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

Exhibition dates: 14th February – 26th May 2014


Wols. 'Untitled' 1932-1941


Wols (German, 1913-1951)
Silver gelatin print
14.9 x 18.2cm
Kunsthaus Zurich



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
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' Nd / 1976


Wols (German, 1913-1951)
Nd / 1976
Silver gelatin print
18.7 x 24cm
Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations, Stuttgart


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


Wols (German, 1913-1951)
Pepona doll on the cobbles
Silver gelatin print
23 x 17cm
Acquisition 2004
Centre Pompidou, Paris
National Museum of Modern Art/Centre for Industrial Creation


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


Wols (German, 1913-1951)
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 energised 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 (German, 1913-1951)
Untitled (Green Composition)

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



Wols was the pseudonym of Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze (27 May 1913, Berlin – 1 September 1951, Paris), a German painter and photographer predominantly active in France. Though broadly unrecognised in his lifetime, he is considered a pioneer of lyrical abstraction, one of the most influential artists of the Tachisme movement. He is the author of a book on art theory entitled Aphorismes de Wols.

Tachisme (alternative spelling: Tachism, derived from the French word tache, stain) is a French style of abstract painting popular in the 1940s and 1950s. The term is said to have been first used with regards to the movement in 1951. It is often considered to be the European equivalent to abstract expressionism, although there are stylistic differences (American abstract expressionism tended to be more “aggressively raw” than tachisme). It was part of a larger postwar movement known as Art Informel (or Informel), which abandoned geometric abstraction in favour of a more intuitive form of expression, similar to action painting. Another name for Tachism is Abstraction lyrique (related to American Lyrical Abstraction). COBRA is also related to Tachisme, as is Japan’s Gutai group.

Texts from the Wikipedia website


Wols. 'Composition' 1941-1942


Wols (German, 1913-1951)
Pen, coloured ink on paper
20 x 12.8cm
The Menil Collection, Houston


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


Wols (German, 1913-1951)
Slice of liver-cello
c. 1944
Pen and ink, watercolour and zinc white
18.3 x 13.2cm
Private collection


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


Wols (German, 1913-1951)
Untitled; also known as It’s All Over The City
Oil on canvas
81 x 81cm
The Menil Collection, Houston


Wols. 'The bird' 1949


Wols (German, 1913-1951)
The bird
Oil on canvas
92.1 x 65.1cm
The Menil Collection, Houston


Wols. 'Untitled' 1946-47


Wols (German, 1913-1951)
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
Phone: (34) 91 774 10 00

Opening hours:
Monday 10.00am – 9.00pm
Tuesday Closed
Wednesday – Saturday 10.00am – 9.00pm
Sunday 10.00am – 14.30 am

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 art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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