by Mark Van Proyen
Alice Rahon was French by birth, Surrealist by disposition and, after 1946, a naturalized citizen of Mexico. Before starting her career as a painter, she traveled extensively and enjoyed early success, writing and publishing three books of poetry as a member of André Breton’s Surrealist circle in Paris. There, she associated with Man Ray, Paul Klee, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso and the Austrian painter Wolfgang Paalen, whom she married in 1934 and subsequently divorced in 1947.
Rahon and Paalen ended up in Mexico City in late 1939, falling into the circle of Surrealist emigres who had arrived there just before the onset of hostilities in Europe. They had been invited there by Frieda Kahlo, soon thereafter becoming close to Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo. After Paalen’s suicide in 1959, Rahon’s work fell into obscurity before her own death in 1987. Interest in it was revived by Whitney Chadwick’s 1985 book Woman Artists and the Surrealist Movement, eventually leading to its inclusion in this past summer’s Venice Biennial, The Milk of Dreams.
Uncovering Alice Rahon at Gallery Wendi Norris features 13 paintings spanning the years 1944 to 1975. The exhibition also includes one sculpture, Juggler (1946), a fantastically elaborated marionette made from radiating spokes of shiny wire. It may have originated as a prop for a performance; nevertheless it’s a stunning as a stand-alone artwork. This and all the works on view resist conventional art historical pigeon-holes, despite their evocation of notable influences. Chief among them are the cave paintings at Altamira, Spain, which she and Paalen visited at the urging of Miró in 1933. Years later, Rahon proclaimed herself “a cave painter,” explaining, “In earliest times, painting was magical. It was the key to the invisible. In those days, the power of a work lay in its power of conjuration, a power that talent alone could not achieve.” The quote comes from Daniel Garza Usabiaga’s essay in the handsome exhibition catalog, which locates Rahon’s work in a realm that could be called magical automatism.
Many Surrealists who emigrated to Mexico in the 1930s were confounded to learn that the indigenous Mexican folk culture was far more surreal than anything they could have imagined at the Café de Flore in Paris. (The same also held for the 1920s Dadaists who decamped for New York and discovered that the city was far more Dada than anything they might have imagined in Zurich or Berlin.) And while some of these artists developed difficulties in their newly adopted homeland, Rahon found Mexico to be the perfect habitat for her work.
She often incorporated sand or volcanic pumice into her paintings. The latter subtly revealed a shimmering reflective attribute, while the former evoked the sgraffito markings of subterranean cave paintings. Both qualities are evident in one of the earliest works, Fiesta de Abril (1945), which looks like a choreographic plan for a ghost dance surrounding the head of a trickster coyote. Like many works in the exhibition, this one is drenched in veils of vibrating blue hues, suggesting the use of locally sourced pigments. In another predominantly blue-turquoise work, El Profeta (Campos de caña) (1962), Rahon painted a fanciful figure on a reflective metal surface, creating an efflorescent effect obliquely echoing the retablo and ex-voto traditions of northern Mexico. City of Cats (1968) reveals the addition of dry pigments to amplify the artist’s use of searing orange and yellow to depict buildings and cats morphing into each other.
As the largest painting in the exhibition, El Tucán and el arco iris (Homage to Wolfgang Paalen) (1967), clues us in to how small the rest of the works are. Situated in a luscious blue field, it shows two figures, one of which is a fanciful bird directing its elongated beak toward what appears to be a self-contained torso formulated from a skewed checkerboard grid. Even though Rahon made it long after divorcing Paalen (and eight years after his death), the painting can be read as a testament to their relationship, the bird representing the artist’s attempt to reach into the caged heart of the manic-depressive Paalen. Alternately, we might see the painting as a reflection of her parents’ marriage and her own troubled early family life. She was born Alice Phillipot, but in an act of defiance, took her mother’s maiden name rather than her father’s. Like Kahlo, Rahon suffered a horrific childhood accident that left her permanently disabled. She was also self-conscious about having a preternaturally long neck. For these reasons, her self-portrait as a tropical bird longing for the cage she previously escaped makes sense.
The exhibition’s darkest and most recent work is a 1975 painting called Una gigante llamada soledad (A giant called loneliness). It appears to be a straightforward frontal self-portrait but quickly takes on other uncanny characteristics, the most notable being the shrouded face of the centrally placed figure, which makes it look like a haunting spirit or an angel of death. Rahon was 71 years old when she painted it and already suffering age-related infirmities while living as a recluse. Unlike the other works in the exhibition, this one reaches back to the symbolist roots of Surrealism, looking a bit like the work of Odilon Redon while also conjuring a dia de los muertos shrine. Compared to the more free-floating compositions in the exhibition, the forthright self-confrontation seen in Una gigante seems a bit out of place. Still, it reminds us that while we may try to run from mortality, we cannot escape it.
# # #
“Uncovering Alice Rahon” @ Gallery Wendi Norris through November 5, 2022. Note: This exhibition is located offsite, at 436 Jackson Street, San Francisco.
About the author: Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.