Viewing Room

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The Foots

Ink and watercolour on paper
Signed lower right Wols
Annotated, titré et daté au dos par Gréty Wols : Photo 553, 1939. Début de la guerre.
32 x 24,5 cm (12.6 x 9.6 in)

Gréty Wols collection
Marc Johannes collection Paris,
Aponem auction house, June 15 2011, Marc Johannes Estate, no. 98
Private collection, Brussels

Shigeo Chiba, L’œuvre de Wols, catalogue raisonné, Paris, 1974, p. 143.
The authenticity of this work has been confirmed par Ewald Rathke on April 15th 2011.

- Paris, musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, Wols : peintures, aquarelles, dessins, December 19th 1973-February 3rd 1974, n° 53.
- Rennes, musée des Beaux-Arts, Wols : dessins, aquarelles, peintures 1932-1951, June-July 1974, n° A56.
- Caen, musée des Beaux-Arts, Wols : dessins, aquarelles, peintures 1932-1951, July 2nd-September 30th 1974, n° 30.
- Paris, galerie Beaubourg, Wols : dessins, aquarelles, peintures 1932-1951, November-December 1974.
- Dunkerque, musée des Beaux-Arts (LAAC), May 12-September16 2012, Wols : dessins, repr. p. 33.

Born Alfred Otto Wolfgang Shulze in 1913, Wols has been considered one of the leading figures in the development of a new pictorial language broadly categorised by the term ‘l’art informel’. Dying at the young age of 38 the artist’s life spans the turbulent times of World War II and includes three different periods of art, the culminating point being Wols considered as one of the inventors of Tachisme. Ewald Rathke, biographer of Otto Wols explains that the artist had an impressive scope and range of work in his short, fifteen-year career: “It moves from Surrealist-inspired beginnings to groundbreaking abstraction in his last years – from playful fantasy worlds to abstract structures”.[1]

Wols, born into an upper middle class family, was exposed to art and culture from a young age. His disciplinarian father surrounded Wols with artists, scientists and intellectuals whilst he was growing up, enrolling the artist into drawing and music classes. An exemplary student, Wols was encouraged to pursue law by his father, however upon his father’s death in 1929, Wols left school without finishing his exams deciding to follow the Bauhaus movement, moving from Dessau to Berlin in 1932. After spending six months in Berlin during the expiring days of the Bauhaus movement, Wols moved to Paris in 1932 immediately being introduced to artists such asLéger andOzenfant, after being recommended to do so byMoholy-Nagy. Working as a photographer, Wols went on to meet in 1933 his life long partner and window in the Surrealist movement, Gréty Dabija. After spending short periods of time between Paris and Spain, where he started focusing on his skills as a draftsman, Wols settled down in Paris in 1936.

Wols soon came under the influences of artists such as Tanguy, Miró, Masson, Brauner, Ernst and Dalí. Whilst all artists instigated stylistic changes within the artist’s oeuvre it is Tanguy who is considered the greatest influence. One can see the artists influence in Wols’ utilisation of the axial structure in his drawings as well as the fine concise lines of pen-and-ink drawing. Ewald Rathke explains: “Immediately the paintings and even more the drawings of Yves Tanguy from the second half of the 1920’s come to mind, the same shadowless imaginary landscapes with motif details strewn apparently indiscriminately over the picture surface, standing in relationship to one another and seeming to tell a story yet not conveying any message“. [2]It was after seeing the Exposition internationale du surréalismein Paris on the Rue du Faubourg St Honoré, that Wols first experienced the autodidact that he would later use to express himself. Rathke explains, that from the outset Wols was a draftsman, he selected pen, paper and watercolours as his mediums at first that required the greatest concentration “because it creates facts on paper that allowed no correction. Watercolours, used only sparingly for accentuation at first, quickly work in conjunction with the pen-and-ink drawing to heighten the expression. It follows logically that although the drawing is always the first act of realisation the number of pure drawings in his oeuvre is comparatively small”. [3]

The German painter adopted his nickname Wols from a misaddressed telegram in 1937. In the following years, the artist, who became a close friend ofSartre, JeanPaulhanandMerleau-Ponty, decided to dedicate his life to the work of,linkingart,scienceand philosophy. This connection begins to become evident in Wols’ watercolour and experiments with the Surrealist style and movement.  

After the declaration of World War II in 1939, Wols was transferred to three different camps. During this period the artist was cut off from the world and stopped working for a few months, however in the later parts of the year, his wife Gréty managed to acquire some watercolour, allowing him to start working again. Rathke observed: “The motifs for his visual ideas flow to him from the rich source of his memories, interwoven with impressions of the atmosphere and daily life in the Camp des Milles (Aix-en-Provence) and the occasional day releases to Marseilles. This reality too is rewritten as vocabulary in his art; for example, the brick wall that appears as a set piece several times, o the camp bar, and bottles and glasses repeat what he saw in the Montargis camp, a former glass factory”. [4]

Les Pieds, painted in 1939 is known to be one of the watercolours executed by the artist during his time in the camps. In his watercolours, Wols generally constructs his works around a latent central vertical axis with the areas to the right and left of it in balance, this can be seen in Les Pieds. The composition lies perfectly in balance, the blue adding an aura to the surreal subject. The individual elements of the composition are embedded in a frame of likewise latent verticals, horizontals and diagonals. The lines become increasingly fine in Wols’ watercolours helping the artist to heighten precision. The watercolour adheres strictly to the outlines and lets the individual motifs become parts of the surrealist puzzle. Rathke explains: “Although it negates the central perspective, the staggering of the motifs one behind the other generates space. Panoramas spread before us, but various barriers block our access”. [5]
Delphine Bière in Dunkerque exhibition catalogue writes: “ The watercolour proceeds by associations of ‘visual remnants” and isolated objects (a crank, a brick wall, an insect…) that lose their identity as things to become a composite whole, denoting the distance between fantasy and idea.”

After1942, when the Germans occupied large parts of France, Wols fled toDieulefit, a small town near Montélimar. It was in this period that Wols developed a new style of painting.Wols final act in the art world was to play withthe relationshipbetween the material andthe tracesleft bythe brush.His workbecamean exploration of a networkof spots, weavesand traces. It was this experimental form of painting that would later be called Tachisme.

[1]E. Rathke, “On the Biography of the Art of Wols” in Wols Retrospective, p. 35. 

[2]Rathke, ibid, p. 42.

[3]Rathke, ibid, p. 44.

[4]Rathke, ibid, p. 46.

[5]Rathke, ibid, p. 47.