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L'autophage (Fulgurites)

A work made of oil with smoke on cardboard laid down on wood.

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  • A work made of oil with smoke on cardboard laid down on wood.




Wolfgang Paalen
Austrian, 1905–1959

About this artwork

An itinerant Surrealist active in Paris, New York, and Mexico City, Wolfgang Paalen is perhaps best known for his invention of fumage, the experimental technique used to create the image here. Named for the French word for smoke, fumée, the technique was a way to relinquish authorial control by painting not with brushes, but rather with candle flames placed near a freshly prepared surface. When the smoke collects on the support, the resulting image evokes any number of associations—from passing clouds or air currents to intangible, otherworldly spirits. The title of this piece alludes particularly to the interconnection of creative and destructive natural processes. Autophagy is an ancient Greek word for eating one’s own body, while fulgurites are crystalline tubes created when lightning strikes the Earth and transforms grains of sand into twisting crusts of glass. When Paalen fled Europe a year later, he took this work with him to New York, exhibiting it at the Julien Levy Gallery. Fledgling Abstract Expressionists Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, and Jackson Pollock saw it there. Although Paalen stayed in the United States for only a short time before immigrating to Mexico, he was instrumental in introducing Surrealist automatism to the New York avant-garde.


Currently Off View


Modern Art


Wolfgang Paalen


L'autophage (Fulgurites)


Austria (Artist's nationality:)

Date  Dates are not always precisely known, but the Art Institute strives to present this information as consistently and legibly as possible. Dates may be represented as a range that spans decades, centuries, dynasties, or periods and may include qualifiers such as c. (circa) or BCE.



Oil with smoke on cardboard laid down on wood

Credit Line

Through prior gift of Mrs. Gilbert W. Chapman

Reference Number


Extended information about this artwork

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