Kurt Seligmann

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Kurt Seligmann
Kurt Seligmann Italian museum passport.jpg
Kurt Seligmann, pictured in an Italian museum passport, 1927
Born 1900
Basel, Switzerland
Died 1962
Nationality Swiss
Education Ecole des Beaux Arts
Known for Fantastic imagery of medieval troubadors and knights engaged in macabre rituals
Movement Surrealism
Spouse(s) Arlette Paraf

Kurt Leopold Seligmann (1900–1962) was a Swiss-American Surrealist painter and engraver. He was known for his fantastic imagery of medieval troubadors and knights engaged in macabre rituals and inspired partially by the carnival held annually in his native Basel, Switzerland.

Life and career[edit]

He was born in Basel, in 1900, the son of a successful furniture department store owner. His parents were not in favor of his artistic aspirations but eventually relented. After study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Geneva and several unhappy years working in his father's business in Basel, Seligmann left for Paris where he looked up his old friends from Geneva, sculptor Alberto Giacometti and art critic Pierre Courthion. During this time he also met Ivy Langton[1] (who may have become an artist due to inspiration from Kurt). Through Giacometti he met Hans Arp and Jean Helion, who admired his sinister biomorphic paintings and invited him to join their group, Abstraction-Creation Art Non-Figuratif. In the mid-1930s his work began to take on a more baroque aspect, as he animated the prancing figures in his paintings and etchings with festoons of ribbons, drapery, and heraldic paraphernalia.

It was about this time (1935) that he met and married Arlette Paraf, a granddaughter of the founder of the Wildenstein Gallery, which had locations in Paris, London, and New York. Together they traveled extensively, first around the world during a year-long honey-moon trip in 1936 and then to North America and British Columbia (1938) to satisfy their interest in American ethnographic art. In 1937, Seligmann was accepted as a formal member of the Surrealist group in Paris by André Breton, who collected his work and included him in Surrealist exhibitions.

At the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Seligmann was the first European Surrealist to arrive in New York, ostensibly for an exhibition of his work being held at the Karl Nierendorf Gallery. Once there, however, with these artists being especial targets of the Nazis, he began a concerted effort to aid his Surrealist colleagues left behind in France and to bring them to safety. The copious correspondence he maintained during this difficult period is preserved in a collection at the Beinicke Rare Book Library at Yale University.

Seligmann's art continued to evolve and reached maturity during the 1940s in the United States, where he did his best work. Beginning in 1940, he and Arlette lived at the Beaux Arts Building at Fortieth Street in Manhattan, and later they acquired a farm north of the city in the hamlet of Sugar Loaf, New York (in Orange County). Seligmann befriended many American artists and became a close friend of the art historian, Meyer Schapiro. With Schapiro as author, in 1944 he produced a limited edition set of six etchings illustrating the Myth of Oedipus, surely his masterpiece in this medium and one of the greatest works of Surrealist printmaking. As the Surrealists' expert on magic, he also wrote a history of it, The History of Magic (Pantheon Books, 1948). Mythology and esoterica always infused the fascinating and turbulent imagery of his "dance macabre" paintings. His work then began to be exhibited widely and acquired by museums throughout the United States and Europe after the war.

Seligmann taught for many years at various colleges in New York City, particularly at Brooklyn College, from which he retired in 1958. The changing nature of the New York art world, as it embraced Abstract Expressionism, caused his work to be relegated to past art history and become perceived as passé. Due to illness, he gave up his Manhattan apartment and retired to his farm, where he died of an accidentally self-inflicted gunshot wound in January 1962.

Shortly before her death in 1992, his widow, Arlette Seligmann, bequeathed the entire Seligmann estate to the Orange Country Citizens Foundation, a private nonprofit corporation dedicated to the preservation of Orange County, New York. The foundation now serves as Seligmann's official estate and uses the Seligmann's 55-acre (220,000 m2) farm as their office.[2] The U.S. copyright representative for the Orange County Citizen's Foundation and the estate of Kurt Seligmann is the Artists Rights Society.[3]

At the request of the Orange County Citizens Foundation, etching and collage artist, Jonathan Talbot, undertook the restoration of the etching press formerly owned by Kurt Seligmann, which is located on the Seligmann property in Sugar Loaf. The project is expected to be completed by August 2011.


  • Miller, Stephen Robeson, http://www.occf-ny.org/seligmann.htm, Boston, Ma. 1995
  • Sawin, Martica, Surrealism in exile and the Beginning of the New York School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1995
  • Seligmann, Kurt, The History of Magic, Pantheon Books, 1948