French-Mexican Painter and Poet
Mexico City, Mexico
Summary of Alice Rahon
Rahon is best known as a poet and painter whose work straddled modern, ancient, and pre-historic cultures. Her poetry, which carries strong, and often candid, biographical details, is dense with Surrealistic imagery and was much admired by André Breton who welcomed her into the Parisian Surrealist movement. But she is today remembered first and foremost for her art and her affinity with Mexico. She established close friendships with many prominent modern artists, not least, Frida Kahlo with who she shared debilitating physical and mental wounds. Her shift to visual art (which overtook her poetry completely) was inspired by her overseas journeys and her encounters with pre-historic, mythological, and mystical cultures and legends. Having settled there permanently, Rahon became an established member of Mexico's avant-garde community and expanded her repertoire (beyond painting and drawing) to encompass sculpture, marionette theatre, and filmmaking.
- Rahon's art borrowed from cave art and totemism to inform both her style and content. Her interest lay in pre-history - animism and cosmology - and her paintings/assemblages incorporated materials taken from the natural world such as sand, sea and snail shells, leaves, lapis lazuli, onyx, wood, and feathers. She brought these pieces to life with brilliant colors and invoked mythical ideas through the appropriation of symbolic markings that she inscribed in her textured surface using the pointed end of her brush or other form of stylus.
- Rahon established many friendships with pioneering artists over the years, and, indeed, dedicated a number of her most famous works to individual painters, writers, and poets. These pieces, such as Celestial Shadow, dedicated to the Surrealist artist Giorgio de Chirico, and The Ballad for Frida Kahlo, dedicated to the memory of her recently passed friend (Kahlo), spoke volumes of her kinship of the avant-garde circles in which she moved.
- For Rahon, animals were sacred creatures and intrinsic to Surrealist thinking primarily because their laws of survival came from the instincts (or the unconscious) rather than from language (consciousness). Her animals - such as birds, elephants, giraffes, antelope, and especially cats - were thus endowed with great symbolic, spiritual, and personal significance.
- Rahon enjoyed a friendship with Breton that continued throughout her life. She shared with him the idea that humanity's essence could be found by tracing a lineage, through ancient artefacts and nature, as far back as the period of prehistory. It was the encounter with the past that they referred to as "the marvellous", which, according to Louis Aragon's definition, was "the eruption of contradictions within the real".
The Life of Alice Rahon
André Breton, with who she shared a fascination with the Surrealist concept of the "marvellous", said of Rahon: "For me there is something essential in your presence and in this particular note of your voice which strikes me as a drop of dew on the tip of a grass".
Progression of Art
La Conjuration des Antilopes
In this painting, which Rahon gifted to Vogue art director Alexander Liberman and his wife Tatiana, three silhouette-like figures, a central humanoid form flanked by two antelope, are formed entirely by white spots. Parallel rows of black dots, representing antelope tracks, meander around and between these figures. Smaller circular shapes made of white dots and black lines appear around the image, likely inspired by the rock incisions Rahon saw in Wrangell, Alaska. The background is mottled blues, purples, and pinks. The use of these meditative colors, coupled with the dots, creates the sense of an otherworldly presence.
This work, and many others created by Rahon demonstrates the influence of the animistic pictograms that Rahon would have seen in the caves at Altamira, Spain, and while traveling throughout North America where she embraced the ancient cultures of native American tribes.
Oil on canvas - The Heckschner Museum of Art, Huntington, New York
El Gato Herido (The Wounded Cat)
The Wounded Cat is set against a brown, orange, and streaked yellow background. A large cat, that fills most of the frame, is realized using thin white and black lines. The cat has two small black dots for eyes, positioned just above its black whiskers. Its front right leg is made of a small, bright blue rectangle, giving it the appearance of being bandaged. Two feathered arrows, one yellow and one white, pierce its larger front left leg. Two more arrows, one green and one brown, pierce its hind quarters.
This work is an homage to Frida Kahlo's Venado Herido (Wounded Deer) created in the same year. Kahlo and Rahon were close friends who bonded over their shared experiences of chronic physical and emotional pain due to childhood injuries and an inability to bear children. In her work, Kahlo presents herself as the wounded deer, while Rahon paints a cat, a motif in her oeuvre. At one point in her life, Rahon had about twenty pet cats, and a love of cats is something she shared with other Surrealists, like Remedios Varo, in part because cats were believed to have the most psychic abilities of any animal.
