Wols, Self-Portrait, 1932/33. That’s a cross.
When I walked out of Toby Kamp’s exhaustively researched exhibition Wols at the Menil, I felt as if I’d just walked out of a church. The anarchic Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze – like a priest given an unearthly sign – renounced his birth name and became Wols after a garbled telegram mangled his name.
Wols’ early drawings and watercolors bear the unmistakable stamp of Surrealists like Klee, Tanguy, and Masson, but his later oil paintings occupy an enigmatic space that opened up in European art after the trauma of two world wars, but before the hegemony of the United States made itself felt, and mid-century styles began to be catalogued by the art industry.
What was it about Wols and this brief, vague period in art history that gave me the impression I was looking at religious icons—an impression I never have after looking at Ernst, Magritte, Pollock or even Rothko? An important aspect of this misreading has to do with the fact that Wols is not exactly canonical. Virtually unrecognized in his lifetime and not very visible in ours, Wols is a blank page on which its easy to write our own stories, free from the limiting effect of canonization.
Drilled from the first survey course on the legacy and meaning of a Pollock it becomes nearly impossible to find in him anything other than the portrait created by Greenberg and LIFE magazine or the iconoclastic shattering of that image achieved by contemporary post-colonial readings. Walking into Wols with only a hesitant outline of who he is supposed to be, we project our own interests onto his work. The religious feeling was strongest in his oil paintings; the drawings and watercolors are too indebted to the stylistic conventions of early Surrealism to achieve the same blankness.
In the spirit of misreading and misinterpretation, articulated by Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, I am going to ignore the Wols of the drawings and watercolors and focus on the Wols of the paintings and photographs—the Wols that burrowed into my own preoccupations and fixations, giving me a picture of an artist who would likely reject my interpretation of his works.
What is the greatest Western legacy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? Is it the steam engine and the industrial revolution? The automobile? The information and communication systems of the internet? I still think the greatest Western legacy of the past two hundred years is the deconstruction of the Christian concept of god and the assumption of an existentialist identity given utterance in Nietszche’s claim that “God is dead” and narrative in Sartre’s Nausea and Camus’ The Stranger.
Christ Pantocrator – XIIIth c. Detail of a mosaic icon of the Deisis. Hagia Sophia, Constantinople
This deep and relatively sudden change in the Western perception of belief in a higher power occurred during some of the most devastating violence the world has ever seen: the American Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Churchill’s scorched-earth bombing of Dresden (where Wols was born and spent his early childhood). For many artists, these events belied the concept of a loving God personified in the Christ of the New Testament. For those unable to let the idea of God die, it might have seemed like the Byzantine Christ Pantocrator had returned to slaughter the Jesus of lambs and children.
An entire generation of mid-century artists and writers had experienced the fact that no amount of Enlightenment-age progress could rid people of their tribal fear and bloodlust. And so they began to rebuild their lives in a world without a god or a rational system they could believe in, but with a deep need for ritual and belief. The Surrealists established a church complete with saints and manifestos, Art Informel built a kind of provisional meeting-house, while the American Abstract Expressionists cultivated a utopian belief in art that paralleled American nationalism and economic supremacy.
City of Dresden after bombing
Existentialism created a complicated portrait of what life might mean in the modern age of nuclear weapons, chemical warfare and little hope of salvation. Without ritual and significance, the corporeality of life becomes the shockingly meaningless kind of existence portrayed in Nausea. It is no coincidence that Sartre had some knowledge of Wols and wrote about him, although his perception of him and his work as the dark product of a life without significance seems skewed.
Renée Jeanne Falconetti
Self-Portrait (Wols Grimacing), 1940/41
Unlike Sartre, I see Wols as a classically religious figure. In his photographic self portraits I see the holy fool—images that would be perfectly at home on the screen next to the anguished face of Renée Jeanne Falconetti in Carl Theodore Dreyer’s great film on religious conflict, La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc. His photographic still lifes of food that seems to be on the edge of decomposition and depictions of his seemingly dank studio have all the visual hallmarks of deprivation and asceticism that have come to characterize the monk in his cell.
