifs" by the Vichy government, André Masson, his wife Rose (of Jewish origin) and their two sons travelled to Marseille intent on leaving for America. The present work was painted in this context, and seems to depict the painter’s family on the point of departing the European continent. Whilst waiting for their visa for the United States, the family lived in a house in Montredon, in the suburbs of Marseille. The papers finally arrived in March of 1941 and all three set sail for the new continent. As a sign of his particular attachment to this painting, André Masson took it with him on exile to the United States where he would later sign it.
Directly related to another work painted the previous year, Métamorphoses (1939), Le Couple throws the spectator into the heart of Masson’s iconography, superbly illustrating one of the central themes of the painter’s work: metamorphosis. Indeed, everything in this work seems to be undergoing a process of transformation as humans and vegetation mingle together and become one. The legs of the three figures are rooted in the ground whilst their faces and upper members have already completed their vegetal transmutations. The faces have become leaves whilst the arms of the protagonists switch between reptilian forms and those of germinating plants.
Masson sought to apply the principles of the philosophy of Heraclitus of which he was a fervent adept. According to Heraclitus things born from fire are as changeable as river water. In the years before his departure for America, Masson made this precept the corner stone of his art. Le Couple and the other key painted works between 1938 and 1940 explore the illusory concept of permanence and seek to depict the perpetual transformation of natural cycles, from germination to putrefaction. In these paintings, everything is in the process of becoming and evolves in an intermediary state between the human, animal and vegetal realms. The presence of grains about to blossom further emphasizes this idea of imminent change and future renewal.
An example of the convulsive representation of our universe, as it was understood by the Surrealists, and painted at a time when Europe was sinking into war, Le Couple is one of the most remarkable examples of Masson’s "Metamorphoses" which he described in the following terms: "It would thus be enough to paint a single woman’s body […] for it also to be the sky and the earth. There would be the freshness of water, the secret warmth of ripe fruits, it would begin as a torrent and become a flame, and finish in the wind."
A mythical series in Masson’s oeuvre, the "Métamorphoses" hold an essential place within Surrealist painting, earning emphatic praise from André Breton in a tribute he wrote to the works shortly after Masson’s departure for the United States: "André Masson is highly possessed: there is no spirit upon which so much hold has been taken by the major questions that have torn us apart for centuries – Heraclitus, La Cabale, Sade, German Romanticism, Lautréamont – no spirit that has offered to them such a propitious field of percussion. But this spirit is as liberated as they are from the irresistible appeal of life, this life that he is the only painter to always catch at the source and that brings him to electively lean towards the Métamorphoses" (André Breton, "Prestige d’André Masson", in Minotaure, May 1939, p.13)
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