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Wolfgang Paalen Photo

Wolfgang Paalen

Austrian-Mexican Painter

Born: July 22, 1905 - Vienna, Austria
Died: September 24, 1959 - Taxco, Mexico
Movements and Styles:
"[Art] was never anything other than the identification of desire, an identification, however, that still largely eludes cognitive connection."
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Wolfgang Paalen
"It seems that all things become alive at the touch of the parabola."
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Wolfgang Paalen
"I call our concept of painting metaplastic because although our means consist in direct plastic expression, our aims are not solutions of formal problems, but a new meaning. The meaning is to be the image-makers of a cosmic freedom which makes human consciousness find its true place as the beams of the balance between the infinitely great and the infinitely small."
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Wolfgang Paalen

Summary of Wolfgang Paalen

Paalen's restless search "to find the invisible within the visible" saw his art pass through two distinct phases. Having become an established member of the European Surrealist movement, his art followed a new direction on a tour of the Americas where he became entranced by indigenous art and ideas. This "awakening" saw his art follow a more mystical and meditative route; one influenced by the relationship between Native American communities and their spiritual connection with their natural habitats and the cosmos. His "totemic" art was an important influence on the burgeoning Abstract Expressionist movement.


  • Perhaps Paalen's greatest contribution to 20th century art came with the publication of his journal Dyn. It served, not just as a platform to advance his own theories on art, but as major early influence on the artistic revolution that was Abstract Expressionism. Dyn inspired the likes of Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and Arshile Gorky who, as key players in the New York School, helped the city usurp Paris as the epicentre of international modernism.
  • Paalen devised the fumage technique in which candle smoke residue is used to create patterns on the surface of paper. It was a technique that exemplified the Surrealists' search for automatic, subconscious modes of painting, drawing, and writing. His fumages could be nebulous forms that gave rise to obscure and anthropomorphic patterns and shapes, or works in which Paalen blended the deposited soot into figurative compositions.
  • Having toured British Columbia, Paalen became fixated on the art of indigenous North Americans and later, through his friendship with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Pre-Colombian art. He would eventually put his Surrealist phase behind him and devote his creative energies to more transcendental and cosmic ideas that took account of the forces of the animistic world.
  • Paalen's indigenous art came close to pure abstraction in its simultaneous allusions to science, ancient art, and the cosmos. The connecting feature of these works was Paalen's parabolic lines. These swirling, hurtling shapes brought his images a sense of dynamism and movement with the effect that the eye finds it difficult to rest on any single picture detail.
  • Paalen (with Peruvian poet and painter César Moro) organized the 1940 International Exhibition of Surrealism in Mexico City. It was a cultural "event"; one which had a decisive impact on future Mexican art exhibition and curatorial practices. The exhibition would become a reference point (and catalyst) for the development of second-half 20th century Mexican modernism.

The Life of Wolfgang Paalen

Paalen pictured in his studio in Paris c.1933 with paintings and items from his personal collection

The scope of Paalen's art was without philosophical boundaries. He stated, "The meaning is to be the image-makers of a cosmic freedom which makes human consciousness find its true place as the beams of the balance between the infinitely great and the infinitely small".

Important Art by Wolfgang Paalen

Progression of Art

L' avertissement I

Before he joined the Surrealists, Paalen was a member of the Abstraction-Création group that was centered in Paris. Led by Auguste Herbin, Georges Vantongerloo and Jean Hélion, it was a loosely affiliated group that, during its five years existence (1931-36), attracted some 400 members. Although it didn't prescribe a unified style, it tended towards Concrete Art, Constructivism and Neo-Plasticism. However, most prominent abstract painters were involved with the group - including Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and Naum Gabo, and through the affiliated British groups, the Seven and Five Society and Unit One, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson - in some capacity. The group was organized around an annual periodical (Abstraction-Création), and put on regular exhibitions, that promoted formal experimentation and nonobjectivity.

