18
May
14

Exhibition: ‘Wols: Cosmos and Street’ at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid

Exhibition dates: 14th February – 26th May 2014

 

How lucky we are!

Two consecutive postings on the German artist Wols (a pseudonym for Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze May 27, 1913, Berlin – September 1, 1951, Paris), who is today considered a pioneer of Lyrical Abstraction – a type of abstract painting related to Abstract Expressionism undertaken in the post-war years by mainly French artists. He is also considered to be one of the most influential artists of the Art Informel and Tachisme movements. Both movements were opposed not only to Cubist and Surrealist movements that preceded it, but also to geometric abstraction (or “cold abstraction”).

Lyrical abstraction represented an opening to personal expression: Wols was not only a painter and photographer but he also wrote poems and aphorisms and studied the philosophy of Lao Tzu. This fascinating exhibition connects Wols’s photography, drawing and painting, and argues that his art forms (in)formed each other. The number of artists that have successfully worked in both mediums is limited, but as Wols shows they are not, and never have been, mutually exclusive.

The great sadness is that Wols was another talented artist who died young, at the age of just 38 – collateral damage of the conflagration that was the Second World War. He was an army deserter when he moved to Paris and was interned for 14 months at the start of the war, only to be released to live near Marseilles in 1940. The occupation of Southern France by the Germans in 1942 forced him to flee and he spent most of the rest of the war trying unsuccessfully to escape to America. During this time his alcoholism developed, an addiction that caused poor health and which, along with food poisoning, was ultimately to cost him his life.

His photographs have a chthonic darkness. They inhabit a tenebrous reality, a shadowy underworld. Just look at Untitled (Cobblestone) (1932-1942, below) and observe how the dampness of the water seems to have the viscosity of congealed blood. During his internment he produced, as the press release states, “some of the strangest, most intricate and beautiful drawings of modern times.” They possess a certain, undefinable magic, filled as they are with amorphous animals and plants, filled with amour, a secret love. And finally his paintings – shattering, disturbing, bloody, hairy, earthbound and cerebral, homologous to wiring looms of the mind and/or the molecular structure of atoms – circling and popping and fizzing and scrapping their way into existence… creating an expanded conception of space and time that is both micro (cellular) and macro (celestial).

Wols has to be one of the most interesting artists of the 20th century and, elementally, one of its greatest. Such a pity that he died so young.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog
.
Many thankx to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía for allowing me to publish the photographs and art work in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image

 

 

Wols. 'Untitled' 1932-1941

 

Wols
Untitled
1932-1941
Silver gelatin print
14.9 x 18.2 cm
Kunsthaus Zurich

 

Wols. 'Untitled' Nd / 1976

 

Wols
Untitled
Nd / 1976
Silver gelatin print
18.7 x 24 cm
Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations, Stuttgart

 

Wols. 'Pepona doll on the cobbles' 1938-39

 

Wols
Pepona doll on the cobbles
1938-39
Silver gelatin print
23 x 17 cm
Acquisition 2004
Centre Pompidou, Paris
National Museum of Modern Art/Centre for Industrial Creation

 

Wols. 'Untitled (Cobblestone)' 1932-1942 / 1976

 

Wols
Untitled (Cobblestone)
1932-1942 / 1976
Gelatin silver print
18.7 x 24 cm
Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations, Stuttgart
© VEGAP, Madrid, 2014

 

 

“Wols is one of the most intriguing figures in 20th-century art. Born Otto Wolfgang Schulze into an upper middle class family in Berlin, he broke with Germany as the Nazis were coming to power, changed his name to Wols, and lived the rest of his life in France. During the 1930s he was best known as a photographer. The outbreak of the Second World War changed everything. As the citizen of a hostile country, Wols was continuously displaced from one French domicile, prison or internment camp to another. In these precarious conditions he started to draw in earnest, often by candlelight, lying on his bunk. In the harshness of the camps he developed the alcohol-dependency which contributed to his early death in 1951. At the same time he produced some of the strangest, most intricate and beautiful drawings of modern times.

Wols: Cosmos and Street does not attempt a survey of Wols’s work, nor a retrospective with a chronological structure. A significant aspect of Wols’s practice was that he did not title or date his works. Titles, somewhat over-poetic, were added later by his wife Gréty, and by friends such as the writer Henri-Pierre Roché. Instead, the exhibition presents his work in terms of two distinct kinds of ‘graphism’: one of the light (photography) and one of the line (drawing). It is true that in chronological terms photography came earlier in Wols’s life and was adopted partly for contingent reasons of making a living. He was intermittently a professional photographer but remained always a ‘poetic’ photographer with a inimitable eye.