Cats appear as spirit-like beings, very possibly alluding to Nahuales, or shape-shifting guardian spirit beings in Mesoamerican Indian belief systems, and are often presented as enormous transparent entities whose bodies appear in the sky or envelop buildings or entire cities. This painting also pays homage to Rahon's friend, Joan Miró, with the cat being composed, like one of the Spaniard's dreamscapes, of simple organic shapes and pencil-thin lines.
Oil on canvas - Museo de Bellas Artes, Mexico City
Self-Portrait and Autobiography
Here Rahon adopts the stylistic features of paleolithic cave paintings - simple geometric forms and lines literally etched into the surface using the sgraffito (scratching) technique - to create a personal iconography. It is one of only two self-portraits, with the other (dated 1951) employing more traditional figurative representational methods. This image features a purple-brown background, into which Rahon etched several figures. She presents herself at the top centre wearing a large, boat-shaped hat, with a bird perched on her shoulder, and a rectangular multi-colored paint palette tucked under her other arm. Below her are a series of other symbols (animal, human, and shapes), arranged along a line that zigzags from the bottom to middle frame. Art historian Maggie Borowitz notes that "after using the sgraffito technique to scratch away the layers of oil paint and sand, Rahon then went back and added in strong jewel tones of oil paint, and in this way, looking at the work invites the viewer to consider her image-making process, and the way in which the materials she uses combine with her images in order to create meaning".
The bottom-to-top progression of images can be understood as representing Rahon's personal journey to becoming a painter in Mexico, with the human figures likely representing the people who influenced her (the most important probably representing her first husband, Wolfgang Paalen, who she credits as being the most significant influence on her painting). The other forms likely representing a map of her journey from Europe, across North America (the rows of triangular forms recalling mountains such as the she would have encountered in Alaska and British Columbia, for example) before arriving in Mexico. This work also represents Rahon's use of sand and other natural materials (like volcanic ash, leaves, feathers, and butterfly wings) on the image surface. The assemblage of these objects creates a textured, often shimmering effect, that links the artwork to the natural world and the land in which the piece was created.
Oil and sand on canvas - Art Institute of Chicago
Village Abandoned to the Ghosts
In this work, a mottled red, yellow, and dark green background is etched with the abstracted forms of buildings, and mounds reminiscent of haystacks in the foreground. From the buildings rise several lines that end in upward-pointing arrows (perhaps pointing the viewer in the direction of another otherworldly plane of existence). A simple circle (a sun or moon) appears above the buildings at the right-hand side.
This painting exemplifies Rahon's interest in and commitment to Surrealist techniques of automatism, that is, allowing unconscious/involuntary movements and thought processes to take rein and express subconscious thoughts, either in writing or images. Indeed, Rahon saw her visual art as a different form, or an extension of, her poetry. Both cities and the Mexican landscape were common themes in her work. Specifically, her representations of cities, which employ color and geometric form to create a sense of rhythm, were influenced by her friend Paul Klee's "Cities" series of the 1910s and 1920s.
Oil on canvas
In this painting, undulating black lines form a series of X-like forms. These and overlapping, faint, wispy, vertical strokes of black paint dominate the frame. The background is made of dark green and orange-brown strokes of paint. Altogether, the composition suggests a haunting evening forest landscape, with the black strokes appearing like barren trees. The work is reminiscent of Surrealist landscapes, such as those created by Rahon's first husband, and painting mentor, Wolfgang Paalen.
However, Rahon's work is more abstract than that of Paalen or the other Surrealists with whom she was friends, even though she objected to having the term "abstract" applied to her work. Indeed, as many scholars, including curator Teresa Arcq and art historians Maggie Borowitz and Daniel Garza-Usabiaga note, Rahon was a key figure with regards to Surrealism in Mexico, and that she was the first to move away from purely figurative works toward a more abstracted aesthetic that pre-empted a period of Abstract Expressionism. As Arcq asserts, Rahon's "technique was different and she was very bold, since she ventured into abstraction, at a time when it was not accepted in Mexico". Rahon described her images, meanwhile, as "impressions", offering an "oblique approach" to representation. As Borowitz explains, Rahon "saw her paintings as making present something, even if it wasn't directly representing it".
