By SIMON COATES December 5, 2023
In his 1963 book, ‘Au-delà du Tachisme’, the artist and writer Georges Mathieu recalled visiting an exhibition of forty Wols canvases in 1947. Calling Wols the most important painter since van Gogh - and a better artist than both Klee and Kandinsky - Mathieu noted, “Wols has pulverised everything. After Wols, everything has to be redone from the beginning”. Born Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze in Berlin in 1913, Wols was a Tachisme progenitor, the public face of the Tachisme art movement that noisily influenced a new art dawn, both in Europe and the US. Strip away the art context and a tache is a speckle or liquid drop. The first recorded use of tachisme as an art descriptive came in 1898, when French art critic Félix Fénéon used the word to describe brushwork in Impressionist painting. Tachisme achieved art movement name status in Michel Tapié’s 1952 book ‘Un Art Autre’. Another Tachiste artist in his own right, Tapié’s book provided a snapshot of prevailing mid-century Parisian, anti-establishment art movements under the umbrella term l’art informel, positioning Tachisme at its vanguard, with Wols as its figurehead.
Wols was an outsider and an émigré. Having quit Germany for France in 1932, his nationality soon saw him interned by the French authorities as war began to brew in Northern Europe. Time in prison camps incubated Wols’s creative appetite. He grubbed small sketches from pencil and crayon stubs on scraps of paper and card held together with tape. Ruminating on the awfulness of war, the prospect of a life in exile, and the injustice of being thrown in jail for simply existing, he poured his thoughts into his artwork. By 1936 Wols had escaped internment and set himself up in Paris, working on his artwork while scraping a living as a photographer. His interest in the human condition led him to seek out Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Wols took inspiration from the pair’s existentialist explorations, folding their nihilistic themes into paintings and prints that disregarded formality and cultural tradition. When they first met, Wols impressed Sartre by reciting chunks of Sartre’s 1939 novel, ‘La Nausée’. Sartre became a fan, using prints by Wols’s primitive and gestural artwork to illustrate his own limited edition books. For Wols - as with the other Tachistes - the artmaking process was as important as the outcome. Inspired by the automatism (making art without aforethought) championed by the Surrealists, he threw paint onto surfaces without conscience, layer upon layer, scratching into the mess to build angry, chaotic reliefs. The resultant images are documents of the automatic actions Wols made during the painting process. Splattery, wild, and born under punches, this was Tachisme.
Meanwhile in Holland, the CoBrA group was also shrugging off convention. As with Wols, the Second World War had been an existential watershed for Dutch artists like Karel Appel and Corneille Guillaume Beverloo, leading them to question everything. Alongside other like-minded artists from European countries that had suffered Nazi occupation, they gathered in Paris in 1948, taking their collective, acronymic name from their home cities: Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam. True to the Tachiste ideology of throwing out old school tropes, Appel built wonky, childlike sculptures that were an antidote to classicism. His paintings were chunks of flat primary colours. Corneille continued the naïve theme, painting brightly coloured, heavily outlined birds, animals, and people without regard for perspective or plane. And, like Wols, the CoBrA team were disruptors. They hated the restrictions of mainstream, quotidian art, dismissing even the move to fashionable, contemporary abstractionism that had quickly become associated with big hitters like Picasso. Wols, Appel, Corneille, and the likes of French painter Jean Dubuffet (who named his own artistic approach Art Brut) and Danish artist Asger Jorn were defiant Tachistes, vocal about their position as the alternative to the alternative. Others joined the group. Pierre Soulages experimented with petrol, walnut oil, and pitch-black paint on canvas. Jean Fautrier worked on paintings inspired by the brutality of hostage-taking during Nazi raids. Hans Hartung used spray guns, brooms, and garden tools to grind out his work. Nicolas de Staël’s paintings broke landscapes into thick blocks of nursery school colours. Henri Michaux used his visits to Japan and China to inform his broad, calligraphic paint marks. Tachisme began to attract attention.
In the US, a contemporaneous style of expressionistic mark-making was taking hold. Fronted by Jackson Pollock, Sam Francis, Willem de Kooning, Norman Bluhm, and others, this style was similarly affected by post-war existential crises and a search for the new. Francis and Bluhm were academic in their outlook. They made no bones about aligning themselves with European Tachisme, sharing a studio in Paris in the early 1950s in order to learn how the Tachistes worked, both in practice (notably, the method of pouring paint directly onto surfaces) and philosophically (what does it all mean?). While Wols and the European crew dripped, splashed, and threw off all constraints, Francis and Bluhm took notes and assimilated their findings.
By 1955, American Abstract Expressionism had overtaken Tachisme on the outside lane, and the art world’s attention was turning from Paris to New York. For all its crackling originality, Tachiste artwork could be subtly lyrical and often small in scale. Pollock, the arriving Mark Rothko, and others, on the other hand, were producing huge, imposing pieces that were arguably less nuanced. Artwork size and graphic impact had become desirable, and collectors queued up to buy the freshly minted American work. Plus, the USA was emerging as a world-beating superpower. Technological breakthroughs accelerated by World War II meant that the country was at the forefront of everything edgy and exciting. American art made hay. By 1958 New York’s Museum of Modern Art had assembled ‘The New American Painting’, a blockbuster group exhibition of American Abstract Expressionism featuring eighty-five artworks by seventeen artists including Sam Francis, Pollock, Rothko, and de Kooning. However, instead of originating the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and then touring it around Europe, the curators chose to debut the collection at the Kunsthalle Basel gallery in Switzerland (where it ran concurrently with a major Pollock solo exhibit). The exhibition then travelled to key arts institutions in Milan, Brussels, Berlin, London, and - of course - Paris. In the UK, The Times newspaper said ‘The New American Painting’ exhibition was ‘...the finest of its kind we have yet had’, and called it ‘the aesthetic barometer why the United States should so frequently be regarded nowadays as the challenger to, if not actually the inheritor of, the hegemony of Paris in these matters’. The deed was done. By the time ‘The New American Painting’ show landed in New York in 1959, Europe knew all about American Abstract Expressionism, and Tachisme was cast aside.
As he grew older, Wols’s discomfort with his position as a stateless exile - and dissatisfaction with his position in an art movement that never received the praise it deserved - powered his ambition of moving to America. He never made it. Seeking solace in drink, Wols died a poor man in Paris in 1951, aged thirty-eight. In 2019, a Wols painting entitled ‘Vert Strié Noir Rouge’ sold at Sotheby’s in London for £4.53m. WM
Simon Coates is an artist, writer and curator based in London, UK.view all articles from this author