Lot 7
  • 7

Wolfgang Paalen (1907-1959)

300,000 - 400,000 USD
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  • Wolfgang Paalen
  • Les Cosmogones
  • signed lower right
  • oil on canvas
  • 96 by 93 in.
  • 244 by 236 cm
  • Painted in 1944.


Robert Anthoine, New York


Mexico City, Galería de Arte Mexicano, Wolfgang Paalen, February 22-March 3, 1945
New York, Art of This Century, Wolfgang Paalen, April 17-May 12, 1945
San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Dynaton, 1951
Mexico City, Museo de Arte Moderno, INBA, Homenaje a Wolfgang Paalen, el precursor, 1967, p. 48, illustrated 
Paris, Galerie Viland et Galanis, Domaine de Paalen, 1970, no. 11
Basel, Galerie Schreiner, Creation: Wolfgang Paalen und Gordon Onslow Ford, 1978  
Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Spiritual in Art 1887-1987, 1987
Gemeentemuseum den Haag, 1988
Stifung Ludwig Wien, Museum Moderner Kunst, Wolfgang Paalen, Zwischen Surrealismus und Abstraktion, 1993, p. 231, illustrated
Mexico City, Museo de Arte Carrilo Gil, Wolfgang Paalen Retrospectiva, June 27-September 18, 1994
Paris, Centre Pompidou, May 7 – August 11, 2008; Munich, Haus der Kunst, September 19, 2008 – January 11, 2009; Traces du Sacré, no. 6
San Francisco, Wendi Norris Gallery, Philosopher of the Possible, Wolfgang Paalen, February 6-March 29, 2014, no. 5, p. 29, illustrated in color; also illustrated in color on the cover


Gustav Regler, Wolfgang Paalen, New York, 1946, p. 55, illustrated
José Pierre, Wolfgang Paalen, Paris, 1980, p. 27, illustrated 
Leonor Morales, Wolfgang Paalen, humo sobre tela, Mexico City, 1996, illustrated 
Gordon Onslow Ford: Seeing in Depth, Fundación Eugenio Granell, 1998, p. 57
Andreas Neufert, Wolfgang Paalen: Im Inneren des Wals, Vienna/New York, 1999, p. 166, illustrated
Christian Kloyber, Wolfgang Paalen's DYN: The Complete Reprint, Vienna/New York, 2000, p. xii
Amy Winter, Wolfgang Paalen: Artist and Theorist of the Avant-Garde, Westport, 2003, no. 8 


This large picture is in excellent condition, particularly considering its size. The canvas has been very carefully lined onto linen, which presumably reduces some cracking. Although this cracking is faintly visible running diagonally through the composition, it certainly is not an indication of instability or weakness. The paint layer is cleaned and probably not varnished. A few retouches have been added in a line in the center of the right side, around the edges, near the left edge in the lower left and along the bottom edge in a few spots, but all of these retouches are minimal. They are not particularly well applied, but the condition of the painting is very good nonetheless. (This condition report has been provided courtesy of Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc.)
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Completed in 1945 in his studio in San Angel, Mexico, Les Cosmogones is usually considered to be Wolfgang Paalen’s masterpiece. For much of its existence it was in a private collection, and for years most art historians were aware of it only through grainy black and white reproductions. At eight feet high by eight feet wide, it crackles with energy, life and beauty, and its reappearance is a revelation. It’s a powerful painting, but how should the public receive it? Paalen’s first answer might have been, as he wrote in his “Introduction” to Form and Sense (1945), “Why should works of art be easy to understand in a world in which nothing is easy to understand?”[1] I tend to believe, however, that he would very quickly have begun to explain his project—and his faith in possibility.

Les Cosmogones is the culmination of five years of painting, drawing and the development of radically constructive ideas in a desperate time. Paalen believed that by bringing the insights of scientific research together with the insights of artists, painting would do its part to help develop a world-consciousness.

Along with his surrealist colleagues he felt an affinity with the masks, poles, regalia and objects created on the Northwest coast during the cultural flowering of the nineteenth century. He became absorbed by the sacred and spiritual context of these objects, touched by their genius and inspired by the philosophical and aesthetic implications of every gesture. Daring and inventive at every stage, the apparently anonymous artists of the NW coast offered evidence of a highly evolved, poetic culture that embraced the integration of conscious and unconscious experience.

Paalen set off for British Columbia and Alaska in May of 1939 with his wife, the poet Alice Rahon, and their colleague and patron Eva Sulzer, who brought her camera and shot a series of irreplaceable photographs.

Unlike the abstract expressionists who in their early stages borrowed or appropriated Native motifs, Paalen was attracted to the “hidden depths” and the “alien luminosity” [in the art] he encountered. It was evidence that that these artists had accessed the world of vision beyond the visible. Naturalism was of no interest; their cosmology was one of larger-than-life ancestral figures whose origins and actions corresponded to the great laws, possibilities and movements of the universe. It was, and it remains, an epic art, a sublime plastic expression of a complex and coherent vision that is as contemporary as it is ancient. 

Wolfgang Paalen early studies for Les Cosmogones attempted to shape and to make visible the forces of unceasing transformation. The final version of this magnificent, swirling, mysterious painting can be seen as his most profound attempt to evoke—but not represent—the experience of universal cosmic consciousness as a dynamic form of possibility. It is a premonition, a vision, an evocation and an invitation to enter the universe of transformation and becoming within which we are luminous particles. Les Cosmogones is alive with fleeting references to trees, water and sky within a universe devoted to maternity and birth. Paalen in this painting achieves what he set out to achieve in his earlier studies and improvisations: he comes as close as he is able in a visual medium to suggesting the invisible within the visible.

