Catalogue entry

T04845 Untitled c. 1944–5

Black ink, watercolour and gouache on wove paper 92 × 135 (3 1/2 × 5 1/4)
Inscribed ‘WOLS’ b.r.
Purchased at Sotheby's (Grant-in-Aid) 1986
Prov: Acquired from the artist by Samy Chalom ?1945; sold Sotheby's 26 June 1986 (667, repr. in col.)
Exh: Original Eyes: Progressive Vision in British Watercolour 1750–1850, Tate Gallery Liverpool, May–Aug. 1991, (58, repr. in col., back cover); Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism 1945–55, Tate Gallery, June–Sept. 1993, (131, repr. in col.)
Lit: Tate Gallery Report 1986 – 8, 1988, p.72, repr. (col.)

In T04845 ink contours delineate a form that can be read figuratively as a head with an eye, or the cross-section of a tree trunk. Similarity with a real object, however, cannot be conclusively asserted. The image is coloured with watercolour washes. The central motif is red with mauve-blue edges and is surrounded by a halo of pale yellow. The ground is predominantly mauve-blue with red areas.

This work was painted by Wols in southern France, where he lived during the Second World War. Interned in September 1939 by the French as an enemy alien, Wols was released in October 1940 because his companion Gréty Dabija, whom he married shortly afterwards, held a French passport. They lived in Cassis, near Marseille. Although they finally obtained visas for the United States in 1942, the couple missed the last ship to leave Marseille before the German troops occupied the south of France. From December 1942 Wols and Gréty Dabija lived in, and just outside, Dieulefit, near Montélimar. When the area was liberated by the Americans in the spring of 1945, Wols was suspected of being a German spy. He was eventually given a ‘stateless person’ passport and was permitted to travel to Cassis in the autumn of 1945. He travelled on to Paris in December that year.

In common with almost all Wols's work, T04845 was left undated and untitled by the artist. However, it has been dated on stylistic and thematic grounds by Ewald Rathke, a dealer and art historian who has specialised in the work of Wols since the mid-1960s. The appearance of this work is similar to that of a number of other sheets that have been dated by Ewald Rathke to 1944–5. In conversation with the compiler on 30 November 1992, Rathke said that the works made towards the end of Wols's stay in Dieulefit became progressively smaller until shortly before Wols returned to Paris, when the sizes increased. Rathke concluded that T04845, which is small in size, was made towards the end of Wols's stay in southern France. In her essay ‘Fakten zum Werk von Wols’ (Wols: Bilder, Aquarelle, Zeichnungen, Photographien, Druckgraphik, exh. cat., Kunsthaus, Zürich 1989, p.52), the art historian Sylvia Rathke-Köhl supports this argument and dates works with dimensions similar to those of T04845 to 1944–5.

In the Zürich catalogue Wols's works on paper are divided first chronologically, then into groups based on what Rathke described as ‘variations in visual ideas’ in Wols's work. In conversation Rathke said that T04845 did not precisely fit any of the groups identified in the catalogue. However, he said that its image was related to the group described as ‘Nuclei and Ribbon Forms’, 1944–5 (repr. ibid., pp.148–53, pls.71–8 in col.), as well as to the group of ‘Reductions’, 1944–5 (repr. ibid., pp.145–7, pls.67–70 in col.), which he described as concerned with the ‘materiality of the image’.

In conversation Rathke described how Wols's imagery in T04845 and similar works resembles natural objects and materials. However, he suggested that Wols so qualified his images that no conclusive identification can be made, even though Wols drew them ‘as if they could be real’. Through this similarity to natural objects and materials, which Rathke described as a ‘parallel manifestation’, the viewer is led to analyse the work afresh. Rathke referred also to Wols's practice of taking details of existing works as the starting point for other images.

These characteristics are evident in photographs taken by Wols in the period 1932–41. Wols's photographs capture a strangeness in natural objects and show a fascination for waste and decay. He created or found odd juxtapositions of objects, and photographed these generally in close-up. Textures and structures are shown in intense detail (see, for example, photographs of the glistening surfaces of a woman's lips, repr. Zürich exh. cat., 1989, p.348, pl.10), the structure of sliced kidneys (repr. ibid., p.346, pl.8), and the skinned carcasses of animals (repr. ibid., p.347, pl.9). Two photographs showing a cut of meat, exposing the socket of a ball-and-socket joint which can be easily mistaken for an eye, are reminiscent of the central motif in T04845 (repr. ibid., p.369, pl.34, p.371, pl.38). In both images, the circular form becomes the focus of the image and the nucleus for a pattern of expansion. Such photographs suggest the influence of certain Surrealist photographers, for example, the close-up photographs of natural objects revealing unexpected forms in Brassai's ‘Sculptures involontaires’, 1933 (repr. Rosalind Krauss and Jane Livingston, L'Amour fou: Photography and Surrealism, exh. cat., Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington 1985, pp.38–9, pls.28–31). Comparisons can be made between Wols's motifs and Roger Parry's close-up of a mouth in ‘Untitled’, 1931 (repr. ibid., p.67, pl.59), or the waste objects in Parry's ‘Untitled’, c.1929 (repr. ibid., p.110, pl.102).