Oil on wood
The Dawn of the Heron
In 1967, Rahon had a third serious accident, injuring her spine when she fell down the stairs at the Galería Pecanins in Mexico City. She refused to be treated by doctors, on the grounds that previous medical treatments had left her feeling "tortured". She grew isolated and antisocial, spending her final years alone at her home, receiving few visits from friends. Her art of this period became more serene, lighter in color and tone, and generally more meditative.
Representing this period in her life, and her lifelong faith in the spiritual dimension of the animal world, The Dawn of Heron features a creamy white heron in profile, with its head tucked under its neck and one leg raised, softly delineated with rough bluish brushstrokes against a background of the same color. Flecks of black at the bottom hint at terra firma. The bird's eye, its long-pointed beak, and slender stick-like legs and feet, are the only hard lines in the composition. It followed similar works in this style such as The Cage and the Window (1964), and Next Morning (1958). Her later "serene" works conclude an oeuvre that was molded by her close associations with the Surrealists and her search for the ("marvellous") mysteries of the indigenous and natural world by which she was so enraptured. Finally, The Dawn of the Heron demonstrates most clearly how art could be at once introspective and melancholic, and infused with hints at the personal stories and riddles that makes Rahon's art uniquely her own.
Oil on canvas
Biography of Alice Rahon
Rahon was born in Chencey-Buillon, close to the city of Besançon, in Eastern France, Alice Marie Yvonne Phillipot (she later changed her surname to Rahon, keeping her first name as an homage to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland). She and her sister, Geo, were raised in a humble home by her mother, a cook in a bourgeois household, and her father, who worked as a valet. Rahon enjoyed downtime at the home of her paternal grandparents in the picturesque town of Roscoff, Brittany. Here she was free to play on the sandy beaches and to swim in the sea (she would develop a lifelong love of swimming). Little else is known about her childhood except for the fact that she suffered two serious falls. The first, at the age of just three, resulted in a fractured right hip and required a long period of convalescence, the second, at the age of twelve, resulted in a broken left leg which led to another extended period of rest.
During her convalescences, Rahon passed the time in the garden reading, writing, drawing, and generally daydreaming. Her injuries left Rahon with a limp and she experienced pain and mobility problems throughout her life. This contributed to a dual sense of frailty and resilience and she earned a reputation as a dreamy, charismatic, and gifted young girl. She became pregnant while still in her teens, but her baby was born with a congenital defect and died shortly after birth. Rahon, (like her future friend Frida Kahlo) never fulfilled her wish to become a mother.
Having moved to Paris with her sister in her twenties, Rahon designed hats for fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli before opening her own hat boutique. She also modeled hats for photographer Man Ray and appeared in photos exhibited in the Charles Ratton Gallery and published in Harper's Bazaar. Rahon fell in with the Bohemian scene in Montmartre, befriending intellectuals, artists, and poets, including Spanish painter Joan Miró, Swiss photographer Eva Sulzer, and Austrian painter Wolfgang Paalen. Rahon and Paalen, on the advice of Miró, visited the Altamira cave paintings in Spain in 1933.
Chana Budgazad Sheldon, Executive Director of Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art, writes, "Rahon got her start in the surrealist movement in Paris in 1934, the same year that she married [Paalen]. During that period, she wrote poems in free verse that were praised by the leader of Surrealism, André Breton, who recognized her creative talents [...] Her encounters with Breton and with surrealism were fundamental for Rahon and would influence not only the transition from poetic to visual imagery that occurred with her arrival in Mexico [in 1939], but also the concepts behind her entire artistic production".
1936 proved one of the most eventful in Rahon's life. She became the first female poet to be published in Editions Surréalistes, and she published her first collection of poetry, À même la terre (with a print by Yves Tanguy). She also embarked on a love affair with Pablo Picasso. On learning of their affair, Paalen threatened to commit suicide if his wife left him for the Spaniard. She encapsulated this bleak situation in her poem, "Despair", which opened with the line "the firework has gone off. Grey is the absolute color of the present time". Before she returned to her husband, Rahon travelled to India with the French Surrealist poet Valentine Penrose. The pair spent two months living together at the foot of the Himalayas in a Hindu religious retreat. The women started a love affair, and allusions to lesbianism appear in the works of both women during this period. Rahon also found inspiration in the Hindu religion and culture which emerged in poems such as Muttra. Historian Christine Frerot writes, "Alice met India, and fell in love with the light, the children, the mysticism, the dances, and the elephants. In these years her writing flourished".
