Jean-Michel Atlan

Baal the Warrior


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Jean-Michel Atlan 1913–1960
Original title
Baal Guerrier
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1626 x 1295 mm
frame: 1690 x 1363 x 70 mm
Presented by Mr and Mrs Alexander Margulies 1959


Baal the Warrior is an oil painting on canvas by the Algerian-born Jewish artist Jean-Michel Atlan. It is painted with a deep, warm palette of terracotta, ochre, brown, cream and blue and represents a standing figure in profile outlined with thick, dark brown lines. These form bold, semi-abstract shapes which give the central figure a geometric, bird-like appearance. The painting is signed by the artist in the bottom right corner.

Atlan made this work in 1953 by setting several layers of paint on top of each other, and these layers indicate that its composition was altered as Atlan worked towards finalising it. He applied the paint wet in wet, with scumbling in some areas and a paint thickness that varies across the surface from thin to impasto.

As the title indicates, the main figure in the painting is the Semitic deity Baal (or Ba’al), the god of storms and skies who began to be worshipped in ancient Egypt during the eighteenth dynasty (c.1543–1292 BC). Baal is traditionally depicted as a powerful warrior carrying various weapons, such as a sword, a club or a thunderbolt. In this painting, the figure stands with his left arm raised diagonally upwards as if preparing to strike with an object in the shape of a thunderbolt. His right arm is bent down towards his belly, holding an object in the shape of a slice of the moon that could represent a sword. The triangular shape painted at the lower left corner of the frame alludes to the pyramids of Egypt. Despite these clear references, the artist stated with regard to his selection of titles that: ‘what seems to suit my pictures best is a “poetic” suggestion mid-way between what would be in danger of deadening – or over-simplifying – the “mystery” of my forms’ (quoted in Alley 1981, p.24).

Atlan moved from Constantine to Paris in 1930 where he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. He began to paint in 1941 as a self-taught artist. Atlan’s early style was expressionist and abstract, with elements of figuration. His later works, such as Baal the Warrior, employed more geometric abstract forms, with bold contours of dark paint defining the figures. In 1942 Atlan, who was Jewish and a member of the French Resistance, was arrested by the Nazis. In order to avoid being sent to a concentration camp he feigned madness and was hospitalised in a psychiatric institution from which he was released when Paris was liberated in 1944. In 1946 Atlan met and became friends with the Danish artist Asger Jorn, one of the co-founders of the post-war European avant-garde group CoBrA (based in Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam and operating from 1948 to 1951). Atlan became involved with CoBrA and exhibited with the group in some of their large exhibitions (such as Amsterdam in 1949 and Liège in 1951) as well as in smaller shows. Baal the Warrior was displayed at the Tate Gallery in London in September 1990, alongside paintings by Jorn, Karel Appel, Constant Nieuwenhuys and Jean Dubuffet, all artists associated with CoBrA.

Further reading
Michel Ragon, Atlan, Paris 1962, p.23.
Ronald Alley (ed.), Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, p.24, reproduced p.24.
Jacques Polieri (ed.), Atlan: Catalogue raisonné de l'œuvre complet, Paris 1996, reproduced p.217.

Natasha Adamou
May 2016

Supported by Christie’s.

Display caption

As a Jew and a member of the Resistance, Atlan had been arrested by the Nazis during the Second World War. Feigning madness, he was committed to a psychiatric hospital from which he emerged when Paris was liberated. He was in contact with Asger Jorn and exhibited with CoBrA in 1948–9. His subsequent work combined abstraction with figurative elements. The title of this work refers to Baal, a Middle Eastern fertility deity, whose cult was regarded in the Judeo-Christian tradition as exemplifying the worship of false gods.

Gallery label, October 2016

Catalogue entry

Jean Atlan 1913-1960

T00300 Baal Guerrier (Warrior of Baal) 1953

Inscribed 'Atlan' b.r. and 'Atlan | peinture 1953 | BAAL | guerrier' on back of canvas
Oil on canvas, 64 x 51(162.5 x 130)
Presented by Mr and Mrs Alexander Margulies 1959
Prov: Mr and Mrs Alexander Margulies, London (purchased from the artist)
Exh: Salon de Mai, Paris, May 1953 (5) as 'Peinture'; Contemporary Jewish Artists of France, Ben Uri Art Gallery, London, October-November 1957 (5)
Repr: Arts, 15-21 May 1953, p.10; Bernard Dorival, Atlan (Paris 1962), pl.23 in colour; Michel Ragon, Atlan (Paris 1962), p.23

Atlan told Michel Ragon (op. cit., p.59) that although there was a period of some years when he let his works be known simply as 'Painting', he had since returned to his original practice of giving fuller titles, partly for the purpose of identification and partly to give the viewer a suggestion, a poetic indication. This did not mean that there was a subject decided in advance. 'In my case, what seems to suit my pictures best is a "poetic" suggestion mid-way between what would be in danger of deadening - or over-simplifying - the "mystery" of my forms ....'

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.24, reproduced p.24

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