by Mark Van Proyen
In early 1941, Wolfgang Paalen finished a full-face portrait of Albert Einstein. He based the painting on a photograph and executed it in a style reminiscent of a work Oskar Kokoschka did four decades earlier. At that time, Kokoschka was still the world’s most highly regarded Austrian painter, looming large in the imagination of the Vienna-born Paalen. Paalen was born in 1905, when Einstein published his Annus Mirabilis papers, outlining the basis for post-Newtonian physics. In addition to being a world-renowned artist, Kokoschka was a notable writer, dramatist and theoretician. In the years before and after he made the Einstein portrait, Paalen followed Kokoschka’s polymathic path, devoting considerable energy to writing manifestos and organizing exhibitions. He was also a world traveler long before the advent of commercial aviation. Though he took his life in 1959 at age 54, he left behind an impressive and still under-discussed body of work that bridged many of the major art movements of the first half of the 20th century.
Scenes for a Sorcerer, a museum-quality exhibition accompanied by a richly illustrated catalog with an essay by Andreas Neufert, includes more than 40 examples of Paalen’s paintings. The show spans the entirety of Paalen’s three-decade career, with the portrait of Einstein occupying a mid-point separating his early and mature work. It portrays its subject looking back at the viewer through a firmament of cosmic shapes, as if he were an Old Testament prophet coming down from the mountaintop of a new order whose frightening character had yet to emerge. It’s one of two portraits in the exhibition; the other is a self-portrait from 1952, also exhibiting the influence of Kokoschka mixed with that of other artists such as Otto Dix and Christian Schad. This one harks to pre-war Berlin, one of many cities where Paalen resided. Both paintings reveal a lot about Paalen’s ambitions, but in the context of his overall body of work and this exhibition’s representation of it, they are outliers because they are the only works that overtly signal Kokoschka’s influence.
Paalen spent much more time in France, relocating to a town near Marseilles in 1927 and staying for the following twelve years, beginning when he was 23 years old. Undoubtedly, he also spent much time in Paris, where he maintained an apartment. The earliest work in the exhibition, Cubist Still Life (1927), is a little gem of a painting that reveals Paalen’s initial involvement with Cubism, tinged with some of the chromatic subtleties Nabis artists such as Édouard Vuillard favored. Other early works in the exhibition also reveal Paalen’s involvement with some of the different phases of Cubism, never mind that he was more than a decade late to that party. Still, he did see something in Cubism that other artists affiliated with the movement missed, most notably a quasi-religious cosmology that specified and particularized the infinite, proving that even at this early phase, Pallen was already interested in the connection between art and metaphysics.
Around 1934, he fell in with a group of Parisian artists involved with Abstraction-Création, whose chief attribute was a synthesis of biomorphic post-Cubism and Surrealism. At this juncture, we see Paalen operating under the influence of Fernand Leger, an artist he studied with. He’d also long been interested in Cycladic sculpture, evidenced by Cycladic Head (Face) (1935), a carved marble sculpture. Evidence of that interest appears in the surfaces of his Abstract-Créationist works, exemplified by L’ Homme possible (1935), which sports ghostly silhouettes of spirit figures articulated as flat shapes.
Three years after Paalen began exhibiting with the Abstraction-Création group, he entered the circle of Surrealists centered around Andre Breton. Experiments with automatism soon followed, the most well-known being his series of Fumages, works on paper made from candle or cigarette smoke. The exhibition includes several excellent examples, including lyrical Nature morte à la mouche (1937) and Fumage (1938), which appear like delicate residues of a conjuration ritual.
Then came the war. It precipitated Paalen’s departure from France in the direction of New York and, soon after, Mexico City. He didn’t stay long. In 1939, he traveled extensively through Canada to British Columbia and then Alaska, intent on studying the art of indigenous Pacific Northwest cultures. This was the point at which Paalen synthesized his many influences into a mature style. The exhibition represents this juncture with works that resemble animation cells extrapolated from traditional Haida design motifs. Spatial Being (1945), for example, painted in oil on amate paper, looks like a non-figurative spirit entity coming alive on the picture surface.
In 1948, Paalen relocated to Mill Valley, where he associated with other Surrealists, such as Lee Mullican and Gordon Onslow-Ford, to form the Dynaton group, the name of which was an offshoot of a publication Paalen founded called Dyn. The exhibition includes several issues of it along with the catalog from the group’s 1951 show at SFMOMA (titled Dynaton). Its guiding credo was “The possible does not have to be justified by the known,” which sounds like something that might have been agreeable to the Abstract Expressionists then reigning in San Francisco. Their response, however, was not enthusiastic. The rough-
and-tumble Americans saw the group’s lingering Symbolist aesthetic as a troubling residue of effete Europeanism. Their antipathy, though widespread, was not universal. In New York, Robert Motherwell was an enthusiastic fellow traveler, as were a few other members of the first generation of the New York School.
Scenes for a Sorcerer includes some excellent examples of Paalen’s Dynaton-era works. Nuit Tropicale (1948) and Les Cosmogones (1949) are standouts, not only because of their large scale but because of their powerful evocations of otherworldly energies verging on the demonic. More seductively intimate is the charming Origines (1940), a fantasy of spiral forms imploding and exploding. It may be the first true example of a Dynaton work, one that’s also tangentially connected to the earlier aesthetics of Italian Futurism.
Soon after the Dynaton exhibition, Paalen traveled to Paris and then southern Mexico. In those years, his work changed again, moving toward a moody, melodramatic abstraction rooted in nocturnal landscapes. Paintings such as Le Scarabée d’or (1953) and Dos Personnage (1955) show configurations resembling cave paintings illuminated by firelight. In the exquisitely lyrical Passage du renard (Fox Passage) (1954), we see him using a light touch to apply more agreeable colors to an amorphous image evoking a nesting owl, a carryover, perhaps, from his Pacific Northwest travels. During this time, he absorbed the influences of mystically inclined artists like Mark Tobey, Morris Graves and Kenneth Callahan, as well as those of his first two wives, Alice Rahon and Luchita Hurtado.
A historical exhibition such as Scenes for a Sorcerer invites speculation about what Paalen’s work offers today’s young painters. The answer depends on how you feel about the endless replication of post-Pop cliches that seem to hang on like a persistent cough. Paalen’s work moves in multiple directions, one toward a prehistorical past and another toward a future of unseen possibilities. The dark and foreboding character of his late work stands in sharp contrast to the banal likability and sugarcoating that afflicts so much contemporary painting. Paalen’s post-Dynaton pictures bring viewers face-to-face with something profound, fundamental and frightening. They are almost as apocalyptic as today’s news, returning us to the deep animistic roots of religious consciousness while evading its cynical manipulations.
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Wolfgang Paalen: “Scenes for a Sorcerer” @ Weinstein Gallery to November 17, 2023.
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.