Wols: Retrospective

Bremen Kunsthalle

In one of those psychically resonant recesses of the family home, a closet in which old books and papers were stored, there was a large pile of weekly magazines my father had collected in the sixties, a series called Discovering Art. The thin, glossy, well-illustrated issues looked modern enough, but smelt of dust. Inside, the history of everything that might be classified as ‘art’, from cave paintings to then-contemporary abstract painting, from medieval Korean pottery to nineteenth century English watercolour, was treated in a sweeping, authoritative manner. Among the editorial advisors were the poet Herbert Read and Henry Moore – this was an earnest meeting of commercial enterprise and popular education. On the cover of Twentieth Century Vol.2 No.1, which dealt quickly with the situation in Europe after World War II before shifting subject in the final paragraph to the U.S.A. and the ‘New York School’ (a teaser for next week’s exciting issue), was the oil painting Blue Phantom (1951), by Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze, who signed his work as ‘Wols’. As a teenager, this cover struck me as being particularly significant. It was luminously blue, almost stained-glass like, but with a toxic feel, like the unexpected beauty of chemically-polluted lakewater. Centrally positioned, within an aura of scratchings and scrapings (grattage), were three related, almost black, biomorphic shapes: two stumps and a circular ‘head’ on a stalk – something cactus-like, perhaps, spiky, with some kind of tufty surround and displaying five round marks. It didn’t seem wholly abstract, though it was impossible to tell what it was supposed to represent. ‘Figurative’, then. A sense of decay or disintegration clung to it, but it still seemed particularly vivid and smartingly modern, especially when viewed beside the ‘lyrical abstractionist’ work that otherwise laid claim to the vanguard position of contemporary French painting – at least as far as I could make out from Discovering Art – not to mention the dull neo-realism of the existentialist-inspired School of Paris. To my mind it was a kind of ne plus ultra of painting, and in the magazine’s pictorial narrative, in a continuum with images from Lascaux, the photographs of Bushman rock paintings and the rich cabinet of European oil painting, it seemed to mark the end of history, an end that had occurred some years before my own arrival. Perhaps what I was picking up was some of that post-war atmosphere that led T.W. Adorno to write that surviving World War II had

something nonsensical about it, like dreams in which, having experienced the end of the world, one afterwards crawls from a basement.
(Minima Moralia, 1951)

Funny how, once awareness of the possibility of nuclear war seeped through to popular consciousness, the philosopher’s absurdist image became stock-in-trade for the film industry, as though we were all, since the 1940s, in the business of ‘surviving’.

Wols died shortly after making Blue Phantom, at the age of 38, and his status (buoyed, perhaps, by the myth of the doomed artist that grew up around him, a myth cultivated to some extent by Jean-Paul Sartre) was made clear by inclusion in the first and second Documentas and the 1958 Venice Biennale. Unfortunately, in the sixties, the market became flooded with forgeries, and galleries backed away, with the result that he was largely overlooked until 1989 and 1990, with exhibitions in Zurich and Düsseldorf respectively. Neverthless, this sober, modest, but wholly sufficient retrospective in Bremen constitutes a major opportunity to reappraise Wols’ achievement, as it includes not only work from various museums and private collections in Germany, France and the US, but has been able to draw on the comprehensive Menil Collection in Houston.

That such a reappraisal is necessary was made clear when in 1996 the important Formless exhibition, curated by Yves-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, included only Wols’ photography, on the grounds that his painting was ‘tachiste’ (i.e. part of the gestural, self-projecting French school of painting inspired to a degree by Wols, and associated with Georges Mathieu, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Pierre Soulages and others). In the ensuing publication (Zone Books, 1997) Bois further discriminated between the informe (or the ‘formless’, a category coined by Georges Bataille) and art informel, and included Wols, along with Fautrier and Dubuffet, in the latter, a category capable of overlapping slightly with the former (in the case of Wols’ photography for instance), but in general too concerned with the ‘depicted object’, differentiation (rather than entropic collapse back into materiality) and the ‘“authenticity” of the personal touch’ (Formless 140-143).

