Creator, influencer, thinker, collector. And surrealist pioneer. Wolfgang Paalen was all of these. A new exhibition at Lower Belvedere explores his art and life.
- Takes you through his complete timeline, but focuses on his stays in Paris and Mexico
- Includes examples of Paalen’s groundbreaking Fumage works (some for the first time in public)
- Runs Oct 4, 2019 – Jan 19, 2020
- A normal entrance ticket* to Lower Belvedere or a sightseeing pass gets you inside
- All display text is also given in English
- See also: Belvedere visitor & ticket info
An Austrian surrealist
If we judge an artist’s worth by their influence on peers and successors, then Wolfgang Paalen (1905-1959) deserves plenty of acclaim.
This was a man who worked with the likes of Man Ray and Salvador Dalí, and who influenced such greats as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko (the recent subject of a solo exhibition in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum).
So while Paalen’s own reputation as an artist cannot match those names, his place in the pantheon of art history is well-established. A new exhibition at Vienna’s Lower Belvedere turns a deserved spotlight on this Vienna-born artist.
Rather than “just” showcasing Paalen’s works, the exhibition takes a biographical approach that traces the timeline of his life and art. However, the main focus is on the years he spent in France and Mexico. Impressively, most of the many paintings and installations on display come from private collections and other sources on the other side of the Atlantic ocean. For which we must doff our hats at the curators, Andreas Neufert and Franz Smola.
Paalen in Paris
Paalen first moved to Paris in his mid-20s, remaining for around eight years. This was where he developed the Fumage surrealist technique, where candle smoke creates images on paper, canvas, etc. Such luminaries as Yves Klein later applied the technique within their own oeuvres.
The results form works of art in themselves or provide a basis for further enhancement by the artist using oils or other media.
Paalen’s first such Fumage piece bore the title, Dictated by a Candle…a skeletal outline with echoes of a cave painting. As such, the conceptual comparison to the Rorschach test is an understandable one.
While in France, Paalen’s other great contribution to contemporary art was at the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme held at the Beaux-Arts gallery in 1938, which he co-designed with Duchamp, Man Ray and Dalí. This grand moment of surrealist art also featured works by the likes of Picasso, Miró, Magritte, and others.
Paalen in Mexico
In 1939, Paalen took up an invitation from Frida Kahlo and left France for Mexico. Through his presence on the American continent, his works, and his own DYN periodical, the artist-in-exile exerted a strong influence on the growth of abstract expressionism, particularly in the USA.
The exhibition illustrates these (and other) periods through Paalen’s art and literary efforts, but also through material of a more biographical nature.
So the displays include, for example, Fumage works never previously seen by the public, a collection of his surrealist constructions, his early abstract art, later works influenced by indigenous north american culture, excerpts from his plays and poetry, covers and examples of DYN magazines, childhood photos, and more.
My personal highlights
1. The fumages
I found those oil paintings where Paalen enhanced the candle smoke imprints with totemic motifs fascinating. For example:
- Orages Magnétiques from 1938 felt like dark chaotic spirits rising from a muddied battleground
- Orphée (also 1938) felt more playful, populated by butterfly and bird spirits
2. The surrealist objects
One of Paalen’s Nuage articulé umbrellas covered with sponges forms the centrepiece of this section, but other highlights included:
- A reconstruction of the leafy installation contributed by Paalen to that Paris exposition
- L’heure exacte II (1940), a clock made of glass eyes and black feathers
- Le genie de l’espèce (1938), animal bones arranged in the shape of a revolver
3.The later works
Paalen’s mosaic-like pieces seem full of mysticism, symbolism, and echoes of indigienous art and culture.
Dates and tickets
The Paalen exhibition runs from Friday, October 4th, 2019 to Sunday, January 19th, 2020. At the time of writing, Lower Belvedere opens daily from 10am to 6pm (9pm on Fridays). Tickets to the palace and exhibition cost from €14* for an adult or use a Vienna Pass.
How to get to the Paalen exhibition
See the directions for Lower Belvedere, then go left through the shop once you enter the palace proper after the ticket counters.
Address: Rennweg 6, 1030 Vienna