In the exhibition title, “Street” stands for the everyday, earthbound, nitty-gritty human world revealed in Wols’s photographs. “Cosmos” stands for Wols’s exquisite drawings creating a vision of universal energy expressed in fluid constructs of biological and organic forms. The public is invited to come very close to Wols’s pictures, to peer into them and savour the details of their forms, the refined articulation of even the minutest mark.

During and after the Second World War Wols’s graphic work became increasingly abstract. Its difference from the crystalline and geometric end of the spectrum of abstraction, which is often identified with cosmological speculation, and informed much of kinetic art, could hardly be more marked. Wols’s creations are earthbound, biological, hairy and visceral, but they are no less a model of the universe. Tendencies in art which may have been mutually hostile at the time of their inception can now be seen to be two streams which converging in the desire to find a visual language which could encompass the hugely expanded conception of space and time that has come with the discoveries of modern science.

In its immediate context Wols’s work represents the turning of the Parisian surrealism of the 1930s towards the existentialism of the postwar years, towards l’art brut, l’art informel, and to artists like Fautrier, Dubuffet, Giacometti, and eventually Tinguely and Takis. A new conception of space is struggling to be born among those artists, which was in some ways foreseen in Wols’s works of the 1940s, where a gradual transformation takes place of a terrestrial into a cosmic space.

In 1945 the Parisian art dealer, René Drouin, proposed to Wols that he experiment with painting in oils on canvas. Drouin provided the necessary materials, encouraging Wols to work on a larger scale than he could achieve with watercolour on paper. Wols was philosophically and constitutionally against Drouin’s idea. Paintings in oil on canvas, he would say, “involve too much ambition and gymnastics. I am opposed to both.” Nevertheless, he began to produce oil paintings in 1947. It is as if Wols made paintings by attacking painting itself, an intensely individual position that artist Georges Mathieu at the time described as “shattering, disturbing and bloody.”

It is impossible to ignore the impression of ferocity that Wols’s oil paintings produce at their most audacious. Yet it was not through a simplistic ‘attack’ that Wols achieved this intensity since in these oil paintings passages of uncouth daubing alternate with passages of great delicacy.

Taking into account the contingencies that have helped shape it at distinct moments, and its abiding concerns and sensibilities, Wols’s work can be seen as a continuous play between abstraction and figuration. One of its special features is that it encompasses both photography and painting. In one sense, and allowing for the different technical procedures, the degree of abstraction in the ‘figurative’ photographs just about equals the degree of figuration in the ‘abstract’ drawings, watercolours and etchings. They take part in one another while remaining distinct. A fluid area is created, an area of transition conceived as something vast and tiny at the same time. It is in the creation of this uncertain, ‘unnamable’ but energized space that the insight and wit of Wols’s work really lies.”

Press release from the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía website

 

Installation views of the exhibition 'Wols: Cosmos and Street' at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid 2014

Installation views of the exhibition 'Wols: Cosmos and Street' at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid 2014

Installation views of the exhibition 'Wols: Cosmos and Street' at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid 2014

Installation views of the exhibition 'Wols: Cosmos and Street' at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid 2014

 

Installation views of the exhibition Wols: Cosmos and Street at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid 2014

 

Wols. 'Untitled (Green Composition)' c. 1942

 

Wols
Untitled (Green Composition)

c. 1942
Pen and ink, watercolor, white zinc and scraping on paper
23.3 x 27 cm
Karin and Uwe Hollweg Stiftung, Bremen

 

Wols. 'Composition' 1941-1942

 

Wols
Composition
1941-1942
Pen, colored ink on paper
20 x 12.8 cm
The Menil Collection, Houston

 

Wols. 'Slice of liver-cello' c. 1944

 

Wols
Slice of liver-cello
c. 1944
Pen and ink, watercolor and zinc white
18.3 x 13.2 cm
Private collection

 

Wols. 'Untitle'; also known as 'It's All Over The City' 1946-47

 

Wols
Untitled; also known as It’s All Over The City
1946-47
Oil on canvas
81 x 81 cm
The Menil Collection, Houston

 

Wols. 'The bird' 1949

 

Wols
The bird
1949
Oil on canvas
92.1 x 65.1 cm
The Menil Collection, Houston

 

Wols. 'Untitled' 1946-47

 

Wols
Untitled
1946-47
Oil on canvas

 

 

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
Sabatini Building
Santa Isabel, 52
Nouvel Building
Ronda de Atocha (with plaza del Emperador Carlos V)
28012 Madrid
T: (34) 91 774 10 00

Opening hours:
Monday to Saturday and bank holidays from 10.00 am – 9.00 pm
Sundays from 10.00 a.m. to 2.15 p.m complete Museum visit, from 2.15 to 7.00 pm
Closed Tuesdays

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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