The problem with all this is that it treats Wols’ paintings as a single object, something that the Bremen retrospective strongly demonstrates not to be the case. Yes, some of the oil paintings seem to anticipate tachisme, or at least to border on its concern with personal marking, but it is not a sizeable part: the tachiste painters who claimed Wols as a predecessor seem to have seized rather opportunistically on a single, not always convincing, aspect of his work. And most of Wols’ paintings do not, admittedly, fit Bois’ and Krauss’ agenda of ‘formlessness’ – but some do (Composition IV [1946], I would suggest), and it would have been strange if the same sensibility that dwelt photographically on a disturbing, dismembered fleshiness of small objects, should not have been in the least transferred into the later painting practice. More importantly, perhaps, Wols’ painting places pressure on the border between the anti-formal, disintegrative movement towards material displayed for its own sake, and that appearance of the ‘unreal’ object that concerned Sartre in his writings on art informel. What is at issue, I suspect, is that question of the ‘figurative’, beyond abstraction or realism, that engagement, even if as a resistance or a wholesale antagonism, with the viewer’s anticipations of a represented ‘reality’.

But I’m going too far: Formless was exhibition as thesis, intended to throw other histories of modern art into relief, and as such was presented in bold, unambiguous outlines. It remains, however, that the dismissal of Wols as a tachiste painter is highly reductive.

In one thing Krauss and Bois were certainly correct: the photographs are well worth recovering. Taken in 1930s Paris when Wols was in his twenties and associating with the surrealists, they are highly sophisticated. From the clever applications of Cubist space in Untitled (Paris) (at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles), to the already apparent fascination with decay and degradation (an Untitled that features the word ‘Canaille’ [‘scum’] at the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen in Stuttgart , and the fetishisation of dismembered, biomorphic details (pastries? cannolis perhaps? resembling fat fingers, in a photograph at the Kunsthaus Zurich), they reveal a precocious, idiosyncratic talent. The war, however, put a stop to his photographic career, and in his drawings he seems to have to begin again from almost nothing.

These relatively small (generally less than A3) ink and watercolour pieces begin to appear about 1937 and are initially little better than imaginative doodles – surreal landscapes in which he tries out devices borrowed from Tanguy, Miró and Ernst. The serious work begins about 1942/1943, by which time Wols was living in extreme penury with his wife Gréty in the south of France, after years spent in internment camps. This means that, the photography aside, Wols’ mature artistic career occurs across a period of only nine years, with only six of these dedicated to both drawing and painting in oils. It might seem surprising, then, that I insist on the diversity of his work, but what the Bremen exhibition makes clear is that there were multiple strains, motifs, lines of thought pursued during this short but highly productive time.

As regards the ink-and-watercolours, despite Ewald Rathke’s assertion to the contrary in the exhibition’s catalogue, it is impossible not to see the influence of Klee operating, at least along one line of the work.

Wols: Blue Phantom (1951). Oil, grattage, tube marks and finger prints on canvas. 73 x 60 cm. Museum Ludwig, Cologne. Photo: Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2013.
Wols: Blue Phantom (1951). Oil, grattage, tube marks and finger prints on canvas. 73 x 60 cm. Museum Ludwig, Cologne. Photo: Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2013.

