Wolfgang Paalen

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Wolfgang Paalen
WP um 1940 Kopie.tiff
Portrait of Wolfgang Paalen, c. 1940
Born (1905-07-22)July 22, 1905
Vienna, Austria
Died September 24, 1959(1959-09-24) (aged 54)
Taxco, Mexico
Nationality Austrian
Known for Painting
Movement Surrealism

Wolfgang Paalen (July 22, 1905 in Vienna – September 24, 1959 in Taxco, Mexico) was an Austrian-Mexican painter and theorist.


Early Years[edit]

Wolfgang Paalen was born in one of the famous Wienzeilenhäuser of Otto Wagner in Vienna (Köstlergasse 1 / Linke Wienzeile No. 40), Austria in 1905, as the first of four sons of the Austrian-Jewish merchant and inventor Gustav Robert Paalen, and his German wife, the actress Clothilde Emilie Gunkel. The first years of his life he spent between Vienna and Styria where his father had the fashionable health resort Tobelbad and presented Alma Mahler to Walter Gropius, whom she married later. 1912 the Paalen family moved to Berlin and to the Silesian city of Sagan (today Żagań), where his father had bought a castle, the St. Rochusburg. Wolfgang Paalen went to different schools in Sagan, during WW1 his parents engaged a private teacher who was also an organist specialized in Johann Sebastian Bach, who became the favorite composer for Wolfgang Paalen.

In 1919, the family moved to Rome, where the Paalens kept a swanky household and received many guests, such as Leo von König who became Wolfgang's first teacher. He became a self-taught expert in Greek and Roman archeology. In 1923, he went back to Berlin on his own to apply for the Academy without success and met his lifelong friend, companion and patron, the Swiss violinist and photographer Eva Sulzer. In 1925, he exhibited in the Berlin Secession and went through a further formation in aesthetics, deeply influenced by Julius Meier-Graefe, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and the Gestalt theory of Max Wertheimer. After another year of studies in Paris and Cassis (1925/26) where he met Roland Penrose, Jean (Janco) Varda and Georges Braque, he visited the art school of Hans Hofmann in Munich and Saint Tropez until 1928, when he decided to settle in Paris.

Paris and Surrealism[edit]

In Paris, he studied shortly with Fernand Léger and became a member of the group Abstraction-Creation in 1933, which he left again in 1934 together with Hans Arp and Jean Hélion. In 1934 he also married the French poet Alice Rahon and frequented again Roland Penrose and his wife Valentine Boué, who brought the Paalens into contact with Paul Eluard. In summer 1935 he spent some days in the castle of Lise Deharme, where he met the Parisian Surrealists and André Breton. Breton and Penrose included him in the organization of the International Surrealist Exhibition in London and the Surrealist Exhibition of Objects in Paris (Galerie Charles Ratton), both 1936, following his first one-man-show in Surrealism at Galerie Pierre. The contact with Breton deepened during that time, he participated also in the design of Breton´s Galerie Gradiva, where he met and worked together with Marcel Duchamp and presented his object Chaise envahie de lierre, acquired in the gallery by Marie-Laure de Noailles, who installed it in her famous bathroom. Together with Marcel Duchamp he played a major role in the design of the 1938 surrealist exhibition in the Paris Galerie des Beaux Arts of Daniel Wildenstein, where he exhibited his famous objects Potence avec paratonnerre, a gibbet with lightning rod dedicated to 18th century German philosopher and scientist Georg Christian Lichtenberg, Nuage articulé, Le moi et le soi and La housse, a mannequin covered with ivyleaves and mushrooms and a large bat. 1938 he showed his large Fumage-paintings, which made his reputation as painter, in a show in Renou et Colle Gallery in Paris, with a catalogue text by Breton, written in the Bermudas on his trip to Mexico. He published also the Lichtenberg-text Göttinger Taschenalmanach in surrealist magazine Minotaure with illustrations by him. After his one-man-show at Guggenheim-Jeune in London, as the first of the surrealists he decided to leave Europe and travelled to New York in May 1939 together with his wife Alice and Eva Sulzer. The same year he traveled through British Columbia and collected a major totem house-screen, now in the Denver Art Museum.

