Art, Paintings, Voices

Getty Voices: The Forgotten Surrealist

Getty Voices presents first-person perspectives by members of the Getty community in weekly rotation. This week, art writer and Getty Research Institute consulting curator Annette Leddy introduces us to one of her recent discoveries, a forgotten innovator of 20th-century art. More throughout the week on Facebook and Twitter, summarized on Storify.

When artists die, they sometimes drop out of history. This often happens if the history of their time has not yet been written—or if powerful members of the art world fail to acknowledge their contributions.

There’s just such a forgotten artist at the center of the exhibition Farewell to Surrealism: The Dyn Circle in Mexico. Visitors often ask how such a fascinating figure, who made paintings pulsing with light and color and edited a unique and influential art journal (Dyn, Greek for “the possible”), could have escaped their attention.

I wondered the same thing when I first came across his paintings in Dyn some three years ago. I remember gazing at them with my colleague Donna Conwell and marveling at their prescience and originality. Like Van Gogh on acid, we said; like a spinning star from Starry Night that had spun out of control and multiplied and expanded to cover a whole canvas. And like Van Gogh also in the colors that seemed to come from the palette of a post-Impressionist, although the forms had a 1960s feel. They were wild in a somewhat conservative way. We had the sensation of having stumbled across someone special.

Donna and I curated the Dyn exhibition out of that generative moment in the Getty Research Institute’s Special Collections reading room, out of our feeling of surprise, even disbelief, that someone so unique could have remained unknown to us for so long, for our whole lives up to that moment. When people ask me why they’ve never heard Dyn’s editor—Austrian painter, thinker, editor, and writer Wolfgang Paalen—I feel we’ve succeeded in our curatorial mission.

But why haven’t we heard of Wolfgang Paalen?

One reason may be that he was not in New York, or even Paris, but in Mexico, a decidedly marginal part of the art world in the 1940s and ‘50s. Nonetheless, he and his colleagues in Mexico had been working toward the same goal as the surrealists exiled in New York, and in 1945, he wrote triumphantly to his fellow painter and friend Gordon Onslow-Ford that “we, and not the people in New York, have found the opening to the new road.”

Wolfgang Paalen with his portrait of Andre Breton

Wolfgang Paalen with his portrait of André Breton, ca. 1942, photographer unknown. Gelatin silver print, 2 1/2 x 2 1/2 in. Courtesy Museo Franz Mayer, Mexico City

He brought his writings, his artistic solutions, and his considerable erudition about First Nations and pre-Columbian culture to New York—primarily in the form of the journal Dyn—but those ideas were gradually appropriated by New York artists. As Amy Winter shows in her book about Paalen, Robert Motherwell, who had worked on Dyn and received, as he put it, his “post-graduate education in surrealism” from Paalen, gradually lost a sense of indebtedness to him. Paalen and Motherwell corresponded frequently, often discussing ideas about art at great length, but now that correspondence is nowhere to be found. Barnett Newman, among others, liberally paraphrased his words in his writings about art, and never gave credit.

Wolfgang Paalen committed suicide in Taxco, Mexico, in 1959. He was depressed, in debt, and threatened with legal consequences for his dealings in pre-Columbian art.

I’ll be curating a tribute to Wolfgang Paalen this week on Getty Voices via Twitter and Facebook—please join me.

Connect with more “Forgotten Surrealist” content from this week’s Getty Voices:

  • Indigineous art, scientific theory and experimentation with painting technique drove Wolfgang Paalen’s practice, images that show such diversity in The Forgotten Surrealist
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  1. John Glenn Paton
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Ms Leddy’s commentary is perceptive, but her insistent mispronunciation of the artist’s name is provincialism at its worst. Paalen contains a long “ah”, not an “ay”. Wolfgang also has the “ah” vowel, but in a short syllable.

    • Annelisa Stephan
      Posted February 17, 2013 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

      Hi John, You are correct, Wolfgang Paalen was Austrian and thus both a’s would be pronounced in German as “ah.” We’ve been using the pronunciation that an American would typically use, which we do in general with artists with foreign names (e.g., Van Gogh). -Annelisa/Iris editor

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