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Wolfgang Paalen


Wolfgang Paalen. Untitled (Fumage), 1938. Joseph Winterbotham Collection.

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Date of death

The paintings, drawings and theoretical writings of Austrian-born artist Wolfgang Paalen were driven by a powerful fascination with the relationship between art, science, and magic. After joining the Paris Surrealist group alongside his wife, Alice Rahon, in 1935, Paalen was struck by the creative possibilities of automatism, or performing actions without conscious thought. This principle was most notably expressed in his technique fumage, in which candle smoke is used to make impressions on an oil-paint-primed support. The billowing, unpredictable forms that resulted from this technique spoke to Paalen’s penchant for harnessing the creative potential for chance, evident in his work L’autophage (Fulgurites) (1938).

In 1939, Paalen left Paris with Rahon and photographer Eva Sulzer to travel through the Pacific Northwest before journeying to Mexico. Following the outbreak of World War II, they settled together permanently in Mexico City where they quickly joined a group of innovative international artists, including Diego Rivera, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, and Leonora Carrington. In 1940, Paalen organized the International Exhibition of Surrealism in Mexico City with André Breton, bringing together the artwork and ideas of his Surrealist colleagues then scattered by the war. However, by 1942 Paalen broke with the Surrealists, publishing his biting manifesto “Farewell to Surrealism” in the first issue of his ambitious, interdisciplinary journal Dyn (1942–44). With this public separation from the Surrealists, he formed a new experimental artistic group in the San Francisco Bay Area with painters Gordon Onslow Ford and Lee Mullican and writer Jacqueline Johnson. Calling themselves Dynaton, these artists sought to redefine the possible through an exploration of the unconscious mind and past cultures.

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