In 1938 she published a second collection, Sablier Couché (Sleeping Hourglass), which offered reflections on certain ideas of binary opposites (such as sleep and wakefulness), and which was illustrated by Miró. Breton wrote Rahon a letter upon its publication referring to it more of a Surrealist "talisman" than a mere anthology. In May 1939, Rahon and Paalen travelled for the first time to New York. On their return to Paris, Rahon met Frida Kahlo who extended an invitation to Rahon to visit her in Mexico.
The couple, accompanied by Sulzer, made their way to Mexico via Alaska and British Columbia. During the journey Rahon encountered primitive and primeval art objects that ignited her spirits in the same way as the cave paintings at Altamira had. It was during this trip that she turned her attention from the pen to the pencil, initially sketching totems carved from ancestral cedar trees. Having arrived in Mexico in September 1939, the couple were convinced to stay in Mexico City with the onset of war in Europe. The Mexican capital city would become home to other Surrealist war émigrés including Breton, Remedios Varo, Cesar Moro, Esteban Frances, and Benjamin Péret. The art historian Hettie Judah notes in fact that Rahon "shared an interest in magic and the occult with Varo, whose meticulous, enigmatic figures are surrounded by uncanny patterning created with decalcomania - paint transferred from a textured surface - a technique favoured for its chance outcomes".
Breton in fact saw Mexico as a natural home for Surrealism, stating, "We are in the land of convulsive beauty, the land of edible delusions, a place for the mutable, the disturbing, the other death, in short, a land of dream, unavoidable by the surrealist spirit". Rahon and Paalen stayed in the San Ángel neighborhood and while living there became close with Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Juan O'Gorman. Understandably, perhaps, Rahon and Kahlo bonded over their shared experiences of physical disability, but also their inability to have children (and, of course, their use of art to help process their experiences).
Rahon first exhibited her paintings in January 1940 at the International Exhibition of Surrealism in Mexico City (it is rumored that she produced her first paintings from unused paint scraped from her husband's palette). Rahon published her last volume of poetry, Noir Animal, in 1941 before turning her attention fully to painting. Her first artworks (and some of her existing poetry) were then printed in the interdisciplinary journal, DYN, that Paalen founded and edited (between 1942-44). Historian Tere Arcq writes, "At the time, this publication was the only avant-garde journal focusing on modern art, surrealism, and primitive art [and Rahon] was one of the most frequent contributors, with her poems, drawings, and paintings appearing from the very first issue. DYN's sixth installment reproduced her series Crystals in Space, which evidenced her interest in automatic drawing. Rahon described these designs in white gouache on black paper as 'a kind of enchantment, like developing photographs in a tray - the forms appear little by little. They become more and more aerial, tenuous, complicated, like the secret work of an insect". Her first solo exhibition, meanwhile, took place at the Galería de Arte Mexicano in 1944, and her second at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) the following year.
Having painted initially with watercolors and oils, by the mid-1940s Rahon had started to experiment with other materials and adopted the technique of using sand and sgraffito, first used by Rufino Tamayo. The Sidney and Lois Eskenazt Museum of Art describes how Rahon became close friends with the "renowned Mexican modernist painter" and, like him, "was inspired by the pre-Hispanic cultures of ancient Mexico". The connection to Tamayo, the museum notes, is further emphasized in "the imagery in Boîte á musique III (1945) which evokes the hieroglyphs and carvings found on Mayan temples and pyramids [and] through her technique of sgraffito, which involved incising lines into the painting's surface of sand-infused oil paint to reveal contrasting layers of color below".
Although settled in Mexico, Rahon continued to travel. While in New York in 1945, for instance, she met the French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin, with whom she became very close and to whom she later dedicated an artwork. Around this time, she also met Paul Klee and developed a series of paintings of fantastical cities, inspired by Klee's own series, The Book of Cities.