But more than any other works in the exhibition, Wols’s oil paintings seem to me to have distilled the central composition and palette of religious icon paintings into a nearly abstract language.
Wols, Oui, oui, oui. 1946/7
Many of the paintings are quite obviously figurative, with eyes, mouths and torsos. The violent gestural painting in others evokes and even seems to represent viscera; blood, veins and flayed skin again evoking the suffering of classic Christian religious figures like John the Baptist, Jesus and any number of saints.
The Apostle St. Bartolomeo, Matteo di Giovanni, circa 1480
Several paintings are clearly representational and depict fish, hearts, a piece of bread or a radish—all objects that reinforce the notion of an ascetic diet and have strong connections to religious narrative and iconography.
Le Poisson (Fish), 1949
Wols died from food poisoning, a death that, to our contemporary minds, seems practically medieval, and adds to a sense of him as a religious artist.
For every association I see, another viewer could offer equally compelling alternatives, but my willingness to publicly offer such a subjective interpretation of Wols’ work has everything to do with the fact that the stakes of this misreading are low—I am able to see what I want to see without the fear of the monolithic but nonetheless fragile scaffolding of art history, criticism, and canonization crashing down on my head.
Wols, Voile de Veronique, 1946/47 or a piece of burnt toast
Words by Mar’yana Kovalchuk. Art by Sam Liacos.
On a daily basis we create relationships with the people and places around us. Sometimes we happen to know a person through another person. For instance, your friend’s grandfather who lives in the countryside, your brother’s university colleague, or your mother’s acquaintance that lives in another city. There is always someone who we hear a lot about, but have never had a chance to meet.
The way we imagine this person is based upon the narrative by another person and our own judgment. Not a minimum of direct contact. It’s like a character from a book. I find it one of the most fascinating things. Our perception is still about another human being, yet in many ways it’s also about us.
About a year ago I took on a challenge and went to Japan for a three-month internship at an architectural studio. At that time, my knowledge of the Japanese language was very poor, so in the beginning it was an agonizing nightmare to communicate. Enormous cultural shock sat on my shoulders like a hideous creature from a dark fairy tale, sending anxiety spasms through all my being, but I tried not to overreact. I would smile whenever I couldn’t understand something, try not to be too awkward about being the only alien, work hard, and excel at eating with chopsticks.
During my first weeks I would sit in a corner making a model, observing my colleagues’ backs, trying to figure out what was going on as I could hardly understand a thing and wondering whether there would be a sort of divine reward after this torturous experience.
Usually we would have dinner all together. One evening, during one of such dinners, I was listening to a conversation between some colleagues. In order to understand what was going on and learn Japanese, I had to be super observant. Many times I had to sneak in on other people’s conversations. I guess that time they were talking about after work hours. One of my colleagues, 28-years old, only two years older than me, said 妻 tsuma meaning “my wife.”
I was quite surprised that he was married. I had an idea that Japanese people wouldn’t marry very young. But I also knew that after marriage, many women would leave their jobs and stay home.
In Japanese there is even a word 主婦 shufu which can be translated as housewife, but originally it is not just a wife staying home and taking care of domestic affair, but literally “the main woman,” a powerful lady of household, freed of occupational labor and in charge of family affairs and decisions. It is said that in Japan during many years, and even now, it was a respected title; an ideal for many women.
Also, it is not a myth that Japanese society and people still prioritize work above everything else. In most Japanese companies, and ours is no exception, people work ‘til very late, many times almost ‘til midnight, which unfortunately leaves very little or almost no time for family or other personal matters.
After my initial surprise, I not only believed my colleague had a young wife, but started musing about her and their life together.
I thought that his wife must miss him so much. They probably saw each other around midnight after he came home. Or maybe she would be sleeping already…
I could imagine his wife right away. When I was working behind my desk, I would still look at his back and wonder about his wife and whether if tonight she would wait for him. Probably, she would. What a compromise, what a love, I thought. I could even feel it.