L' avertissement I was painted while Paalen was still attached to the Abstraction-Création group but was on the cusp of joining the Surrealists. It presents an entirely abstract arena of interlocking planes and abstracted forms alternately suggestive of foliage or animals as well as purely non-objective shapes. This work was included in artist Hans Erni's 1935 exhibition, held in Luzern, Switzerland, Thèse - Antithèse - Synthèse, where it took its place next to works by the likes of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Hans Arp, George Braque, Glorgio de Chirico, André Derain, Max Ernst, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso and Sophie Täuber-Arp. With its interest in articulating perception, and the interaction between opposing symbols, the painting prefigured the archetypal and universal consciousness Paalen would soon aspire to in his Surrealist pieces, and later still, in his celestial paintings.

Oil and tempera on canvas - Private collection


Deux têtes II

Paalen's Deux têtes II (Two heads II) features an abstracted pair of Cycladic heads. Paalen harbored a deep admiration for Cycladic art and other ancient forms. This interest overlapped with the Surrealists who were concomitantly becoming interested in "primitive" art. Cycladic sculptures, the best-known feature of Cycladic art, were already abstracted and thus adapted easily to further abstraction in modern painting. Deux têtes II features oval heads with a diagonal line suggesting a nose as the division between the two sides of the face. Here, however, Paalen replaces the white marble of the original sculptures with green, brown, and a soft white. Uniting the heads is a yellow shape, while each rests before an individual background of a flat shade of blue. There is no modeling, with the only suggestion of space as the division between the yellow and blues behind the heads.

Paalen was an avid collector of Cycladic art and had several pieces in his collection. He was also an ethnographic scholar and believed that these art forms offered profound truths that could be drawn out in modern art. Paalen created several works inspired by Cycladic figures, ultimately resulting in a focus on heads for a whole Tête series. In this example, a viewer might feel a spark of recognition before taking in the blank faces, which are imbued with a sense of desolation and anonymity rather than any resulting sense of identification.

Oil and tempera on canvas - Private collection


Paysage totémique de mon enfance (Study for Totem Landscape of My Childhood)

Paalen created a series of Paysage totémique works. They are united by a thin form erected against a barren, otherworldly landscape. Similarly to works such as Pays interdit (1936-37), and as underlined by its title, this painting, which features gestural forms in a vague, fantastical setting, was inspired by suppressed memories of Paalen's childhood. Supporting this conjecture is a cryptic essay written by the artist, "Paysage Totemique/Autobiographical Passage", which featured in an exhibition catalogue. In it, Paalen discussed his childhood and a totem pole from the Haida Indian tribe that had recently come into his possession.

Paalen later wrote an essay entitled "Totem Art", in a double issue of his journal Dyn, which was exclusively devoted to Native American and Indigenous art. For Paalen, totemic culture represented a direct connection between humans and the earth. This idea is illustrative of his interest in ethnography, and these ideas were very attractive to other artists who were becoming interested in ancient and Indigenous art. While these paintings do not feature formal allusions to Indigenous sculptures, their influence lies in the ancient history they allude to. The historian Andreas Neufert interprets their influence conceptually: "Paalen was mainly interested in the psychological state, the ecstatic vision that ushered in the apparition of the spirit-like ancestral totem. Using his own pictorial devices, he sought to recreate the merging of aesthetic act and figural apparition, which in the ecstatic rite of totemic cultures lay at the heart of the ancestral cult. Set within the pictorial rhythms, the apparition becomes an ambiguous optical illusion".

Oil and soot on canvasboard - Museum of Modern Art, New York


Articulated Cloud (Nuage articulé)

Inspired by the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris, the 1940 International Exhibition of Surrealism at the Galería de Arte Mexicano (the preeminent independent gallery in Mexico) was organized by Paalen and the Peruvian poet and painter César Moro. It featured two sections: the larger was focused on international artists; the other on Mexican artists.

Porchini and Orozco note that in the exhibition catalogue, "Paalen explained that the absence of sculpture and surreal objects was due to transportation problems in the difficult times of World War II" but that he attempted to "address this absence by including a few surrealist objects from his own work, like his 1938 The Genius of the Species (a gun made from animal bones) and a reproduction of Articulated Cloud, an umbrella made of natural sponges that Paalen had already presented at the Surrealist exhibition of 1938". In the tradition of Man Ray's Cadeau (The Gift) (1921) (an icon of Dada/Surrealist art that was a regular flat household iron fitted with a row of 14 nails) Paalen had transformed an everyday utility item into something that defied all rules of logic, and which denied its intended function by absorbing water rather than repelling it.

