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Chance Encounters, Edition 18
Wolfgang Paalen: Messenger of Possibility
Wolfgang Paalen (Austrian-Mexican, 1905-1959) was an artist, writer, and philosopher of much greater importance to 20th century art than one might guess from how relatively unknown he is today. Friends included the major artists and writers of Surrealism, André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Roland Penrose, Paul Éluard, Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera. He was also acquainted with important American artists of the New York School including Jackson Pollock, Barnet Newman, and Robert Motherwell. After leaving Europe in advance of World War Two, Paalen established his studio in Mexico, only occasionally visiting New York and Paris. Though many qualities of his artworks and his personal associations connect him to Surrealism, his unique philosophy and absence from the geographic centers of Modern art has made it difficult for art historians to fit Paalen into the traditional story of Western art.
Determined to be an artist from an early age, Paalen applied but was rejected for admission to the academy in Berlin. Having studied music and Greek and Roman archeology with childhood tutors, he set himself a course of reading in philosophy, an interest he maintained for the rest of his life. In 1928, Paalen settled in Paris where he soon joined the Surrealist circle and became friends with the movement’s founder and philosopher André Breton. This friendship suffered ups and downs over the years but the two men remained in contact until Paalen’s death, debating artistic, philosophical, and political issues throughout their relationship. Paalen’s works from the 1930s show the influence of Surrealist painters, especially Joan Miro. The Inhabitants of the Island is a good example; the painterly background and ground line create a space in which biomorphic shapes cavort, a strategy Miro used often in the 1920s.
“I believe that no more serious or more continuous effort has ever been made to apprehend the texture of the universe and make it perceptible.” - André Breton about Wolfgang Paalen
In 1938, Paalen assisted Marcel Duchamp and others in designing the International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris and Paalen exhibited several works there. These included an early example of his innovative technique called fumage in which the artist allowed smoke and soot from a burning candle to adhere to a prepared white canvas. In early examples like Still Life with Fly, the artist created almost the entire image with the soot. You can see the texture of the white ground (base layer) through the gray and brown streaks. In later works he incorporated drawing and oil painting over the fumage. Sometimes, the sooty marks remain quite visible, as in the Self Portrait (above) but in other cases the oil paint is so dominant that it takes a high resolution image or viewing the work in person to discern the underlying presence of the soot. Forbidden Land (below) is an example of this.
For the Surrealists, fumage was appealing because it allowed chance to enter into the creation of the artwork; in this it was similar to popular Surrealist techniques like automatism and decalcomania. However, Paalen interpreted the purpose of using chance in art as a tool for opening up a world of possibilities that would be a playground for the artist. To Breton, chance introduced a fixed chain of events that would lead back to the creator’s subconscious desires. The exploration of “the possible” was central to Paalen’s writings and artworks; he was much less interested in Freudian psychology than Breton. In Forbidden Land, the fumage is used for details in the blue green object at the cliff top. It was also used to develop the texture of the cliff but is largely obscured by paint. Atop the cliff at right is an abstract female form, which may have been influenced by the prehistoric Greek sculptures called Cycladic idols. Paalen had collected some of these sculptures a few years earlier.
In addition to his fumage works, Paalen exhibited Surrealist objects in the 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition. One of these was Articulated Cloud I, an umbrella covered with natural sea sponges. Surrealist objects are some of the most effective examples of the Surrealist idea of disjunction, a combination of contradictory forms which is meant to disrupt the viewer’s logical expectations and provoke their imagination to greater freedom. In Paalen’s sculpture, there is the first and most obvious contradiction of sponges, which absorb water, covering an umbrella which is designed to repel water. Other levels of meaning arise from further considering the materials: the umbrella is manmade, the sponge from nature; umbrellas are used in public, outdoor spaces while sponges are for intimate, personal cleaning. There are two surviving versions of Articulated Cloud; the two vary only slightly due to the design of the underlying umbrellas.
Paalen settled in Mexico in September 1939 and at first was in close contact with the Surrealist community there. However, less than a year later the artist split with Kahlo, Rivera and other members of the Mexican Surrealist community over their allegiance to Communist leader Joseph Stalin whose political violence Paalen abhorred. As a result, Paalen felt lonely and isolated, though he continued to paint and write extensively.