Exile in Mexico[edit]

In September 1939 he followed an invitation of Frida Kahlo and settled in Mexico, where together with the Peruvian poet César Moro he organized the International Surrealist Exhibition in the Galería de Arte Mexicano. 1940 he showed his great Fumages and new experimental work, close to abstraction, in New York at Julien Levy gallery with great success. During the opening, gathered by young American painters such as Jackson Pollock, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes and Gerome Kamrowski, he walked around with a burning candle. Back in Mexico he broke up with his former friends Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo across political opinions concerning their hard line in communism after the assassination of Leon Trotsky. More and more isolated from the Mexican intellectual leftists, he held an open household for European and American visitors, such as Roberto Matta, Robert Motherwell, Gordon Onslow Ford, Benjamin Péret, Remedios Varo, Esteban Frances, Gustav Regler and others. He helped to organize immigration visas for the surrealists in Vichy-France through the Union Mexico-Francia and Julien Levy. During the war years, Paalen founded the influential art journal DYN and, apart from occasional visits to New York, worked secretly in a new style on his ideas on pictorial space in his studio in San Angel, newly built by the German architect Max Cetto. Due to his magazine DYN, his presence and exhibitions in New York City, 1940 Julien Levy, 1945 Peggy Guggenheim Art of this Century and 1946 Galerie Nierendorf, he influenced significantly the genesis of Abstract Expressionism.

San Francisco, Paris[edit]

1949 he worked in San Francisco with Gordon Onslow Ford and Lee Mullican in the Dynaton group, before he went to Paris in 1952 and back again to Mexico in 1954. He committed suicide in 1959 in Taxco, Mexico.[1]


In the course of his association with the Surrealists and their attempts to transform automatic writing into drawing and painting, he created fumage – a technique for generating evocative patterns with the smoke and soot of a lit candle. Between 1936 and 1937 Paalen developed with these visionary-ephemeral forms on canvas, which he then mostly painted over in oil, a number of mature paintings which soon made his international reputation. Together with Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Salvador Dalí he was among the responsibles for the design of the International Exhibition of Surrealism in the Palais des Beaux Arts in Paris 1938, where he designed the floor with dead leaves and installed Avant La Mare, an artificial pond with water, real water lilies and reed underneath Duchamps ceiling of empty sacks of coal. The doll Paalen decorates, with her silk scarf, the big screaming bat above her head, and the eerie leaf dress covered with mushrooms, resembles the scarcely visible, hovering and gliding totemistic fairy creatures of his paintings. The recent research could show that Paalen had a huge influence on the design of the great hall of this influential event.[2] It was then particularly in the forties and fifties that Paalen's art played a major role in changing the conception of abstract art. Paintings such as Les premiers spaciales of 1941 set entirely on the new pictorial space because they concentrate on pictorially immanent means: Rhythm, light and colour. Important is that they transform the rhythmical appearance of the fumage imprints into a neo-cubist rhythm, which Paalen then compares with the fugue and jazz, through a mosaic-like fracture and complementary contrasts. He wants to create the atmosphere of a deeply moving, gripping encounter with beings that themselves remain silent. There is no action, no metamorphosis in them and nothing happens with them in the space. The picture itself is the being, or a frozen resonance of it. Precisely because of this total silence, every topical expectation put to them is reflected as a question. In a cartoon published by Ad Reinhardt in the fifties, Paalen's suggestion from Form and Sense is repeated: "Paintings no longer represent; it is no longer the task of art to answer naive questions. Today it has become the role of the painting to look at the spectator and ask him: what do you represent?" Paalen understood his picture beings as a kind of pictorial version of the ancient choros tragicos, the tragic chorus, conceived in Nietzsche's writing on The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music. It is the deep existential foundation of reality, what he is interested in. Although it becomes common practice after 1947, until this time, nobody had placed so much responsibility on the viewer as Paalen did with his rhetoric and pictorial language.