This line, culminating in a series of images of towns and villages (Ville Chaude of 1943/44, for instance), shows Wols more or less content to be Klee’s disciple, albeit a nervy, obsessive one, with a touch of Masson pulling at the little formations. But his most characteristic pieces – they mark the arrival of his post-photographic maturity – are quite unique: biomorphic figures, positioned centrally, within an aura that conveys a sense of ‘apparition’. These tinted drawings are vividly coloured and obsessively detailed, the details often bringing to mind miniscule or microscopic features: cilia, pubic hair, formations of living tissue, polyps, tiny primitive limbs. They bring with them a sense of closeness and magnification, like a rockpool viewed by a child; of the alien; and of something that spasms, blushes, transforms abruptly, perhaps even transmits, but, being in a different element, is incapable of acting in our world, though visible here – a mere register of affect. The ‘closeness’ is related to the innate intimacy of the medium: the relation of the sheet of paper to the artist bending over with pens or small brushes was exaggerated by Wols’ practice, who often painted in bed, his bottle and food nearby, his dog at his feet. Some of this intimacy is carried into the public space of the gallery: it is difficult for a watercolour to be properly viewed by more than one member of the public at a time. This relation bypasses something that Wols must have sensed strongly, as it is dramatised by an early series of images with the title Circus Wols (from 1940): the presence of the spectator, especially of spectators in the plural. In these quirky fantasies the insectoid, surreal creatures of Wols’ early drawings are surrounded by caricatures of an audience. Between the two appears an apparatus with a system of lenses of some kind, and marked ‘polyscope’ in one of the drawings: the suggestion is of a tiny world being brought to perform before an anonymous, but pressing, self-assertive crowd. There is an inherent sense of something small and private being artificially made apparent in a not altogether hospitable public space.

So, what happens, as happened to Wols in 1946 when a gallerist gave him the materials for oil painting, if the minituarist is suddenly released into the open, half-body-with-arms-outstretched-sized space of the easel painting, capable of being viewed by six or seven people at a time (if not more, if the crowds in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre are anything to go by)? Agoraphobia, to some extent. Many of the canvases (which are far from universally successful) show evidence of a crisis – how to fill that exposed, more public space, and still maintain some kind of control? One solution, which seems to me close in spirit to the category of ‘formlessness’, was to seemingly scrape at the white ground, to achieve an all-over abstraction that resembles a floor scored by what it has supported, and dyed by innumerable washings of what looks like wastewater. Along another line (the styles are not wholly separate, there are various crossovers), certainly more tachiste, there are attacks, markings, assertions of the artist’s physical presence against the empty space, often resulting in what looks like a structure, and often quasi-representationalist (like the Bateau Ivre of 1951). There is a sense of flailing intoxication about some of these, and a looseness after the intense detailing of the drawings, despite the artificial means of the prominent ‘structure’. These same ink and watercolour pieces take on new chromatic power in the same period, becoming less governed by their drawn dimension, doubtless under the influence of the oil painting. Meanwhile Wols was also producing exquisite black-and-white book illustrations, those for a collection of Kafka stories called L’Invité des morts being particularly fine.

And then there are oil paintings like the Veil of Veronica (1946/47), Blue Grenade (1948/49) and the Blue Phantom (it should be noted that most of these titles were not given by Wols himself). Here the old centrally placed, figurative motif manages to hold its own in the expanded space of the canvas, but the results are more than merely expanded versions of the ink and watercolour pieces. Something happens because of the oil paintings’ particular scale, something to do both with how we tend to ‘read’ the figures before us on the canvas, and the kind of relational space surrounding the work. Facing Blue Phantom we find ourselves thinking less along the lines of microscopic organisms (despite the continued use of biological details) and more of something human-sized, something capable of confronting us rather than something we observe, separate and whole in its elementally different milieu. Certain more representationalist drawings come to mind – Woman with Nails (1944), Fool with Flowing Hair (1942/43) – as well as images by Ernst, Miró and, especially, Picasso, where a disc on a stem, with flowing lines that stand for hair, serve as a shorthand for a woman’s neck and head. The Blue Phantom, in short, is a woman’s head, or rather, it looms before us in the place of a woman’s head. This is where the second effect of the new scale comes into play: moving straight from an ink and watercolour piece to an oil painting one has a sense of sudden expansion and openness, like the experience of looking up from a small, very near object, like a book being read, or an insect examined, to focus immediately on figures in the space ahead of you. Whence the whole jolting, unnerving quality of Blue Phantom: occupying that space, the one where ordinarily human figures interact, or address the viewer, is an image as alien as the apparitions in the world beneath human scale, but somehow now in place in the human dimension, surrounded by its own, toxic to us, element. This uncanny but beautiful painting gathers to itself a host of experiences, concerning the war and its aftermath, the relation of private to the exposed and public, of self to the alien, the emergence of the ‘inhuman’, etc. etc. It is clearly the work of a master of twentieth century painting.