Thursday, August 12, 2010


 Wols, c.  1940

Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze (1913-1951) was born in Berlin  into a wealthy family; his father was a high-ranking civil servant and patron of the arts who maintained friendships with many prominent artists of the period, including Otto Dix. In 1919, the family moved to Dresden where his father was appointed head of the Saxon State Chancellery. The following year Wols started taking violin lessons, showing a precocious musical talent. 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 Genja Jonas.

 Wols, Mademoiselle Nicole Bouban, 1936

In 1932 Wols travelled to Frankfurt am Main to study anthropology under the ethnologist Leo Frobenius, a friend of the family, 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 László Moholy-Nagy who advised him to move to Paris. There, through Moholy-Nagy, he was introduced to Amédée Ozenfant, Fernand Léger and Hans Arp. He soon also met many artists associated with the Surrealist movement, such as Max Ernst and Joan Miró.

Wols, On lui fait une radio, 1939

Wols permanently settled in Paris in 1933, producing his first paintings but also working as a photographer.  His photographic work of this period showed the clear influence of Surrealism. In 1936, he received official permission to live in Paris with the help of Fernand Léger; as an army deserter, Schulze had to report to the Paris police on a monthly basis. In 1937, the year in which he adopted his pseudonym WOLS, his photographs began to appear in fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Femina as well as Revue de l’art. Many of these photographs anticipate the displays at the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme held in Paris in the following year, in which much use was made of mannequins.

 Wols, Pavilion de l'elegance (Madeleine Vionnet), 1937

At the outbreak of World War II Wols, as a German citizen, was interned for 14 months in the notorious Les Milles camp - together with some 3500 other artists and intellectuals. He was not released until late 1940. After his release Wols moved for two years to Cassis, near Marseille, where he struggled to earn a living. The occupation of Southern 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. He spent most of the war trying to emigrate to the United States, an unsuccessful and costly enterprise that may have driven him to alcoholism.

 Wols, Untitled (Cathedral), c. 1945 

After the war Wols returned to Paris where he met 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 his paintings at his gallery in 1947. The same year Wols began to work on a number of illustrations for books by Paulhan, Sartre, Franz Kafka and Antonin Artaud. He fell ill 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, Roberto Matta, Henri Michaux and other artists with whom he had a stylistic affinity.

 Wols, Aquarell L´ìnsecte, 1940

Undergoing treatment for alcoholism, he moved to the country at Champigny-sur-Marne 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 philosopher Lao Tzu throughout his life, Wols also wrote poems and aphorisms that expressed his aesthetic and philosophical ideas.

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