However, the International Encyclopedia of Surrealism notes that "while reworking found objects with foreign materials so that two apparently incompatible levels of meaning collide was already a canonized procedure in Surrealism [...] the sensual, tangible reversal of function in the sponge-covered umbrella [...] came across as so light-footed and elegant that one would not necessarily think that Paalen wanted to target the unconscious thinking in the so-called opposites". That comment alluded to the idea, that for the Surrealists, an umbrella was seen as an accessory that symbolized a "masculinity ordered, bourgeois existence" but that Paalen's sculpture offered rather the "suggestion of a material feminization" because the sponge was associated primarily with nature and female bathing: "the sponge's covering absorbs water and, as a cleaner, has touched naked women's skin, and yet have remained natural".

Sponge - Galeria de Arte Mexicano, Mexico City


Space Unbound

In this work, connecting parabolas stack one on top of another in tornado-like shapes next to pulsating orbs. The result brings a sense of cosmic movement. Parabolas were a motif in Paalen's art (the symbol he created for the cover of his journal Dyn featured three parabolas meeting in a circular form). Here, the swirling form is used primarily to represent a cosmic space formed of rotating atomic particles. This idea represented the artist's interest in physics. Indeed, both he and Onslow Ford were inspired by images of wave mechanics and other processes found in texts on quantum physics written in the 1930s.

In an essay for an exhibit in Mexico City in 1967 entitled "An Homage to Wolfgang Paalen: The Pioneer", Onslow Ford described his experience of first seeing the painting in Paalen's studio: "(I remember how delighted Paalen was when I remarked to him soon after this painting was finished that he had found a world without a background). It suggests a sea of space or a vision of primordial matter. From now on he could grow on his own terms as a universal man". The painting illustrates Paalen's first steps towards creating works intended to be universally accessible through allusions to science, ancient art, and the cosmos. Of this work, Neufert states: "In his notes and commentaries he interprets [the eye-like circles and parabolic lines] as painterly means and as connecting lines that, within his totemic worldview, express the spiritual unity of man and nature, as well as the different layers of time (the ancestors, the living, and the future generations.)".

Oil on canvas - Gordon Onslow Ford Collection, Lucid Art Foundation, Inverness, California


Les Premieres Spatiales

This abstract triptych, features Paalen's stacked parabola patterns with some floating spherical bodies that look a little like eyes. The sheer number of the parabolas results in a sense of chaotic movement. The oval forms present in all three canvases recall perhaps the Cycladic-inspired heads Paalen painted earlier in his career. His palette has shifted to darker and warmer colors with some silvery vestiges of his earlier works, overall broken up by some bright blues in the canvas on the far right, possibly suggesting movement through outer space.

Paalen takes this work beyond his interest in physics in that he identified these overtly "tornado-like" forms with the Aztec god of the wind. Furthermore, the presence of the eyes relates to what the artist believed was present in Northwest Indian drawings and carvings. Curator Colin Browne argues that this, and two similar paintings attributed to Paalen, are influenced by a pre-Columbian stone figure Paalen obtained in Bella Coola and represent a response to Paalen's experience of its "vibratory field" that he translates here as "spirals of energy". As a result, this work merges Paalen's interest in physics with pre-Columbian artistic objects, at which he had only hinted previously.

Oil on canvas


The Cosmogones

The Cosmogones features hurtling parabolas congregating at a central orb, and taches, dashes which recall tesserae from ancient mosaics. The sense of dynamic energy and movement keeps the eye moving over the painting. Onslow Ford's analysis of this work corresponds to a depiction of the cosmos: "The substance of the beings and the stuff of space is indicated [by] brush marks of different colors and sizes...small circular marks ... are planets ... A central sun and moon serve all beings". Browne even sees a face in the parabola in the upper left, with a stone figure that can change shapes below, likening this shape to the mother of the cosmos.