In the spring of 1942 the New York art world witnesses the result of Paalen's intense work in the first years of exile in Mexico – the art journal DYN (derived from the Greek tò dynaton – "that which is possible"). In its first issue he publicly announces to his friend Breton his Farewell to Surrealism. In the second issue he scandalised his former advocate again by publishing a survey on Dialectical Materialism and an article with the provocative title The dialectical Gospel. In DYN Paalen theoretically hedged his concept of possibility on various levels, with quantum theory, with an own concept of totemism, gestalt theory, with his criticisms of dialectical materialism and western dualistic concepts, with his analysis of cave painting etc.. Via his journal published in Mexico between 1942 and 1944 with a total of 5 issues he temporarily advanced to be one of the most influential art theorist during the war. In seven large essays and countless smaller articles and reviews he discussed in detail all current hot topics that also concerned the young artists in New York, and in response received their full attention. With the exception of Totem Art, all essays are republished under the title Form and Sense by Robert Motherwell in New York as the first issue of the series of writings titled Problems of Contemporary Art in which also the first papers of the later Abstract Expressionists, like Possibilities, were published. Paalen's short sojourns in New York and the two solo exhibitions made him known as a painter in artist's circles, however his predominant absence from the New York art scene and the wide reception of Dyn and Form and Sense fostered his image as a kind of intellectual secret agent primarily exerting indirect influence on the events through his intensely discussed ideas.


  1. ^ Leddy, Annette. "Getty Voices: The Forgotten Surrealist". The Getty iris. Retrieved April 22, 2013. 
  2. ^ Annabelle Görgen, Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme Paris 1938, München 2008, see chapter on Wolfgang Paalen - Verbindung von Ausstellungsgestaltung und Einzelobjekt, p. 113 ff.


Biographies (selection)

  • Gustav Regler, Wolfgang Paalen, New York (Nierendorf) 1946
  • Andreas Neufert, Wolfgang Paalen, Im Inneren des Wals, Wien-New York (Springer) 1999 (Monografie und Werksverzeichnis)
  • Amy Winter, Wolfgang Paalen. Artist and Theorist of the Avantgarde, Westport, Connecticut (Praeger) 2002

Exhibitions and Catalogues (selection)

  • Wolfgang Paalen, Paris (Galerie Renou et Colle) 1938 (Vorwort André Breton)
  • Wolfgang Paalen, London (Galerie Guggenheim Jeune) 1939
  • Surrealismo, Galería de Arte Mexicano, Mexico City 1940
  • Wolfgang Paalen, New York (Galerie Art of this Century) 1945
  • Dynaton A New Vision, San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco 1951
  • Domaine de Paalen, Paris (Galerie Galanis-Hentschel) 1954
  • Hommage à Wolfgang Paalen, Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico-City 1967
  • Presencia Viva de Wolfgang Paalen, Museo de Arte Contemporaneo Carrillo Gil, Mexico-City 1979
  • Dynaton: Before and Beyond, Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Malibu (Pepperdine University) 1992
  • Wolfgang Paalen, Zwischen Surrealismus und Abstraktion, Museum Moderner Kunst Wien (Ritter) 1993
  • Wolfgang Paalen, Retrospectiva, Museo de Arte Contemporaneo Carrillo Gil, Mexico-City (Imprenta Madero) 1994

Reprint of DYN

  • Kloyber, Christian, ed. Wolfgang Paalen's DYN: The Complete Reprint Editor's Note by Christian Kloyber; Introductury essays by Lourdes Andrade, Guy Buchholtzer, Gordon Onslow Ford, André Breton, Octavio Paz (Vienna and New York: Springer, 2000)

External links[edit]