German painter, draughtsman, photographer and illustrator. In 1919, when his father was appointed head of the Saxon State Chancellery, the family moved from Berlin to Dresden. The following year Wols started taking violin lessons, showing a precocious musical talent. Having finished his studies at a grammar school in Dresden in 1931 he was too young to take the Abitur examination and so decided to abandon it. Fritz Busch, the conductor of the Dresden Opera, then offered to get him a post as a first violinist with an orchestra. Instead he worked for a few months in the studio of the photographer Gena Jonas in Dresden while also spending time as a garage mechanic.
In 1932 Wols travelled to Frankfurt am Main to study anthropology under the German ethnologist Leo Frobenius, a friend of the family, at the Afrika-Institut, though without his Abitur the plan was short-lived. He then moved to Berlin and entered the Bauhaus, recently transferred from Dessau, where he met Mies van der Rohe and László Moholy-Nagy. After only a few weeks Moholy-Nagy advised him to move to Paris; there, through Moholy-Nagy, he was introduced to Amédée Ozenfant, Fernand Léger, Hans Arp and César Domela. He soon also met many artists associated with the Surrealist movement, such as Max Ernst and Joan Miró as well as members of the group Le Grand Jeu such as the French writers René Daumel (1908–44), Roger Gilbert-Lecomte (1907–43), Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes and others; influenced by Surrealism, the group was condemned by André Breton in 1929. Wols spent the remainder of 1932 in Paris, producing his first paintings but also working as a photographer; some of his photographs appeared in the Dutch paper Film liga. After returning briefly to Germany he settled in Paris in 1933, meeting Gréty Dabija, a Romanian woman previously married to the French Surrealist poet Jacques Baron (b 1905); he later married her himself. His photographic work of this period showed the clear influence of Surrealism. His portrait of Roger Gilbert-Lecomte (c. 1935; see 1978 exh. cat.) with eyes closed, for example, suggests the sleeping state so beloved by the Surrealists. Other images, such as Gréty’s Mouth (1933; see 1978 exh. cat.), resemble works by the French photographer Jacques-André Boiffard (1902–61) in their dislocated, disturbing presentation of close-ups of the human anatomy.
At the end of 1933 Wols travelled to Barcelona and then to Ibiza, where he worked as a photographer and chauffeur in early 1934; he returned to Barcelona in the autumn, staying there for a year. Having lived without a permit in France and ignoring the summons of the German Labour Service, he was imprisoned in Barcelona in 1935 for three months before being deported back to France, where he continued his photographic work. In 1937, the year in which he adopted his pseudonym, he had an exhibition at the Librairie–Galerie de la Pléiade in Paris and became official photographer for the Pavillon de l’Elégance at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne held that year in Paris. Charting the period from its construction to eventual opening, his photographs appeared in fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Femina, Jardin des modes as well as Revue de l’art. Those showing the pavilion during its construction allowed Wols wide scope for Surreal juxtapositions of objects, especially using the dismembered mannequins, as in Pavillon de l’Elégance during Construction: International Exhibition (1937; see 1978 exh. cat., p. 46). Many of these anticipate the displays at the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme held in Paris in the following year, in which much use was made of mannequins.
At the outbreak of World War II Wols, as a German citizen, was interned for 14 months. He was not released until late 1940. During this period he concentrated on ink drawings of the sort he had been producing since 1932. His earlier works in this media, such as the Singer and the Lovers (gouache and ink, 1932; see 1961 exh. cat., pl. 5), showed the influence of child art and depicted fantastic creatures and curious metamorphoses. While this hallucinatory quality again links them to Surrealism, their childlike naivety bears comparison with the work of Paul Klee. His later ink drawings, such as Large Head (1943; Amsterdam, Stedel. Mus.), are both more fluid and detailed in style; in this case he used the visual ambiguity of the amorphous forms to suggest a head in a manner reminiscent of Salvador Dalí.
After his release from prison camp Wols moved for two years to Cassis, near Marseille, where he struggled to earn a living. The occupation of France by the Germans in 1942 forced him to flee to Dieulefit, near Montélimar, where he met the writer Henri-Pierre Roché, one of his earliest collectors. In 1945 an exhibition of Wols’s drawings was held in Paris at the Galerie Drouin, but it proved a failure commercially. The following year he returned to Paris where he met Alberto Giacometti, Georges Mathieu and the writers Jean-Paul Sartre, Tristan Tzara and Jean Paulhan. He started to paint in oils in 1946 at the suggestion of the dealer René Drouin, who showed 40 of the paintings at his gallery in 1947. These pictures, such as Yellow Composition (1946–7; Berlin, Neue N.G.), were executed in an informal, gestural style, with the paint applied in layers, often by means of dripping and with scratches made into the surface. The resulting works have a tremendously expressive, if disturbing, power. This new development in his art proved enormously influential, earning him the praise of artists such as Mathieu and critics such as Michel Tapié, who coined the term Art autre to describe their post-war work.
In 1947 Wols began to work on a number of illustrations for books by Paulhan, Sartre, Franz Kafka, René de Solier and Antonin Artaud, such as Paulhan’s Le Berger d’Ecosse, suivi des passagers: La Pierre philosophique (Paris, 1948). He fell ill in the same year but lacked the money to go to hospital, and throughout 1948 he worked largely in bed on these illustrations. In 1949 he took part in the exhibition Huit oeuvres nouvelles at the Galerie Drouin, along with Jean Dubuffet, Jean Fautrier, Roberto Matta, Mathieu, Henri Michaux and other artists with whom he had a stylistic affinity. In the last few years of his life he continued to produce fantastic ink and wash drawings, such as the Phantom Town (c. 1951; Hannover, Sprengel Mus.). He also developed his oil painting in such works as The Windmill (c. 1951; Münster, Westfäl. Landesmus.), using a thick impasto here overlaid with the explosive lines of a windmill. He applied a similar technique to watercolour to create fused and blotted areas of colour, as in Untitled (c. 1950; priv. col., see London 1985 exh. cat., pl. 48). Undergoing treatment for alcoholism, he moved to the country at Champigny-sur-Marne, south-east of Paris, in June 1951. His early death later that year from food poisoning helped foster the legendary reputation that grew up around him soon afterwards. His paintings helped pioneer Art informel and Tachism, which dominated European art during and after the 1950s as a European counterpart to American Abstract Expressionism. Influenced by the writings of the Chinese Daoist philosopher Laozi throughout his life, Wols also wrote poems and aphorisms that expressed his aesthetic and philosophical ideas.
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press