The result of Paalen’s writing was the publication of a magazine called Dyn, which was distributed in New York City in spring 1942. The magazine’s title was derived from the Greek work dynatón meaning “the possible,” the concept which underlay Paalen’s philosophy. That first issue included an essay bidding farewell to Surrealism, addressed to Breton, rejecting the movement’s dogmatic devotion to Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. According to Paalen, this devotion kept the artists from finding true self-knowledge, one of Paalen’s goals as an artist. The five issues of Dyn were distributed in New York City between 1942 and 1944 making Paalen a leading art theorist in the Americas during World War Two.
Paalen’s paintings of his first Mexican period are filled with energetic brushwork from which figures or objects appear, reflecting the artist’s concept that ideas emerge out of the restless movement of our consciousness. Messenger is typical of these works and the theme is one that recurs throughout Paalen’s career. The message being brought to the viewer is never made explicit; the viewer’s task is to discern the meaning. Such messengers were inspired by the artist’s diverse interests, including the possibility of alien worlds and alternate planes of existence, and the religious beliefs of North American indigenous cultures. The latter interest was relatively new. On his way to Mexico, Paalen had stopped in New York City where he visited the Museum of the American Indian. Inspired by this visit, Paalen traveled by train across Canada to British Columbia where he collected indigenous artifacts and visited native communities.
Paalen continued his interest in indigenous cultures after his arrival in Mexico. The Ancestor of the Future is painted on amate paper. Amate is a Mexican paper made of bark using a technique that first appeared long before the arrival of Europeans. In Aztec Mexico, amate paper was used for communication, records, and in rituals. Banned by the Spanish, the technique for making amate survived in secret. Paalen used this paper for painting, drawing, and writing between 1944 to 1946, at a time when the Otomi, an indigenous group, were selling amate in Mexico City. The shapes and marks in this painting suggest a glyphic language conveying a message which is a mystery for us to solve.
In 1948, having relocated to California, Paalen joined with Lee Mullican and Gordon Onslow Ford to create a new artistic group under the name Dynaton. Though Paalen soon returned to Mexico, he remained in contact with the group and his works from the late 1940s reflect the ideas that the Dynaton group favored, ambiguity and the freedom found in imagining new possibilities. The style of Tropical Night is typical because there is almost no line; both the space and figure are constructed out of color and rhythm. The figure and space are so intertwined that the figure seems to be appearing as we look, or perhaps disappearing. This is a figure of possibility – the image seems like an apparition – you see it but then wonder if you have seen it, like finding figures in the clouds, seeing a mirage, or hallucinating.
In the early 1950s, Paalen visited Europe and reconciled with André Breton. He remained in Paris for the better part of three years, socializing with the Surrealists and creating works that have more in common with the Lyrical Abstraction movement popular in Europe at the time (see Chance Encounters, Edition 8) than the Dynaton works of the previous decade. Fossil Light is an example with its patches of vivid color that glow amidst the darker background, but the title and details suggestive of cave drawing remind us that Paalen had written an analysis of cave paintings in Dyn in the early 1940s. Though the visual form is different, the work still connects to Paalen’s interest in messages from other realms and universes.
Abstract Composition was painted in 1954, the year that Paalen returned to Mexico. Painted in the Lyrical Abstraction style he’d developed during his time in Europe, the shapes in this work suggest the apparitions that inhabit so many of the artist’s works in all of the stages of his career. Between 1954 and 1959, he continued with his painting and writing, as well as traveling to explore the Yucatan, collecting and trading in Olmec and other pre-colonial indigenous artifacts. At the same time, Paalen’s lifelong struggle with depression intensified, eventually ending with the artist’s suicide on September 25, 1959.
Wolfgang Paalen took the ideas of the leading art movements of his time, Cubism, Surrealism, and Lyrical Abstraction and blended them with his own studies of philosophy, anthropology, and archeology to create an artistic theory and practice that was influential in Europe and North America in the first half of the 20th century. His work deserves a much wider audience than it has enjoyed so far.
Wolfgang Paalen: Scenes for a Sorcerer, an exhibition of the artist’s work, is open by appointment at the Weinstein Gallery, 444 Clementina Street, San Francisco, CA, until November 17.
Learn more about Wolfgang Paalen from The Wolfgang Paalen Society, Kyritz, Germany and their blog: https://wolfgangpaalenorg.wordpress.com/ and from Lucid Art Foundation, Inverness, California, US, https://www.lucidart.org/ .
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