Totemic Landscapes and Vanishing Cultures Through the Eyes of Wolfgang Paalen and Kurt Seligmann

Marie Mauzé


The Surrealists established the importance of Oceanic and North American Indian Art – mainly Inuit, Northwest Coast and Southwest – in the 1920s. While Max Ernst and André Breton traveled through the Southwest in the 1940s, during their American exile, two members of the Surrealist circle, the Swiss painter Kurt Seligmann (1900-1962), and the Austrian-born artist Wolfgang Paalen (1905-1959) visited the Northwest Coast, respectively in 1938 and 1939. Both not only showed a strong interest in collecting artifacts but were also fascinated by Native American mythology and art, and their relationship to totemic thought. While the Surrealists did not leave a large body of publications explaining their relationship to Northwest Coast art and culture, the various documents left by Seligmann and Paalen allow us to delimit three implicit themes in their work as described below. This paper focuses on their writings, published and unpublished, and their photographic documentation as well as their own collections of artifacts. It examines from an anthropological perspective their visions of Northwest Coast art and cultures, which undoubtedly contributed to the development of their sensitivity to the outside world. In that framework, their scholarly contribution and treatment of ethnological data appear independent from their artistic practices. Two distinct figures come to light: Seligmann as an ethnographer in contrast to Paalen as a theorist. While they may differ in their conception of totemic landscapes, they share a common view on the future of the Northwest Coast cultures.

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