This work speaks to the cosmos and eternal human mystery, suggesting vestiges of spirituality. It is as if an unknown part of the universe is portrayed with alien forms hurtling through space. Paalen's mature cosmic works are awash with this sense of dynamic cosmic energy portrayed through his signature parabolas, bright color, and the sensation of otherworldly beings with a spiritual component. The all-over nature of this painting is comparable to the Action Painting branch of Abstract Expressionism. Gustav Regler, a writer and journalist, described this series of works in the following terms: "In the Cosmogons series the interactivity of the spectator and the universe is rhythmically expressed [...] The planetary sense becomes a true cosmic consciousness. There is no longer the life and death of a being, any individual landscape...but rather the eternal coming and passing".

Oil on canvas - Private collection


Messengers from Three Poles

In Messengers from Three Poles, an orb is flanked by three abstract anthropomorphic shapes. All gathered in one plane, they hover in space. The entire canvas is activated by the dashes of color and alternating black and gold forms. This work encapsulates the bolder palette Paalen used during the last stage of his career. The painting also features many taches in more golden and lapis lazuli hues, perhaps more directly alluding to the tesserae of ancient mosaics, while the forms at the top of the canvas seem to allude to Indigenous sculptures. The orb at the center of the painting could be suggestive of a planet or space wherein the "messengers" meet. Supporting this conjecture, Onslow Ford states these beings came from the heavens. While The Cosmogones and other works suggest otherworldly beings, here Paalen goes even farther by depicting them directly in the cosmos, seemingly as forces larger even than planets.

The curator Robin Laurence writes, "[Paalen] apparently sought to reconcile his approach to abstraction with quantum theory and also with strange notions of ancestral beings existing alongside us through time and space. [...] Paalen demands, 'Why should works of art be easy to understand in a world in which nothing is easy to understand?' [And citing Colin Browne, Paalen was] 'profoundly alone in developing a complex private myth of ancestral figures and attempting to generate through his paintings the experience of being inseparable from timeless, limitless space'". In repudiating Surrealism, Laurence concludes, "Paalen also disavowed representation, and is credited with setting the stage for the New York abstractionists. Yet somehow, at least in the late works [...] he could not relinquish depicting those mysterious, spectral figures".

Oil on canvas - Gordon Onslow Ford Collection, Lucid Art Foundation, Inverness, California

Biography of Wolfgang Paalen


The eldest of four sons, Paalen's upbringing was marked by an early exposure to Vienna's intellectual community. His father, Gustav Robert Paalen, was a successful inventor who patented both the Thermos bottle and vacuum cleaner, bringing the family status and wealth. An art collector with a particular affinity for Old Master paintings, Gustav also counted the artists Hans Hofmann and Leo von Konig, and the art critic Julius Meier-Graefe, amongst his close circle of friends. When Gustav converted to Christianity, the family was given noble status by the emperor. Paalen duly spent his time between Vienna, the family's castle in Silesia, and the Jesuit College in Sagan where he studied. During the war years (1914-18), he and his brothers received private lessons from the organist and scholar Georg Lubrich.

Education and Early Training

The Pantheon in Rome, which Paalen would have studied during his time in Rome.

The Paalen family moved to Rome in 1921. Wolfgang studied archaeology and classical architecture, becoming a connoisseur of Greek and Roman art. In 1922, Paalen studied art in Berlin and exhibited some early Impressionist-style paintings. He was, however, rejected by the Art Academy in Berlin in 1924, which led him to take a sculpture class where he met Eva Sulzer, a musician and artist who became a lifelong friend. He exhibited more Impressionistic paintings with the Berlin Secession in 1924 before moving to Paris, where he was first exposed to Cubism and other avant-garde movements. In 1927, he moved to Munich where he studied with the renowned avant-garde artist and teacher Hans Hofmann.

Paalen's family was blighted by tragedies directly related to mental illness. After World War I, his mother suffered from bipolar disorder, while Paalen witnessed his brother, Rainer, shoot himself in the head. Rainer survived the suicide attempt only to die 10 years later. His brother Hans-Peter was also admitted to an insane asylum, where he died, likely by suicide, in the late 1920s. In 1928, his parents separated and Paalen broke ties with his family, settling in Paris the following year.