She’s thin, delicate, and elegant. She has straight black hair which is always the same length, but swings in circles, folds and unfolds according to her movements.
She walks as if she may be dancing. All her movements belong to some ancient mystic dance which is, at the same time, in tune with our day and age. As if her existence was timeless and infinite.
Upon the first impression, she seems rather cold or even indifferent. Her expression remains rather serious and there is a distant look in her eyes. Yet, when she smiles her eyes break into thousand bright stars. In fact, when one comes into her presence, they are embraced by warmth. There is something both motherly and childish in this warmth: she’s protective, yet playful. It’s difficult to leave her presence. And it’s not just an appearance, this very warmth is stark naked honest.
Only if she could, she would take care of everyone and everything in this world. Even, when she breaks, she’s grateful to love and be loved so much she even feels guilty. She thinks this love is a blessing.
She could be that young housewife I saw at the supermarket, quietly going about her shopping business or that elegant lady working part time in a florist shop.
In my imagination, my colleague’s wife seemed to be an image of love and devotion. I didn’t know her, yet I admired her deeply. I hoped I could meet her. I was sure I would meet her soon.
After about two months, when I could understand basic conversational expressions, somebody told me my senpai didn’t have a girlfriend, let alone a wife. Such a surprise, such a misinterpretation. I laughed at myself and tried to think about similar words to “wife” in Japanese. Probably atsumaru, “to gather,” a word used every now and then.
Officially imaginary, my His Wife didn’t disappear from my mind that easily. Whenever I came back to her, she would be there. Of course I realize it was a romantic idea, but in my imagination she wasn’t less real.
Then I was reading Jorge Luiz Borges. In his Ficciones, he tells about an imaginary universe where there are objects “produced by suggestion and brought into being by hope.” Because they are ideal they are no less real. Maybe my imagination of my colleague’s wife belongs somewhere in that universe: “A being brought by hope.”
I have stayed in Japan another year and gradually stopped thinking about my colleague’s wife. Yet without wanting to and accidentally as it happens, I have fallen in love with this funny and gregarious boy in glasses. By the way, he is Japanese and works the same crazy hours as me.
I could never imagine I would get into a relationship here in Japan with such a different person. I could imagine a nonexistent relationship, but not a possibility of me being in one. Or was it just a prelude? Hope? Expectation? “A being brought by hope.”
I feel there is a parallel between these two relationships, though one real and another imaginary. It takes so much patience. Sometimes we have dates after work so we wait for each other, just like the imaginary wife of my colleague. I smile at her, somehow her love and patience remind me of my own.
When me and my boyfriend decided to get together, I told him about all the possible problems we may face regarding me being a foreigner in Japan and my obvious struggle with the language. He said we can work on them together, so a problem becomes a challenge.
Of course there are many things against us: language, cultural difference, possible distance, families. But actually it has been so great to learn from each other. Though there are still many barriers, from the beginning I have never felt our communication was tough. On the contrary: it’s fun, he finds my mistakes and occasional misinterpretation amusing.
Once I wrote to him with an intention to say, “I miss it when it’s just two of us together.” But I missed an important nuance and a particle and wrote the opposite: «リンゴと一緒にいるときは寂しい» (“I feel lonely when I’m with you.”)
Luckily, リンゴ Ringo, “Apple,” a nickname I gave to my boyfriend because of his face turning instantly red after one glass of wine, found it odd and checked with me. We had a good laugh.
Are we going to marry? Will I become the same as my colleague’s wife? Probably not. She made me realize of what I could never be and a kind of life I could never live.
Of course, my His Wife is a mixture of misinterpretation, experiences, and impressions about people, relationship, love, Japan… Of course, maybe there is also a portion of truth. Maybe there is also a portion of myself. “A being brought by hope”? It seems almost a matter of timing, a prelude. Have I romanticized a being I would never like to be?
Soon, when I feel my level of Japanese is decent enough, I am going to tell my boyfriend about that time I misunderstood my colleague had a wife and for some time thought she was real.
Note: I didn’t misinterpret I’m in a relationship, though. But let me double check.