The infinite space of Alice Rahon’s Sandstorm

By | December 28, 2016

In the late 1930s and 40s, Mexico had an immense allure for Surrealist artists, many of whom fled the advance of Nazi forces across Europe. Not only were Mexico’s entry procedures for foreigners relatively relaxed, but after a 1938 visit, the French founder of Surrealism, André Breton, declared the country, with its dramatic landscape, idiosyncratic customs, and vibrant indigenous culture “the Surrealist place par excellence.” [1] [2]

French Surrealist poet Alice Rahon and her Austrian husband, painter Wolfgang Paalen, traveled to Mexico in 1939 on an invitation from artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.[3] That year, the official outbreak of World War II led Rahon to settle permanently in Mexico, where she remained for the rest of her life. She showed three watercolor paintings in the influential 1940 International Exhibition of Surrealism in Mexico City, which included the work of European and Latin American artists. [4] Rahon helped her husband organize the exhibition along with Breton, and Peruvian poet César Moro.[5] In the next few years, many more European artists joined Rahon in Mexico including Remedios Varo, Benjamin Péret, Leonora Carrington, and Luis Buñuel.[6]

In France, Rahon was known among Surrealists for her poetry, which was well received. Her book À Même La Terre [On the Bare Ground], 1936 was the first volume by a woman released by the publishing company Editions Surréalistes.[7] In Mexico, however, she began her transition from poet to painter, a shift Rahon herself attributed to the vibrant colors of Mexico.[8]

Stippled with touches of dusky purple, mauve, and burnt orange, Rahon’s painting Sandstorm, 1947 confirms that her work was steeped in the intense hues of the Mexican environment. The painting, given to the Saint Louis Art Museum in 1954 by Joseph Pulitzer Jr., is on view at the museum for the first time ever in Gallery 212. In the imagined landscape of Sandstorm, mountains emerge from an atmosphere of shifting color, representing swirling sands thrown about by the wind.  A large, hot sun is visible through the storm, hanging low over a pack of cattle or horses. Rahon later claimed, “Sandstorm coincides with my discovery of the Mexican landscape—I made a series of landscapes where I tried to give that impression of infinite space, and dramatic scale where humans are too small to be visible.”[9]

Alice Rahon, Mexican (born France), 1904–1987; Sandstorm,1947; oil on canvas; 35 1/8 x 57 1/2 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Pulitzer Jr. 240:1954 © Alice Rahon

Like much of Rahon’s work, Sandstorm is also informed by pre-historic paintings and petroglyphs. The animals grazing in this amorphous environment may reference animal paintings from the Upper Paleolithic period found on the walls of the Altamira Cave in Spain, which Rahon visited in 1933.[10] In the catalog for a 1951 exhibition at the Willard Gallery in New York, Rahon wrote: “in the earliest times, painting was magical; it was the key to the invisible. In those days the value of a work lay in its powers of conjuration, a power that talent alone could not achieve.” This ability to envision new worlds may be, perhaps, what Rahon strove for in her own work and the reason why, when asked by a reporter to what school of painting she belonged, Rahon responded, “I think I am a cave painter.”[11]

Author: Molly Moog, research assistant for modern and contemporary art at the Saint Louis Art Museum

Sources: [1] Louise Tythacott, Surrealism and the Exotic (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), 180. [2] Rafael Heliodoro Valle, “Diálogo con André Breton,” Universidad: Mensual de cultura popular 29 (June 1938): 6. [3] Amy Winter, Wolfgang Paalen: artist and theorist of the avant-garde (Westport, Connecticut and London: Praeger, 2003), 66. [4] Exposición Internacional del Surrealismo (Mexico City: Galería de Arte Mexicano, 1940), np. [5] Jorge Alberto Manrique and Teresa del Conde, Una Mujer en el Arte Mexicano: Memorias de Inés Amor (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1987), [95]. [6] Nancy Deffebach, “Alice Rahon,” in Blanton Museum of Art: Latin American Collection. ed. Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006), 336. [7] Penelope Rosemont, ed. Surrealist Women: an International Anthology (Austin: Universtiy of Texas Press, 1998), 81. [8] Lourdes Andrade, Alice Rahon: Magia de la Mirada (Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1998), 19, quoted in Nancy Deffebach, “Alice Rahon: de poetisa francesa a pintora mexicana,”  in  Alice Rahon: Una surrealista en México (1939-1987) (Mexico City: Museo de Arte Moderno and Instituto Nacional de be Bellas Artes, 2009), 183. [9] In a letter to Joseph Pulitzer dated March 27, 1958, quoted in Charles Scott Chetham, Modern Painting, Drawing & Sculpture Collected by Louise and Joseph Pulitzer, Jr. (Cambridge, MA: Fogg Art Museum, 1958), 245. [10] Nancy Deffebach, “Alice Rahon: Poems of Light and Shadow, Painting in Free Verse.” Onthebus 8-9 (1991): 180. [11] Ibid., 186.

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