The Surrealist painter and occultist writer Kurt Seligmann is having his first retrospective in 55 years.
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San Francisco dealer Rowland Weinstein bought his first Kurt Seligmann painting six years ago. “When the painting came into the gallery,” he recalls, “all the young artists on staff went crazy over it. None had ever heard of him, but each had a deep response to the powerful imagery and painterly quality. That reaction inspired me.” It inspired him enough, in fact, to eventually give the Swiss-born Surrealist his first major American retrospective in 55 years. That show, titled “Kurt Seligmann: First Message From the Spirit World of the Object,” runs May 9–June 13 at Weinstein Gallery and features 50 paintings spanning the artist’s four-decade career (he died in 1962 at 62), as well as several important works on paper.
The reasons for this highly original artist’s relative obscurity are themselves somewhat obscure. Maybe it all started when André Breton kicked him out of the Surrealist group because of an argument over the interpretation of Tarot cards. Or maybe it was because Seligmann just had too many interests, activities, and modes of working to fit comfortably into any category. During the 1930s and early ’40s, he was an integral part of the New York art scene, exhibiting widely, at Karl Nierendorf Gallery and other venues, and teaching at Brooklyn College. During the war Seligmann, the first Surrealist exile to arrive in the United States, led efforts to bring fellow Surrealists to safety from Europe.
But during the ’50s he found himself marginalized, and in 1960 he was left out of the influential show “The Surrealist Intrusion: In the Enchanted Domain” at the D’Arcy Galleries in New York. On that occasion, Murdock Pemberton, The New Yorker’s art critic, wrote to John Canaday, his counterpart at The New York Times, “To leave Seligmann out is comparable to trying to build an arch without a keystone.” (To be fair, the D’Arcy Galleries made amends by giving Seligmann a retrospective the following year, accompanied by a catalogue containing tributes by Pemberton as well as such luminaries as Guggenheim director James Johnson Sweeney, critic Parker Tyler, and scholar-dealer Katharine Kuh.)
Weinstein believes that now is the time to put Seligmann back in—and it does feel very much like the artist is having a moment right now. Over the course of the past year, a traveling exhibition that originated at Cornell University’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, “Surrealism and Magic,” highlighted Seligmann’s parallel efforts as a writer and as a collector of rare and beautiful books, manuscripts, and illustrations relating to magic and the occult. These arcana were very much the mainspring of Seligmann’s own art—as anyone who looks closely at the works on view at Weinstein will able to see—and they also enabled him to inform and inspire others through his voluminous writings, particularly his magnum opus, The Mirror of Magic (1948, reprinted many times under various titles).
The book never mentions Surrealism but is clearly more than just a factual history. Its agenda was to show how occult ideas and imagery have stimulated the production of art, and to suggest how they could again in the modern context. Seligmann filled his book with reproductions of medieval and Renaissance woodcuts and engravings, diagrams for astrology and palmistry, allegorical scenes, and fanciful depictions of demons, not only to illustrate the narrative but to serve as a trove of source material for artists. About his own relationship to such imagery, Seligmann wrote in 1960, “To the artist who creates from memory, the sources of inspiration are inexhaustible. They exist in nature, in man-made things, in things seen, read, witnessed, observed, handled, dreamed about. Whatever my mind has registered or my senses experienced may arise from the wide storage room of memory and seek its place upon the canvas.”
One painting of Seligmann’s, Isis (1944), shows clearly how he transformed his source material into art. In The Mirror of Magic, he included an illustration of the Egyptian goddess from the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher’s book Oedipus Aegyptiacus (1652), in which the symbolism of each part of the figure is labeled and described in detail, based on the account of the Roman author Apuleius in his novel Metamorphoses, better known as The Golden Ass. Seligmann’s Isis, while shorn of the goddess’ recognizably human features and traditional get-up, has essentially the same shape and posture. The baffling assortment of objects hanging from her seem like variations on the accoutrements of the figure in Kircher. Like the old woodcut, she seems to have one foot on land and the other in the water, to symbolize the fact that as mother of the world and protector of life, she presides over both realms. In his book, Seligmann wrote eloquently of the enduring power of Isis, who after the demise of ancient paganism, survived under various names and guises under Christianity and even into the era of the Enlightenment, when, in a “solemn ceremony,” she was “remembered by men who seemed closed to every magical sentiment, the leaders the French revolution.”
Seligmann’s paintings and prints conduct the viewer into a magical and timeless world where the weird and twisted shapes of the Freudian-Surrealist unconscious meet the delicately poised heraldic figures of the Middle Ages, the gods and heroes of the classical world, and the bizarre hybrid symbols of alchemy. Sometimes, as with the motley dancing figures in La Ronde (1940–41), these characters seem to inhabit a kind of stage, a testament to one of Seligmann’s extracurricular activities, set-designing. Other times, as in Envelopment (1959), they float free in a dimensionless space, or, as in The Cave of the Echoes (1941–43), are juxtaposed by collage. In typical Surrealist fashion, the faces of the figures are always obscured or lack human features, which casts them into an uncanny borderland between subject and object. Indebted as much to the Renaissance Swiss soldier-artist Urs Graf as to any maven of modernism, Seligmann wove together many threads—his childhood in Basel, where he immersed himself in Greek, Latin, and Swiss history; his years in Paris working alongside artists such as Paul Éluard, Yves Tanguy, and Hans Bellmer; and his study and practice of magic.
The occult efforts were in earnest, though the charming and urbane Seligmann had a way of drawing even blasé outsiders into his magic circle. In 1948 in New York—where Seligmann and his wife Arlette had emigrated in 1939 to escape the Nazis—he threw a party to celebrate the publication of The Mirror of Magic. Impeccably dressed in a tuxedo, the artist drew a magic circle on the floor of his studio and before the assembled crowd of art-world and society denizens proceeded, with the help of fellow Surrealist Enrico Donati, to recreate the Elizabethan wizard Dr. John Dee’s famous ritual for summoning the dead.
The following year, the Surrealist writer, surgeon, diplomat, and anthropologist Pierre Mabille painted a vivid word-portrait of his friend, who always cut an elegant, conservative figure: “Nothing in his outer appearance or daily behavior is at all surprising except that he was always here, unchanging, for some twenty-five centuries. He was living in Jerusalem when the Romans invaded it. He knew the secrets of the Temple and kept them. He was in Alexandria and frequented Ptolemy’s library; he rued the ransacking frenzy of the Barbarians and took the wise precaution to rescue valuable papyri.”
By John Dorfman