In 1946 Rahon gained Mexican citizenship. That year she also wrote and choreographed a ballet, Ballet de Orión. Featuring five characters, including a juggler and androgyne, which she first realized through gouache paintings and marionettes modelled out of wire. Ballet de Orión was a response to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as was inspired by the ancient Mayans' faith in astrological constellations (such as Orion, the hunter).
In 1947 she divorced Paalen, renaming herself Alice Rahon (adopting her mother's maiden name), and married the Canadian filmmaker, Edward Fitzgerald. She remained close to Paalen, however, and acknowledged that "as a painter, I owe everything to him [...] from him I learned not to mix the color beforehand but to put it in such a way that it blends in the eye of the beholder".
She and Fitzgerald (who had worked previously on projects with Luis Buñuel) worked on a film together, about a magician who, following a nuclear disaster, lived in a cave at the bottom of the ocean, titled Les Magiciens (the film was never distributed and is thought to be lost). Rahon designed costumes, contributed to the screenplay, and made marionettes. After the collapse of their short marriage, Rahon spent her time in Mexico City or Acapulco, but on occasion travelled outside of Mexico. She exhibited frequently in North America and in the late 1940s she also worked on other films, including Orion, El Gran Hombre del Cielo (a cosmic puppet ballet inspired by dances she saw on her travels to India) and on productions of ballets, including Mercure with costume and set design by Picasso.
In 1956, she dedicated Ballad for Frida Kahlo to the memory of her dear friend (who died in 1954). Kahlo referred to Rahon by the nickname jirafa (giraffe) (with reference to her large brown eyes, rather than an elongated neck) and the painting represented the pairs happy times spent at town fairs, parades, and other outdoor excursions to ancient sites. Frerot writes, "Some of her most interesting works were created as homages to her artist friends: Anaïs Nin, Virginia Woolf, Wolfgang Paalen, André Breton and, of course, Frida Kahlo [...] Emphasizing the tones of blue, green, and red speckled throughout the painting, Rahon paints a magical scene with cats, giraffes, pyramids, and a Ferris wheel. Dark and somber, the painting stands as a magnificent tribute to their friendship and to Kahlo".
In September 1959, Paalen, who was suffering from intense bouts of depression, took his own life. Rahon painted The Toucan and the Rainbow (1963) because, in the words of Frerot, of her late husband's "connection with a beautiful toucan [it had been the couple's pet] whose beak was an unusual array of rainbow colors" and was realized by Rahon through "her masterful use of color".
Late Period and Death
In 1967 Rahon suffered a third serious fall at a gallery exhibition. She refused any further medical treatment and became all but a recluse, painting rarely and withdrawing from the commercial art world altogether (despite a major retrospective at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in 1986). In 1987 she was forced to move into a nursing home where she stopped eating. Rahon passed away in September of that year, she was 83 years old. Her self-imposed isolation, which removed her from the limelight for the last 20 years of her life, meant that she was effectively overlooked by next generation Mexican artists. However, in 2009, the Museo de Arte Moderno held a new retrospective of her work which did much to raise her profile amongst artists and academics. In 2012, André Breton's daughter, Aubé Breton Elléouët, also produced a documentary about Rahon's life and work, titled L'Abeille Noire (The Black Bee), Breton's affectionate nickname for his friend and fellow traveller.
The Legacy of Alice Rahon
Mary Ann Caws wrote, "Alice Paalen Rahon was a shape-shifter par excellence, who casually changed her date and place of birth (1904 in Besançon, not 1916 in Brittany), her name and nationality, sexual orientation, and artistic genre". Her art and poetry had its most significant impact on the Surrealist movement, first in Europe through her poetry, and then in Mexico, through her art. And if the saying is true that one's reputation is built on the company one keeps, then Rahon's pedigree is beyond question with a circle of friends (and occasional lovers), including André Breton, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Remedios Varo.
Her interest in pre-history and themes of animism and cosmology was complemented by her liking for materials found in the natural world which, in her art, she blended with vibrant colors and symbolic markings. By introducing abstract compositions to the Mexican avant-garde she preceded artists such as Lilia Carillo, Carlos Mérida, and Gunther Gerzso. Historian Christine Frerot wrote, "Her freedom to move from one state to another, from one dimension to another, from reality to dream, from reality to fiction, makes her a heroine of literature [...] front and back, intimacy and exteriority, city and nature, mountains and sea, Alice Rahon, the magician performs miracles on her canvas".