Wols's photographic still lifes relate closely in their motifs and composition of space to his watercolours. He began making watercolours and drawings in the late 1930s. Their often organic forms show the influence of Surrealism, in particular the works on paper of Yves Tanguy, André Masson and Max Ernst. A familiarity with the work of Paul Klee can be seen in his small, spindly line drawings, which depict grotesque figures in architectural settings. In the early 1940s Wols's imagery began to be more invented rather than recognisably figurative. Centred on the sheet and floating in space, his organic, microcosmic structures are suggestive of orifices (eyes, sexual organs) or more abstract patterns of natural growth, biomorphic mutation and metamorphosis.

Several eyewitness accounts describe Wols's working method and his daily routine during the years when T04845 was produced. Henri-Pierre Roché, Wols's friend and a collector of his work, recalled in ‘Souvenirs sur Wols’ (Wols: Gouaches de la collection Henri-Pierre Roché, exh. cat., Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris 1958, [p.4]): ‘he sat comfortably on his straw mattress, with his back lent against the wall, his dog at his feet, his bottle, his pipe, his banjo, three tiny colour pots, his pen and two small brushes on the floor within reach. And always one or two watercolours in progress’. In a letter to the collector Pierre Lévy in 1945, Wols's wife states that he worked from the morning until about five in the afternoon on his drawings, and, following his meal, would continue working until midnight (quoted in Zürich exh. cat., 1989, p.57). Rathke-Köhl commented, ‘it would appear that the cold or the lack of electric light [in Dieulefit] did not stop Wols from working’ (ibid., p.57).

After returning to Paris in December 1945 Wols began making paintings. The delicate patterning, lines radiating from the edge of the motif and colouring of ‘Blue and Red’, c.1946 (private collection, repr. ibid. p.265, pl.211, in col., as ‘Bleu et rouge’), suggest a close relationship to T04845 in motif, colour and texture. Wols scratched lines into the paint to create the feathery, filigree structures similar to those found in T04845. In an unpublished note on T04845 made for the purpose of authentification, Rathke noted a relationship between the eye motif in the Tate Gallery's work and a later oil painting, ‘The Eye of God’, c.1948–9 (private collection, repr. ibid., p.294, no.240, in col., as ‘L'Oeil de dieu’). His works attracted the admiration of a group of writers and artists who recognised that Wols had invented a distinctive way of painting (known later as ‘art informel’, or informal painting) which neither broke with figuration nor turned to ‘pure’, geometric abstraction.

T04845 formerly belonged to Samy Chalom, a Parisian antiques dealer who had a shop in the rue Faubourg Sainte-Honoré, Paris. For a while Chalom may have lived in or near Cassis at the same time as Wols. According to Rathke, Chalom acquired two early oil paintings and some watercolours directly from Wols. Both oils date from the early 1940s and depict the town of Cassis. One is now in a Swiss private collection (see ibid., p.225 cat. note no.179). The other oil was part of a group of Chalom's works, which included T04845, auctioned in London in 1986. The sale also included three watercolours from the 1940s, together with an oil and watercolour on paper from 1949. The works in the Chalom collection were not closely related in style or theme. In a letter to the compiler, Rathke-Köhl wrote that two further watercolours, originally part of Chalom's collection, were auctioned in Paris the same year. Both were titled ‘Forme imaginaire’ (repr. Hôtel Drouot, Paris, sale cat., 18 March 1986, nos.129–30 in col.). In the Zürich catalogue, Rathke-Köhl reported that a watercolour of c.1940–1 entitled ‘Janus’ was thought to have also belonged to Chalom (Zürich exh. cat., 1989, p.123, no.40). Rathke believes the works by Wols comprised the only contemporary works in Chalom's collection. The compiler, however, was unable to check details of Chalom's collection with his family.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996