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
Tagged , , , , , , , , Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  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

Post a Comment

Your email is never published or shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

  • Facebook

  • Twitter

  • Tumblr

    • Polo and Fishing Fore-Edge Painting


      These idyllic fore-edge paintings come from Mary Grey Lundie Duncan’s book entitled Memoir of Mrs. Mary Lundie Duncan: Being Recollection of a Daughter by Her Mother, third edition, published in 1846. After her daughter’s untimely death at 25, Mary Grey Lundie Duncan recorded her daughter’s life and her hymns. Mary Lundie Duncan wrote hymns for her children, most notably “Jesus, tender Shepherd, hear me” and “My Saviour, be Thou near me.”

      As with an earlier post that focused on fore-edge paintings, the art added to books by owners do not always match the subject matter. It’s unclear when the art was added, but polo and fly fishing do not seem to have much of a relationship to the young life of a devout Scottish woman.

      There is more to this book. It was donated to the library by Mr. and Mrs. Herman Brown in memory of their friend Florence Rice “Floy” Rodman Barnhardt. She was born in Minnesota and died in Houston, TX. Her husband, Gen. George Columbus Barnhardt, commanded the 28th Infantry Division in World War I. She and her husband are buried in United States Military Academy Post Cemetery at West Point. The relationship between Floy Rodman Barnhardt and the Browns is unknown, but it must have been close.

      Thanks to our new archival assistant, Alicia Fan, for making the gifs.

      Sources consulted: Mary Lundie Duncan hymns, Minister Henry Duncan, Find a Grave: Florence Rice “Floy” Rodman Barnhardt, and Find a Grave: Gen. George Columbus Barnhardt.

      Fore-edge paintings are fore-ever awesome.


  • Flickr