“Everything must return to the eternal fire.
Tempest of flames.
As Heraclitus said...”
Directly connected to the Metamorphosis of the Lovers (1938) and painted the same year, Transmutation érotique thrusts the spectator right to the heart of Masson's iconography. The unusual word, “transmutation”, refers to the Freudian theory that sexual energy can be transformed into a “socially useful” achievement - such as making art. Everything in this painting appears to be in a state of transformation, with humanity and vegetation merging to the point of confusion. The faces of the couple in an orgasmic embrace are transformed into animal heads with vegetal extremities, while the arms become reptilian. Like Daphne the nymph, the woman regenerates into a plant in her moment of ecstasy. She reveals a breast metamorphosed into a lemon, just like in an Arcimboldo painting. The breast, an attribute of the nourishing mother, becomes a symbol of loyalty in love. Indeed when Adonis dies, Venues covers him with white flowers and lemons, a symbol of fidelity. Like Rembrandt’s slaughtered ox, the eviscerated torso of the male resembles a carcass hanging in an abattoir. Incidentally, Masson had visited and painted the slaughterhouses at La Villette in Paris. In that painting, the flesh symbolised the transience and transformations of life, but here, meat depicts the human body in a carnal and sensual manner. With the lovers who metamorphosise and regenerate into primal beings, the painter is tracing the constant transformation of the cycle of nature, from germination to decay.
The two twisted bodies, tongues entwined, are sat on a chair, which has tilted in excitement, complete with phallic leg. They are locked in an intimate embrace, though between them is a gaping bodily cavity, the place of their mutual penetration, which seems to contain viscera, flames, flowers or feathers. Traditionally used as a symbol of authority, the chair was a recurring motif in Masson's work around 1938-1939. It undoubtedly makes reference to the Marquis de Sade’s philosophy where women assume the role of furniture. The chair is also used in the same manner, as an aid for lovemaking, in the Marquis de Sade's first novel, Justine or The Misfortunes of Virtue. Thus Masson assimilates the sexual union with the unity of the animal kingdom and the natural world, adopting the principles of Heraclitean philosophy, of which he was an avid follower. According to Heraclitus, all things are born of fire and are as changeable as the water of a river. In the years preceding his departure for the United States, Masson made this precept the cornerstone of his art.
In contrast to the united lovers, several elements of the composition are in opposition. The white, colour of purity, defies a violent, debauched red, the colour of passion. In addition, the Surrealist metamorphosis of the couple is abound with Cubist-inspired motifs, from the dressing table and the “vaginal” mirror, to the bidet and geometric-patterned rug. All of these objects are replicated in several of Masson’s works, including the Hôtel des oiseaux. The paintings of this period are truly marvellous hybrids. While the content is mainly Surrealist, the composition and techniques remain rooted in Cubism.
Metamorphosis of a convulsive representation of our universe, Transmutation érotique is one of Masson’s most remarkable examples of ‘Metamorphosis’. He himself gave the following definition: “It would be sufficient to paint a single female body [...] for it to be the sky as well as the earth. There would be fresh water, the hidden warmth of ripe fruit; it would begin as a torrent, transform into flame and finish in the wind”. Inspired by his passionate relationship with Paule Vézelay, he fantasised about having the power to transform her into a different lover. A dramaturg of pain, desire and ecstasy, Masson demonstrates how passion and eroticism can powerfully explain the nature of humanity. Through his work, Masson became a brilliant interpreter of the metamorphoses of nature and the paroxysms of the soul.