NEW YORK - André Breton famously proclaimed the country of Mexico as the “constellation of seduction and dreams,” it was the land of “convulsive beauty.”1 By the late 1930s and onwards, Mexico was a magnetic enclave for the European Surrealists due to the outbreak of World War II which had ruptured the Parisian central core of their group: André Breton and wife Jacqueline Lamba frequently visited Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; and Argentine Leonor Fini sought brief refuge here while Hungarians Gunther Gerzso and Kati Horna, Spanish-born Remedios Varo and lover Benjamin Perét, Austrian-born Wolfgang Paalen and his French wife Alice Rahon, and British-born Leonora Carrington each made Mexico their new, permanent home; the fluxing list of this Surrealist population continues.
LAS POZAS OF XILILTA, THE SURREALIST GARDEN CREATED BY EDWARD JAMES, BRITISH ECCENTRIC AND MAJOR PATRON OF THE SURREALISTS.
It is in Mexico where many of these artists fully and definitively developed their visual language and where their artwork and production transformed. Such was the case, respectively, for the European émigré artists Leonora Carrington and Wolfgang Paalen.
This November 19th, the Latin America: Modern Art auction will feature two of their greatest paintings, each painting executed in the “land of convulsive beauty.”
LEONORA CARRINGTON, EL JUGLAR, 1954. ESTIMATE $1,500,000–2,000,000.
Painted in 1954, Leonora Carrington’s El juglar is one of her most ambitious works. Overflowing with a cast of innumerable figures and populated with multiple scenes set in a glowing, gold and red ochre forest, it is emblematic Carrington – a collision of worlds and hybrid influences from Celtic, Mesoamerican, Egyptian and Hebrew traditions to occult practices, alchemy, and witchcraft.
What you need to know:
1 Early Inspiration: Born in England to an Irish Catholic mother and a British father, Leonora Carrington, experienced a privileged upbringing. Surrounded by nannies and with access to higher education, Carrington’s youth was lush with inspirational elements that would eventually manifest themselves in her paintings. The three Irish women in her life – her grandmother, mother and nanny – introduced her imagination to mystical Celtic tales and their traditional magical practices while Carrington’s schooling exposed her to the dramatic plays of William Shakespeare.
2 Mexico: Having finally settled in Mexico in 1942, Carrington’s work begins to flourish and mature. This new country was not only fraught with surroundings of excitement and exotica; it also revealed a new complex source of inspiration: its rich Mesoamerican/Pre-Hispanic culture, which to her surprise mirrored that of the Celts. Carrington dived into studying Benjamin Péret’s book Anthologies des mythes, légendes et contes populaires d'Amérique and the French translation of the Code of the Chilam Balam of Chumayel (one of the nine books of the Mayan spiritual beliefs), amongst other texts on magic practices.
3 El juglar/The Juggler: A direct reference to the first card of the Tarot the Juggler is also known as the magician or the shaman, who is the powerful entity capable of uniting the divine world and the Earth. The Juggler also corresponds to Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god commonly represented as a feathered serpent. Here we see the triumphant Juggler in the midst of the mythical anthropomorphic transformation. This looming central figure, along with the mysterious surrounding creatures, is also a reference to the pre-Hispanic notion of “nahualismo,” in which each human was born with a protective animal spirit.
4 The Natural World: The natural world for the Surrealists, especially for the women Surrealist artists, was a catalytic and powerful element represented in their works. Women, for the Surrealists, were the key to the mysteries of nature that were “forbidden to men.”2 Carrington, along with her counterparts (Leonor Fini, Remedios Varo, etc.) took this association and role seriously: the natural world embodied the breeding of life, fertility and access to immortality just as it was an equally an ominous force. In this painting, the extravagant forest landscape is the deliberately chosen setting by the artist for this theatrical, event—nature itself is the main character and life force of the transformation.
WOLFGANG PAALEN, LES COSMOGONES, 1944. ESTIMATE $300,000–400,000.
Les Cosmogones is widely considered to be Wolfgang Paalen’s masterpiece. Hidden away in a private collection for decades, this 1944 painting has only known to art historians via grainy black and white photographs until just recently.
What you need to know:
1 Early Influence: The son of a prominent Austrian-Jewish businessman and a Catholic mother, Wolfgang Paalen, was inserted early on into elite circles within society and the art world at the time. Born, raised and educated in Vienna, Paalen eventually moved to Paris in the 1930s and immediately became a member of the Surrealist avant-garde circle. He would marry Alice Rahon, the ravishingly beautiful, French surrealist poet and painter.
2 British Columbia & Alaska: Paalen’s interest and curiosity in the art and culture of the Pacific Northwest coast developed first while in France and was then catapulted by friend Kurt Seligmann’s 1938 trip to British Columbia. Inspired by their friend’s adventure, Paalen and Rahon set-off for Alaska and British Columbia in 1939. Upon arriving, he was marveled by the totem poles, masks, blankets, villages and the forest surroundings. Paalen soon became obsessed with the hidden depths and mysterious spirits and mystical worlds captured within this “regalia”, and crystalized the ultimate purpose of his art which as he described was “to find the invisible within the visible.”3
3 Mexico, DYN magazine and Robert Motherwell: Immediately following his trip to the Pacific Northwest, Paalen found himself in Mexico. It was an uncanny and serendipitous escape from WWII-ravaged Europe, as his Jewish last name and occupation as an artist placed him on the Nazi target list. Paalen immediately broke his association from the Surrealists and the looming European mentalities upon his arrival to Mexico. He founded the magazine DYN, a progressive publication. The magazine would cement him as one of the art establishment’s leading Modernist thinkers and aesthetes of the mid-20th century. Amongst the avant-garde writings published in DYN were those of the young American Robert Motherwell, who Paalen met in Mexico City and would later mentor. Motherwell visited Paalen’s studio on a daily basis, and it is rumored that he even executed some of his early paintings alongside Paalen.4
4 Les Cosmogones: First exhibited in 1945 by Mexico City’s Galería de Arte Mexicano the work was then shown in Paalen’s solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century Gallery in New York that same year. Only Paalen and his dear friend Gordon Onslow Ford could explain Les Cosmogones best. This painting, with its swirling crescendos of color and insinuations of trees, water and sky, was for Paalen “the feeling of being on a long march through hidden depths” and finding “a final ray of light […] cast within a Nature of impenetrable wildness”. More aptly described by Godron Onslow Ford, within Les Cosmogones is a “trinity, three bodies in one” that are the messengers of the past and present making themselves just visible to us.5 Indeed, we can see a head, a mask that is just so apparent in the upper left corner, swirling within the canvas.
1 Tere Arcq, “In the Land of Conclusive Beauty: Mexico,” In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States (Exhibition Catalogue), Los Angeles, 2012/2013.
2 Whitney Chadwick , “The Female Earth: Nature and the Imagination”, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, 1985, New York, p. 142.
3 Coline Brown, “Wolfgang Paalen (1905-1959): Les Cosmogones”, 2015.
4 Martica Sawin, Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School, 1995, p. 183.
5 Coline Brown, “Wolfgang Paalen (1905-1959): Les Cosmogones”, 2015.