Wols
Biography of Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze.
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The Blue Phantom (1951)
Ludwig Museum, Cologne.

Wols (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze) (1913-51)

The German painter Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze, better known as Wols, was the short-lived, alcoholic 'primitive' of European Abstract Expressionism. Active mostly in France, he attended the Bauhaus Design School in Germany for a few weeks before quitting and moving to Paris in 1932, where he associated with the Surrealists and other hypermodern artists. He also produced his first paintings but worked primarily as a portrait photographer. During the war he went to ground near Marseilles, living in dire poverty, drawing and painting in watercolour. When the War ended, he turned his attention to abstract art in the form of oil painting, becoming associated with Art Informel, Tachisme and Lyrical Abstraction. Although he borrowed elements from a number of abstract art movements, he developed his own pictorial language. In addition to his "primitive" 20th century paintings, he also achieved recognition for his outstanding street photography.

POSTERS
Paintings by Wols
are also widely available online
in the form of poster art.

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Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze (Wols)
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A perfect example of the 'starving artist', Wols lived fast, and died young - of food poisoning. Viewed as a European equivalent of Jackson Pollock, though on a smaller scale, he became a master in the handling of paint and the exploitation of textures. Some of his best known works include: Painting (1944-5, Museum of Modern Art, New York), Cathedral (c.1945, Karsten Greve AG Gallery, St. Moritz), Composition V (1946, Musuem of Modern Art, Paris), Yellow Composition (1947, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin), Composition (1950, private collection), Bateau (1951, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), Blue Phantom (1951, Ludwig Museum, Cologne) and The Windmill (1951, Landesmuseum, Westphalia).

Early Days

Wols was born in Berlin in 1913. His father was a high ranking civil servant who was a patron of the arts, and was friends with many prominent artists of the time including Otto Dix. The family moved to Dresden in 1919 where Wols discovered an interest in the arts - painting and music. An excellent violin player, he was encouraged to play in an orchestra, but instead chose to apprentice as a photographer. In 1930 he attended classes at the Applied Arts in Berlin, and briefly at the Bauhaus Design School. He was advised by Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), Hungarian photographer/painter and professor at the Bauhaus to move to Paris, the centre of avant-garde art.

 

Moves To Paris

Heeding this advice, Wols moved to Paris in 1932, began actively working on his photography and showed at several Paris galleries. He became friends with a number of artists, including Max Ernst (1891-1976), Fernand Leger (1881-1955), Joan Miro (1893-1983), poet Jacques Prevert (1900-77) and writer Jean Paul Sartre (1905-80). He also painted - watercolours and drawings marked by an expressionistic and German anguish as well as a Surrealistic wit - but worked mainly as a portrait photographer, and taught German. He was given his first large commission as a photographer in 1937 at the Paris World Exhibition. Now mostly forgotten, his powerful black and white photographs include Men Sleeping (1933), Rolled Cheese (1939) and Doll in the Street (1938-39). He captured mundane objects and imbued them with an enigmatic, mysterious Surrealism. His photographs appear to have a textural quality, which at times is almost painterly. When World War II began, he was interned for a while in a camp near Aix-en-Provence. In 1940 he escaped and hid out near Marseilles, from where he tried desperately but unsuccessfully to emigrate to America. His failure may have driven him to alcoholism.

Post War Years

In the aftermath of the war, Wols focused on oil painting, graphic art and etching, although he battled constantly with his health. He produced a body of work which he called Zirkus Wols. It consisted of a number of innovative unstructured compositions in which randomness and spontaneity played a significant role. Before the war geometric abstraction was the dominant type of abstract art, but afterwards it was largely abandoned, as artists found it too rigid. Instead they sought a more intuitive, natural form of expression - an approach which first gained ground in America, where it blossomed in New York as Abstract Expressionism. Europe soon followed suit with its own version, known as Art Informel.

Tachisme and Lyrical Abstraction

Along with Jean Fautrier (1898-1964), Georges Mathieu (1921-2012), Hans Hartung (1904-89), Canadian Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002) and American painter Sam Francis (1923-94) - all based in Paris - Wols became heavily involved in two sub-variants of Art Informel, known as Tachisme and Lyrical Abstraction: Tachisme is an animated style of gestural painting, while Abstraction Lyrique is a softer, more subtle version. Wols was a constant innovator and painted mainly for himself, in an attempt to exercise his own demons. Some of his abstract paintings have a light, floating quality, such as Blue Optimist (1951) which demonstrates qualities of Joan Miro. Others have a more painterly quality, where vibrant brushstrokes scratch at the canvas, like a man scratching at the walls of a prison cell. In most, his brushwork is free, gestural and unplanned, while his use of colour creates an arena for for his squiggles, which contain more than a hint of a microscopic, molecular universe. Wols' work won him the praise of artists such as Mireille Mathieu (b.1946) and the critic Michel Tapie (1909-87), who coined the term Un Art Autre - the commonly used synonym for Art Informel.

Reputation

In the last few years of his life Wols regularly fell ill due to alcohol-related illnesses. His last works were mainly ink and wash paintings. He died of food poisoning in 1951. Though largely unrecognised in his lifetime, he became known posthumously as the 'primitive' of Art Informel, and one of the leading figures of expressive abstraction in Europe. Even his bleak Rimbaudian life was hailed as a success in the Existential sense in which identity is asserted through action, and was very influential during the 1950s.

Paintings by Wols can now be seen in some of the best art museums throughout the world.

• For more biographies of European abstract artists, see: 20th Century Painters.
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