Sans titre (Monstre)
Accession year before 1993
Ink and watercolour on paper, 21.5 x 30 cm
Signed on the front, bottom right: “W[ols]”; nonautograph title on the back right of the frame: “MONSTRE”
Collection Fondazione Francesco Federico Cerruti per l’Arte
Long-term loan Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin
Inv. no. CC.24.D.WOL.1932.A181
Provenance: Galerie Drouin, Paris; private collection.
Bibliography: The Cerruti Collection 2019, p. 74, ill; Christov-Bakargiev 2021, vol. II, p. 838, ill.
“When, curled up in his bed, he picks up his thin-nibbed pen and his watercolours, Wols doesn’t know what he’s going to draw. While he draws, he doesn’t know what he’s drawing. When he finishes, he looks and he doesn’t know what he’s done. Each of his drawings is a reflection of the Supreme through his inner prism.”
(Henri-Pierre Roché, 1945)
In December 1945, the Galerie Drouin in Paris presented the ink drawings produced from 1941 onwards by Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze, who signed his works with the contracted form of his name (“Wols”). The presentation by Henri-Pierre Roché – who had met Wols in 1942 in Dieulefit, the town in southern France where they both spent the last few years of the war – indicated the two poles within which the German artist’s work had developed: the reinvention of dreamlike themes in the wake of Surrealism and the transition to a tormented autonomy of signs, freed from all figurative references.
“What does Wols do? He goes deep within himself like a diver and his hand draws a trace of everything that he sees: cobwebs, grasses, forests of seaweed, watches, molluscs, mountain-cities, houseboats, islands, jeweller-butchers, attractions, fissures, clots of fear. […] When, curled up in his bed, he picks up his thin-nibbed pen and his watercolours, Wols doesn’t know what he’s going to draw. While he draws, he doesn’t know what he’s drawing. When he finishes, he looks and he doesn’t know what he’s done […] Each of his drawings is a reflection of the Supreme through his inner prism.”1
In 1946 Wols began to explore the potential of oil painting and the following year the Galerie Drouin exhibited his first paintings. “Wols smashed everything”, wrote Georges Mathieu years later about that exhibition. “After Wols, everything has to be redone.”2 Definitive critical acclaim arrived in spring 1951, when Michel Tapié presented – as cited on the invitation card – “the extreme trends of non-figurative painting in Italy, America and Paris – Bryen Capogrossi De Kooning Hartung Mathieu Pollock Riopelle Russell Wols” in the Véhémences confrontées group exhibition.
When Wols died in September 1951, the Surrealist-style watercolours painted between 1937 and 1941, of which the piece in the Cerruti Collection is an example, had not been exhibited in Paris, but only in New York, in 1942, in the gallery of Betty Parson, where the writer Kay Boyle had taken some directly from occupied France, in the hope of supporting Wols’s application for a visa for the United States.3
After travelling to Paris from Berlin as advised by László Moholy-Nagy in 1932, Wols, who had not yet turned twenty, drew close to Surrealism thanks to the friendships of his partner Gréty Dabija and developed an interest in photography that he had cultivated since adolescence. In his first works on paper, the biomorphism, the metamorphic processes and the precision of the details evoke Max Ernst’s collages from the early 1920s, the cadavres exquis, Yves Tanguy’s drawings, but also Paul Klee, Surrealist objects and photographic images by Brassaï and Hans Bellmer, as well as by Wols himself.
With only a small number of exceptions, his works are signed but not dated, nor do they include any indications regarding titles. Where present, the titles were added after the artist’s death, in many cases by Gréty Wols, while an initial chronology of his watercolours was put forward by Werner Haftmann in 1963,4 before being added to or disputed during subsequent exhibitions.5
This watercolour, which passed through the Galerie Drouin and has been documented in the Cerruti Collection since 1993, can be dated to the period from 1939-40, when Wols, held in one of the detention camps established in France in September 1939 for citizens of German origin, expanded the horizon of his dreamlike landscapes, crowding them with towers and chimney stacks, with erotic references veined with dark humour, and with ships with unfurled sails ploughing through closed seas or becoming grounded between fields and hills.
[Maria Teresa Roberto]
1 H.-P. Roché, “Extraits de notes sur Wols”, in Pars 1945-46, np.
2 Mathieu G. 1963, p. 35.
3 See Boyle 2015, pp. 347-350.
4 Haftmann 1963.
5 Geneva 1971; Berlin 1973; Bremen 1985; Zurich- Düsseldorf 1989-90; Ravensburg 1997; Hamburg-Basel-Esslingen-Dresden 2000-01; Paris 2020b.