His friend and colleague, the painter Gordon Onslow Ford, has drawn attention to the central figure, the dynaton—a circle with three parabolas which are sometimes faces, sometimes masks, always sources of energy and transformation, and for Paalen the sign of possibility. This is Paalen’s elemental form, an essential building block of energy that evolves multi-dimensionally in relation to what has evolved immediately before it. (He was well read in nuclear physics.) Since everything is in flux, and movement is unceasing, humans need not despair; possibility is the way of the world.

Excerpts from an unpublished essay by Professor Colin Browne about Les Cosmogones, October 2015

[1] Wolfgang Paalen, DYN 4-5: “Amerindian Number,”1943, inside front cover.

Les Cosmogones: the Canvas as a “Painting-Being”

In an unpublished handwritten note by Barnett Newman with the title “America has a new art movement (the first authentic art movement here)” the name Paalen appears together with Pollock, Rothko, Hoffman, Gorky, Baziotes and Motherwell as one of “the men in the new art movement.” Not surprisingly, recent research confirms the Austrian-Mexican surrealist Wolfgang Paalen as one of the most influential figures leading up to the genesis of Abstract Expressionism.

The Surrealist emigrant had in fact arrived in New York in 1939 on his way to British Columbia and then Mexico, following an invitation by Frida Kahlo. Paalen’s exhibition of his Parisian Fumages from 1937-39 at New York surrealist gallery Julien Levy, captivated Newman, Pollock and Baziotes; then unknown young painters enchanted by the “floating filmy fabrics (...) out of Bosch”[1] which “invite the imagination imperatively and, if you don´t watch out, carry you off to another world. There is so much mysticism, in fact, that you may not to notice the good painting, and there is some of that, too, if you care for good painting”.[2]

Once in Mexico, the first thing Paalen embarked upon was the organization of the International Surrealist Exhibition promised to Breton which opened in January 1940 in the Galería de Arte Mexicano. Soon thereafter however, he broke up his friendship with former colleagues Diego and Frida as a result of their hard stand on communism particularly after the assassination of Leon Trotsky and their steadfast adoration to Stalin. On the other hand, Paalen openly welcomed refugees from the Stalinist terror like Gustav Regler and Victor Serge.

During the initial stages of his Mexican exile, Paalen concentrated on articulating his aesthetic ideals while secretly experimenting on a new style of painting: the depiction of pictorial space inspired by the Totems of Northwest-Coast Indians. Within it, he visualized an unruly cosmos predetermined by capricious possibilities loosely suggested by early quantum theories first developed by physicists like Louis de Broglie. Finally, in the spring of 1942, the New York art world witnessed the birth of DYN: (derived from the Greek word for “that which is possible”) an art journal where Paalen delved into the theoretical concept of infinite possibilities.

DYN made readily visible Paalen’s notions on totemism, gestalt theory, his criticism of dialectical materialism and Western dualistic concepts, his analysis of cave paintings and so on... With DYN, he temporarily advanced to be one of the most influential art theorists of the wartime period. Even André Breton admitted in 1944 that Paalen´s criticism of Surrealism was justified and that “we have left the whole license to Paalen, who could say whatever he liked, without [us] having the means to say something against or at least put something out at his level. Paalen is winning on the whole line”.[3]

By 1944, only a few friends, like the poet César Moro were allowed to see the paintings he was producing in the newly built studio in San Ángel, a suburb of Mexico City. Towering the studio was Les Cosmogones. As one of the rare witnesses that Paalen accepted into his circle, Moro witnessed the artist working as if in a state of “ecstasy” on his new mosaic style “up to 11 hours a day”, and was truly impressed by him. Paalen “is master of a first-rate technique (...) with colors and light as dynamic and glaring that it provokes inner floods.”[4] Les Cosmogones marks the climax of this slow evolution. It established that fumage had wings, that flat neo-cubist painting could open a sort of magnetic field of occurrence, a multidimensional inner space which was outer space at the same time.

While working on his essay on Cubism[5] in the last months of 1943, Paalen produced a few small preparatory sketches in oil for The Cosmogones. Produced in a state of spiritual furor, they demonstrate the enormous physical challenge posed by such monumental work. The effort paid off, ultimately reinventing the canvas as a “painting-being” in a “state of becoming”.

Andreas Neufert, biographer and author of Auf Liebe und Tod. Das Leben des Surrealisten Wolfgang Paalen, Berlin (Parthas) 2015

[1]        Howard Devree: A Reviewer’s Notebook, in: New York Times, (date illegible) April 1940 (Philadelphia, Archives of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Julien Levy Gallery Records, press portfolio).

[2]        The New York Sun, 13. Apr. 1940 (ibid.).

[3]        André Breton, letter to Benjamin Péret, Mai 26th, 1943 (Paris, Bibliothèque Doucet).

[4]     César Moro, letter to Emilio Westphalen, October 2nd, 1941 (Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, Latin American Surrealist Collections, Emilio Adolfo Westphalen papers).

[5]     Wolfgang Paalen: On the Meaning of Cubism Today, in: DYN No. 6, November 1944, p. 4-8