It takes the eyes a moment to adjust to seeing André Masson’s Battle of Fishes and to rest on any of its particular forms. The experimental mixed-media piece of 1926, made of sand, gesso, oil, pencil, and charcoal on canvas, suggests dreamlike doodles and an interplay of objects, textures, and scenes. Once the large, crudely penciled fishes come into focus amidst the otherwise chaotic rendering, however, they maintain an emphatic presence.
The colossal fish at the bottom left of the picture plane is a sharp-tooth predator evocative of primordial seas. It is balanced by another large fish that it is almost nose to nose with. Both fish are scrawled in pencil, as if from the hand of a scribbling child. These fish are not fully formed, and the face of the one at the upper right takes the shape of a stark triangle (the only geometric shape in a work filled with frenzied, organic lines). The fish’s outward gazing eye looks up and back as if mindful of the other small fishes that come into focus as they appear to weave in and out of sand that has been stirred up from the seafloor.
If we look closely, we notice that some of the fishes in both the upper right and lower left portions of the canvas share nearly continuous lines, causing confusion about where one fish stops and another one starts.
Red paint resembling blood flows from some of the fish. These splashes of red punctuate the work’s otherwise sandy tones and suggest primal seafloor battles. All of this imagery evokes the sense of danger and the deep sea.
Sand painting and untamed art
At the canvas’s lower right, a large sandy patch sits opposite the largest fish. Masson made this patch, and the ones that balance it to form another diagonal trending towards the upper left, with an experimental process of throwing sand onto a glued or gessoed canvas that he developed in the 1920s. He combined this new process with the practice of automatic drawing, a form of mark-making thought to reveal subconscious creativity that he also began experimenting with in the early 1920s. This process, mark-making without coordination between the eye and the hand, fascinated many of the artists associated with the Surrealist movement.
During the mid-1920s Masson explored automatic drawing with paint, a material that traditionally requires a deliberate approach and frequently reloading paint on a brush. To allow a more spontaneous paint flow, Masson began squeezing paint directly from the tube (an innovation that would later inspire a younger generation of artists, including American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock). Masson’s Battle of Fishes is a prime example of what became known as his “sand paintings” by pouring gesso onto a canvas, smearing it around, improvising with his fingers, and throwing sand onto the sticky surfaces to create a textured, earthy ground. He then poured on the red paint and added his charcoal and pencil, combining painting and drawing. Pouring glue and paint, and throwing sand, ensured that gravity and chance also played significant roles in the creation of the work of art.
Battle of Fishes, also speaks to Masson’s fascination with the art of children and untrained artists. The Surrealists looked to such unrefined works because they saw in them untamed creativity thought to represent subconscious processes. In the hands of an artist such as Masson, however, the crudeness of children’s drawings functioned as a strategy to bypass cultural expectations that had defined art for centuries.
Surrealism and trauma
Masson’s process reveals a lot about his interest in Surrealism—an art and literary movement that began in France. Surrealism responded to the violence of WWI and explored emerging ideas about psychology, dreams, and subconscious processes initially elaborated by psychologist Sigmund Freud.
Masson served in the French military in World War I. He was seriously injured, hospitalized, and institutionalized for what was then called “shell-shock” (today known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD—a mental disorder caused by experiencing severe emotional or physical trauma that afflicts many soldiers). The mental and physical traumas of the war affected an entire generation of artists, many of whom began questioning the legitimacy of cultural norms and governmental systems that could lead to the terror and tragedy experienced during the First World War. For Masson, the war reinforced the idea that the human condition, as all animal life, is characterized by violence and the impetus to survive. This idea became a major theme in his art, and one that is alluded to in Battle of Fishes.
Masson’s experiences caused him to gravitate towards other artists who had endured wartime trauma, including André Breton, who founded the Surrealist movement after serving as a medic for traumatized WWI soldiers. Masson joined the Surrealists in the early 1920s, and his studio apartment in the Montparnasse section of Paris became a nexus for artists and writers and their Surrealist experiments. These included the practices of automatic drawing (an offshoot of the automatic writing) and the creation of exquisite corpses.
This interest in chance, subconscious creativity, and metamorphosis of forms can be seen in Battle of Fishes in the thrown sand, the scribbled figures, and the red paint squirted directly from the tube. The interest in hybrid forms that captivated the Surrealists can also be seen in the interlocking figures of the fish (notice how the upper fin of the big fish at the lower left simultaneously looks like another, smaller fish). Hybrid forms such as these have also been interpreted as representing Masson’s fascination with the themes of violence and metamorphosis as well as “the precariousness of existence.” 
In the book Surrealism and Painting, Breton described Masson’s painting as fundamentally aligned with Surrealist values. According to Breton, Masson’s work recontextualized and juxtaposed objects from different contexts to create a kind of “event” in which the objects, newly situated, resonated with the echoes of their past lives and with future, dreamlike possibilities. For Breton, Masson’s spontaneity and free-flowing combination of forms resonated with the group’s affinities for dream-like imagery, evoking a sense of deep-seated creativity. 
This interest in the collage-like imagery of dreams can also be seen in Battle of Fishes, in which the sandy forms of the seafloor seem to vacillate between the underwater seascapes of the murky depths and a rugged mountainous terrain. The tension between what lies on the surface and the repressed subconscious impulses below function as much as the dynamic linear forms in this mixed media work to energize the image. It is just this kind of vitality—and an emphasis on the dynamism of life itself—that Masson sought to convey with his art.
 Quoted in Carolyn Lanchner, “André Masson: Origins and Development,” in William Rubin and Carolyn Lanchner, André Masson [New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1976], p. 85.
 André Breton, Surrealism and Painting (1928) (Boston: MFA Publications, 2002), pp. 66–68.
Dawn Ades, André Masson (New York: Rizzoli, 1994).
Kristy Bryce and Mary Ann Caws, Surrealism and the Rue Blomet (New York: Eykyn Maclean, 2013).
Malcolm Haslam, The Real World of the Surrealists (New York: Rizzoli, 1978).
Desmond Morris, The Lives of the Surrealists (London: Thames and Hudson, 2018).
William Rubin and Carolyn Lanchner, André Masson (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1976).
“From Shell-Shock to PTSD, a Century of Invisible War Trauma,” PBS News Hour, Nov 11, 2018.