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Monday, September 28, 2015

Kurt Seligmann

Artists in Exile, 1942: Roberto Matta, Ossip Zadkine, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Fernand Léger. Back row: André Breton, Piet Mondrian, André Masson, Amédée Ozenfant, Jacques Lipchitz, Pavel Tchelitchev, Kurt Seligmann and Eugene Berman.
Art and war are antithetical. So, in large part are war and artists. Though a considerable number of artists have died in various conflicts throughout history, more often artists tend to have the good sense to flee wars. This fact of historic life had a great deal to do with America, New York in particular, becoming the art capital of the world during the years since World War II. Yes, the war caused the "flight rather than fight" phenomena, but it was the willingness of the U.S. government to welcome this artistic brain drain to our shores as much as any other single factor. The list is surprisingly long and the names of the so-called "exile artists" arriving between the years 1939 and 1942 surprisingly familiar. One of the first of these art refugees to arrive in New York was the Swiss-born surrealist painter Kurt, Seligmann, whose La Ronde (The Round Dance, below from around 1940, was painted after he came to New York. Seligmann, abetted financially by the wealthy heiress, Peggy Guggenheim in Europe (who was buying up Modern Art like there was no tomorrow), arranged the group photo (above) with its names and faces, which reads like a "who's who" of Modern Art.

La Ronde (The Round Dance) ca. 1940, Kurt Seligmann
Borealis Efflorescence, 1941, Kurt Seligmann
The occasion was an exhibition titled "Artists in Exile" at the Pierre Matisse Gallery (the youngest son of Henri Matisse) in New York. The photo (top) may have been the most interesting and lasting "work of art" from the entire show (many pieces are now lost). First of all, the artists spoke various different languages (though mostly French). Many had never met before, and those who had, were not necessarily on speaking terms. As much as anything else, the show was an excuse to get these European pioneers of Modern Art out of Europe, out of harms way, and into a safe environment conducive to their creative efforts. Though they were not always compatible with the post-war New York School, without them, it's quite possible there would have been no New York School. Many of those pictured found jobs teaching in various art schools in and around the city. They were the "old guard;" if not always the teachers, then at least the inspiration, for later artists such as Pollock, de Kooning, dancer, John Cage, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and any number of lesser-knowns from the 1950s and early 1960s. Seligman's single contribution to the "Artists in Exile" show was Borealis Efflorescence (above, right), from 1941.

The Carnaval, Kurt Seligmann
Kurt Seligmann was born in 1900, the son of a successful furniture store owner in Basel, Switzerland. As was common at the time, his parents expected him to "join the firm," which he tried, unhappily, to do. Eventually, they acquiesced in his becoming at artist, financing his studies at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Geneva. Upon graduation around the mid-1920s, Seligman left for Paris where he reunited with an old friend from Geneva, sculptor Alberto Giacometti. Through him Seligmann met Hans Arp and Jean Helion, who admired his sinister, biomorphic paintings and invited him to join their group, Abstraction-Creation Art Non-Figuratif. As a result, during the 1930s Seligmann's work began to take on a more baroque aspect, with "animated" prancing figures in his paintings accompanied by festoons of ribbons, drapery, and heraldic paraphernalia. Seligmann's The Carnaval (left), is an example from this period.

Untitled, 1940. Kurt Seligmann
Herold, Kurt Seligmann
In 1935, Seligmann married well. Her name was Arlette Paraf, the granddaughter of the founder of the Wildenstein Gallery, which had locations in Paris, London, and New York. Together they traveled extensively, first around the world during a year-long honeymoon, then to the United States and British Columbia to satisfy their interest in American ethnic art. In 1937, Seligmann was accepted as a formal member of the Surrealist group in Paris by André Breton, who collected his work and included him in Surrealist exhibitions. In September 1939, Seligmann came to New York, ostensibly for an exhibition of his work being held at the Karl Nierendorf Gallery. Once here, however, with his Surrealist friends still in Europe being especially targets of the Nazis, Seligmann began a concerted effort to bring them to safety. His untitled work (above) is from around 1940.

Sabbath Phantoms, Mythomania, 1945. Kurt Seligmann
The History of Magic and the Occult,
1948, Kurt Seligmann
Seligmann's art reached maturity during the 1940s in the United States, where he did his best work. He and Arlette lived in Manhattan during this period, then later acquired a farm north of the city in the hamlet of Sugar Loaf, Orange County, New York. As the Surrealists' expert on magic, Seligmann also wrote a history of it, The Mirror of Magic (left). Mythology was always an element in the fascinating, turbulent imagery of his "dance macabre" paintings. Seligman's Prometheus (below), from 1946, is one such example. After the war, Seligmann's work began to be exhibited widely and acquired by museums throughout the United States and Europe. He taught for many years at Brooklyn College and various other schools in New York City. Unfortunately, the changing nature of the New York art world, as it embraced Abstract Expressionism, caused critics to relegate his work to the past, his paintings perceived as passé. His The Balcony III (bottom), from 1958, is typical of his late work. Seligman retired to his farm in 1958. It was there he died of an accidental, self-inflicted, gunshot wound in January 1962.

Prometheus, 1946, Kurt Seligmann
How many lives and careers Seligmann may have saved through his efforts to bring the elite of the Surrealist art movement to New York during the war years is, of course, problematical. The same is true in terms of his influence upon the movement and later, Abstract Expressionism as a result of his teaching efforts. What is less so, however, is the example of how one man's concerted efforts likely altered the course of Modern Art in America.

Balcony III (The Gathering, 1958), Kurt Seligmann
Ultra Furniture, 1938, Kurt Seligmann.
An Allen Jones influence?


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