Mature Period

Soon after his arrival in Paris, Paalen joined the Abstraction-Création group with early paintings leaning towards total abstraction but with, perhaps, a semblance of Cubism. However, after learning more about Surrealism, Paalen became fascinated with the movement and shifted his allegiance. In 1931, he met the poet, Alice Rahon. They fwere married in 1934. Inspired by Paalen's work, Rahon began to paint too.

Historians Dafne Cruz Porchini and Adriana Ortega Orozco note that "Paalen had entered the ranks of the Parisian surrealist avant-garde in 1936 and participated in the major surrealist exhibitions of this period. He played a key role in the organization of the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris and had a solo show at the Galerie Renou et Colle facilitated by Breton". He also became closely acquainted with Surrealist artist Gordon Onslow Ford. It was at the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme that Paalen first exhibited, Articulated Cloud (Nuage articulé) (1936), an umbrella made of sponges, and, Gallows with Lightening Rod (Potence avec paratonnerre), a four meter high scaffold made of wooden beams with an antenna/lightening rod and a plaque that read "Hommage á Lichtenberg" (the 18th century German physicist who, through his experiments with electricity, produced tree-like electrical discharge patterns which became known as "Lichtenberg Figures").

<i>Pays interdit</i> (<i>Prohibited Country</i>) (1936-37) is illustrative of an artwork realized through the <i>fumage</i> technique, invented by Paalen.

It was around this period that Paalen started producing works using his signature fumage (smoke) technique. Sometimes he chose to work his smoky residues into a new composition, as he did with Pays interdit (Forbidden Country) (1936-7). The work was produced followed a trip to Greece which Paalen felt compelled to take on learning that Rahon was having an affair with Pablo Picasso (ultimately leading to her having an abortion). The painting featured a foreboding landscape and falling meteorites which can be interpreted as analogous with his gruelling emotional state. It also features a female figure in the form of a deity that alludes to the oracle of Delphi. According to Greek mythology, the oracle was a real woman who, having become intoxicated on botanical plants and toxic fumes that rose up from the earth, entered into a divine trance that embodied the spirit god Apollo and gave her the power to forecast the future. As art historian Andreas Neufert said of the work, "The artist was engaging in a complex way with the connections between fear of death and femininity".

Late Period

Historians Porchini and Orozco explain how "Breton's trip to Mexico [in 1938] and its reverberations throughout the French art scene interested other surrealist artists who visited Mexico or settled there temporarily or permanently. Among these artists were Benjamin Péret, Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, Wolfgang Paalen, Alice Rahon and César Moro". Fleeing the war in Europe, Paalen, Rahon, and the photographer Eva Sulzer, arrived in Mexico via the Northwest Coast of America. Paalen was keenly interested in ethnography and anthropology and greatly admired the natural wonder of the landscape and the myths and legends that had been passed down generation-on-generation by the Indigenous population. He also started to avidly collect artworks gathered on his travels.

In August 1939, Paalen visited the Canadian artist Emily Carr in her Victoria home and the pair struck up an instant friendship. Curator Robin Laurence writes that "Rapport between her, then 67, grouchy, insecure and in poor health, and Paalen, half her age, not French, exactly, but a Paris-based Austrian, arriving on her doorstep after a momentous journey from Alaska to southern British Columbia, would have seemed unlikely. Carr deplored Surrealism, regarding it as the product of 'diseased minds...skipping over sanity and decency.' Yet it appears that Carr was delighted by Paalen". Laurence suggests that the two artists probably connected "through the accounts of his travels to many of the same Indigenous Northwest Coast sites that Carr had visited in 1908, 1912 and 1928. He also admired Carr's 'Indian' paintings, an undoubtedly gratifying experience for the Victoria artist, isolated as she was from the cultural life of the great cities - and confronted daily, in her cramped studio, with racks of unsold canvases".

