Wolfgang Paalen and Surrealism in Mexico

Virtual exhibition

By Museo Franz Mayer

Museo Franz Mayer

Since 2005, Franz Mayer Museum has housed a collection of works and the personal collection of Austrian artist Wolfgang Paalen thanks to a donation made by anthropologist Isabel Marín. This collection gives an account of the life and work of a multifaceted artist who arrived in Mexico in 1939 in the company of his then wife Alice Rahon and Eva Sulzer, a mutual friend. He was met at the airport by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Juan O'Gorman, three main representatives of the Mexican anti-fascist artists.

El Vellocino de oro [Toison d´or] (1937) by Wolfgang Paalen (Viena, Austria, 1905- Taxco, México, 1959)Museo Franz Mayer

From his arrival, Paalen was a driving force and a singular member within Surrealism, one could even say that he took a dissident stance against André Breton.

His drawings, surrealist objects and experimental paintings sought to integrate new approaches derived from anthropology, ethnography, philosophy, speculative physics and astrophysics into art.

In close connection with this painting, perhaps one of the most representative of her artistic production, Eva Sulzer and the Austrian designed the costume for Elisabeth to perform, in the manner of a happening, an act of appearance as a "Great Night Sphinx".

In 1940 Paalen, André Breton and the Peruvian poet César Moro organized the V International Exhibition of Surrealism in Mexico. It was considered the first exhibition in which works by local and international artists coexisted, such as Max Ernst, Hans Harp, Wassily Kandinsky, René Magritte, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Eva Sulzer, Frida Khalo, Carlos Mérida, Álvarez Bravo, to mention a few.

Paisaje azul (ca. 1936) by Wolfgang Paalen (Viena, Austria, 1905-Taxco, México, 1959)Museo Franz Mayer

Blue Landscape

On one hand, the surrealists thought of the the female body as a creative force and central object of art. On the other hand, the forms that his figures take show the interest that he had in the sculptures of the Cyclades Islands, of the Aegean Sea, with their rounded profiles and few details.  

Señor Teste [Monsieur Teste] (1948) by Wolfgang PaalenMuseo Franz Mayer

Mr Teste

Paalen made few portraits throughout his artistic career. In Monsieur Teste, the author represented a literary character. The protagonist of the book of the same title, written by the French poet Paul Valéry in 1929.

In between shadows and brushstrokes that do not allow us to distinguish Mr. Teste very well, the portrait shows a character of about 40 years of age, without any special features, who speaks without gesturing, does not smile and barely says hello.

Paalen junto a su instalación Avant la Mare en la Exposición Internacional del Surrealismo, París (1938) by Wolfgang PaleenMuseo Franz Mayer

A year before his arrival in Mexico, in 1938, together with Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Salvador Dalí, Paalen participated in the design and assembly of the International Exhibition of Surrealism, held at the Beaux Arts Gallery in Paris.

The exhibition was key to the movement, as it featured an installation located under the roof of Duchamp's empty coal sacks. It consisted of a pond with water, aquatic plants, dried leaves and soil from the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris.

One of the main approaches adopted by those who shared the surrealist trend was their renewed appreciation of the world of objects.

El yo y el mismo, Le Moi et le Soi (1937) by Wolfgang PaalenMuseo Franz Mayer

The Self and Itself

In dialogue with Marcel Duchamp and other artists, Wolgang Paalen sought to go beyond the conventions that govern our perception and the way we name objects. He produced a series of objects that, by their mere physical presence, should be able to influence and alter our understanding of the world.  

El genio de la especie (1938) by Wolfgang PaalenMuseo Franz Mayer

Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, he created The Genius of the Species with bird bones. 

An object that refers to an ulterior state of life, and at the same time represents a materialization of his idea of weapons and scientific discoveries as our protectors, but also as instruments capable of making us lose all sense of what is human.

Proyecto para Mural (1945) by Wolfgang PaalenMuseo Franz Mayer

In keeping with his surrealist objects and cosmic paintings, this mural project was elaborated on an irregular support held by three steel bars, which give it the appearance of floating in space.

The dynamic forms and brushstrokes poured into it allow us to understand the way Paalen understood muralism.

Fumage (1940) by Wolfgang Paalen (Viena, Austria, 1905- Taxco, México, 1959)Museo Franz Mayer

In the mid-thirties, Breton encouraged artists to create new techniques. Paalen soon developed fumage, a pictorial technique that consists of passing a lit candle over the canvas, in order to leave traces of smoke.

From these traces the artist created a series of figures, landscapes and characters that show his interest in generating and re-interpreting characters from mythology and totemism, as well as the cult of the mother goddess and fear-driven epiphany.

With the fumage technique he also created works of a more abstract character that evoke a space composed of intermingling shapes and lines.

We observe whimsical forms that are accidentally defined by fire, a gesture par excellence of the so-called plastic automatism.

A method promoted by the surrealists, in which the artist suppressed conscious control and allowed the unconscious to predominate in his creative process.

Orfeo (1938) by Wolfgang PaalenMuseo Franz Mayer

In several paintings, such as Paisaje totémico de mi infancia or El Combate de los Príncipes Saturnianos, the smoke suggests certain forms that the artist completed with oil.

In this case, Orpheus reminds us of the metamorphosis of a mythological and undefined being that is a combination of human and animal.

La Concha [Le Coquillage] (1941) by Wolfgang Paalen (Viena, Austria, 1905- Taxco, México, 1959)Museo Franz Mayer

One of Paalen's central theses was: to combine science with art through the power of imagination.

The Shell Le Coquillage

In the early 1940s he began to produce a series of paintings called Cosmic.

They seek to give visibility to those spectra and dimensions of reality that surround us and constitute the universe; among them, atoms, galaxies, nebulae, stars and other bodies go beyond the reach of our perception.

Between 1941 and 1945 his production was focused on articulating the indivisibility of cosmic space with the human experience. Many of these works were exhibited in solo shows at the Art of this Century gallery in New York and Mexico City.

Polaridades Cromaticas (1942) by Wolfgang PaalenMuseo Franz Mayer

Through a set of dynamic tornadoes, which sometimes intercept and converge with each other, the pictorial space enjoys great depth. 

In this piece Paalen showed his interest in representing not only the different layers of time and space, but also the turbulent flow, that for him, involved macro cosmic space.

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