Acquired from the above sale by the present owner
Despite this vociferous endorsement, it is notable that owing to the difficulty of articulating the elemental power of his works, critical interpretation of Wols’s oeuvre has tended to focus on the close alignment of his life and art. His works have been interpreted as responses to the collective trauma of the Second World War and the onset of the Cold War, to notions of impending doom and destruction, as well as to the turmoil of his personal life. However, such is the mystery and false recollection that shrouds Wols’s life that it is hard to determine exactly what happened to him. Born to a comfortably bourgeois family and raised in Dresden, the young Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schultze was described as a sensitive, musically gifted boy with overbearing parents. However, upon the death of his father in 1929, which coincided with Wols dropping out of school aged 17, stories begin to diverge. According to family mythology, as chronicled by the artist’s sister writing in 1989, his post-high school career was predominantly characterised by a series of wide-ranging successes. Wols was offered a job as concert master for the Cologne orchestra aged 18, made great waves working at the Mercedes factory in Dresden, deeply impressed ethnologist Leo Frobenius despite his lack of formal training, and received patronage from Fernand Léger and Amedée Ozenfant in Berlin. However, as Wols expert Ewald Rathke points out, much of this appears highly implausible – “An 18-year-old concert master who has not completed a course of training as a musician? Is that even possible or conceivable? Is it not, perhaps, just another passage from an imaginary resumé? (Ewald Rathke, ‘On the Biography of the Art of Wols’ in: Exh. Cat., Bremen, Kunsthalle Bremen; Houston, The Menil Collection, Wols, 2013, p. 40). More likely, this was a fabrication by the family to disguise the failings of the prodigal son; whereas Joseph Beuys’s mythology was self-imposed to cement his shamanic status, Wols’s was imposed by his family to hide their shame at his chosen career.
Although there can be no doubt about some of Wols’s movements – a move to Paris in 1932 was followed by a short sojourn in Spain, which ended in a brief unexplained incarceration and a return to Paris, where Wols remained until his early death from food poisoning in 1951 – there is too much ambiguity over the facts to rely so heavily upon this information. Rather, it pays to examine Wols’s formal development from the start of his career in the 1930s to the lyrical abstractions of the late 1940s. Those later works, of which Vert Strié Noir Rouge is a truly exceptional example, are rightly considered the progenitors of tachisme, the European answer to American Abstract Expressionism, and in that context, it is helpful to observe the close alignment in trajectory of the two greatest proponents of both movements – Wols and Jackson Pollock. Quite aside from their respective struggles with alcoholism towards the end of their lives, there are multiple striking parallels in their development, even though by the time of Wols’s first exhibition of works on canvas in 1947 very few paintings by the American Abstract Expressionists had been shown in Europe.
Perhaps most intriguingly, both Wols and Pollock's early work is deeply indebted to Surrealism, with Wols drawing on the work of Yves Tanguy, Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst, and Pollock on the latter as well as Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso. Of course, once both artists reached the moment in their career for which they are best known, the divergence is unmistakable. Whereas Pollock’s drip canvases are vast and engulf the viewer, Wols’s paintings are small, “rarely larger than the span of the artist’s arms”, and in contrast to his American counterpart, whose sheer physicality and movement is pivotal to our understanding of the work, Wols “brushed – stained – his pigments into the weave of the canvas with small, wrist-driven movements” (Toby Kamps, ‘Seeing Wols’ in: ibid, p. 64). Perhaps most importantly, while Pollock’s work is defined by an all-over composition, Wols’s paintings, as in the present work, coalesce in the centre and weave outwards towards the edges, creating voids that stare back towards the viewer. But despite these differences, the foundational importance of Surrealism is pivotal. André Breton defined the term in his first Surrealist manifesto as “pure psychic automatism in its pure state”, and the shift to abstraction in the case of both Pollock and Wols was a movement to permit their id to act according to its primal instincts (André Breton, First Manifesto of Surrealism, 1924, trans. A.S. Kline 2010, online resource). Like Pollock in New York, Wols’s inventions during the latter part of the 1940s for abstraction in Europe cannot be overstated, and the fact that both men drew heavily upon Surrealism, and thus the primacy of the unconscious, suggests that there is some universal norm to which they both reverted.
Imposing in scale, Vert Strié Noir Rouge epitomises the work of an artist who “prized not self-assertion but a Taoist-inspired passive acceptance” (Toby Kamps, ‘Seeing Wols’ in: op. cit., p. 65). The centripetal composition is entirely characteristic of the small body of paintings executed for the 1947 show, and the influence of those works on artists such as Jean Fautrier, Hans Hartung and George Mathieu cannot be overestimated. A masterpiece of European abstraction by an artist who should be considered as the natural successor to pioneers of the movement in Europe such as Wassily Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich, the work epitomises Wols’s practice, where nothing is created according to a pre-planned schema, but rather “arose from his own creative compulsion to penetrate the expanses and depths that connect the worlds outside and within” (Patrycja de Bieberstein Ilgner, ‘Expansive Pictorial Worlds’ in: ibid., p. 76).
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