Having accepted a personal invitation from Frida Kahlo, the travelers arrived in Mexico City in September of 1939. Paalen and Rahon formed close friendships with Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Inés Amor. The latter ran the Galería de Arte Mexicano, the city's leading independent gallery, and had already established close ties with Mexico City's Surrealist community. As Porchini and Orozco state, "It is from the presence of Paalen and Moro in Mexico that the project of the 1940 International Exhibition of Surrealism was born [...] According to the exhibition catalogue, the exhibition featured 108 pieces of contemporary art by fifty-one artists. These were complemented by eight works of pre-Columbian art and five masks from Diego Rivera's private collection in addition to five pieces from Paalen's 'primitive art' collection. By gathering such a heterogeneous set of objects in one space, the exhibition intended to create a dialogue between objects from different times and spaces that could be decrypted actively by the viewer". Indeed, the exhibition is often cited (not least by Porchini and Orozco) as a catalyst for the flowering of Mexican modernism.

The cover of the first issue of <i>Dyn</i> (1942) featuring Paalen's signature parabola motif.

While in Mexico, Paalen published the journal Dyn, which carried artworks and essays from a variety of contributors on topics ranging through anthropology, archaeology, and science. The word Dyn came from the Greek tó dynatón, connoting "the possible". In the first edition, published in 1942, Paalen wrote the essay "Farewell to Surrealism" in which he announced his break with the movement. He discussed its limitations, his dislike of Marxism, and the possibility to move beyond its boundaries in favor of an abstract art that did not completely abandon figuration. Onslow Ford, also in Mexico at the time, was a frequent contributor, and the journal had a significant influence on many artists, particularly those of the incumbent New York School. Paalen began to create abstract paintings suffused with a sense of movement and particles inspired by physics textbooks. In 1946, he and Alice divorced, allowing him to marry the artist Luchita Hurtado.

Between 1947-51, Paalen spent time in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he and Onslow Ford encountered the densely patterned and rhythmic works of Lee Mullican. For his part, Mullican had encountered Dyn during his time in the US Army as a topographical draughtsman. The three artists banded together, forming the group Dynaton. They held an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1951 featuring their works as well as items from their personal collections of Northwest Coast Indian, and Pacific Island art, which they placed in what they called the "Ancestor Room". Paalen's work featured more of an "all-over" style with vestiges of figuration suggesting outer-space and cosmic beings. While the group disbanded shortly after the exhibition, the men remained close friends and corresponded frequently.

Against the wishes of his wife, Paalen desired to return to Mexico, and they divorced as a result (Hurtado married Mullican in 1950). Paalen returned to Paris in 1951 with his fiancé Marie Wilson before moving to a home in Tepoztlán, Mexico, where he lived for the remainder of his life. Having trouble selling his works, and suffering from bipolar disorder, he sold items from his personal collection to support himself. As a direct result of accusations and rumors that he had engaged in the looting of archaeological sites, added to his fragile mental health, Paalen took his own life in 1959.

The Legacy of Wolfgang Paalen

Paalen was a significant figure within the evolution of the Surrealist movement. His fumage technique established him as an authority on automatism and was adopted by the likes of Salvador Dalí. Robert Motherwell stated that he received his "post-graduate education in Surrealism" from Paalen. As founder of the journal Dyn, he championed abstraction and North American ethnographic art, while his greatest legacy probably relates to the birth of the New York School. Indeed, his essay "Farewell to Surrealism" provided American artists with a sense of the possibilities of an avant-garde outside the School of Paris and contributed to the genesis of Abstract Expressionism.

Jackson Pollock owned every issue of Dyn, and the stylistic impact of its cosmic content is apparent in Pollock's gestural works as well as the Color Field chromatic iterations of Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still. As art historian Amy Winter states in her biography of the artist, "Time after time, parallels with Paalen's theory, iconography, and form reasserted themselves in the work of the emerging painters in their own personal styles. But if Paalen eschewed religion and mysticism by likening the physics of nature and the emotional, human dimension, the New Yorkers turned to quasi-religious discourses to develop a modern counterpart to the metaphysical aspirations of the past".

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Content compiled and written by Jen Earthman

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Wolfgang Paalen Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jen Earthman
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 13 Jan 2023. Updated and modified regularly
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