Journal of Surrealism and the Americas, Vol 8, No 1 (2014)

Surrealist Views, American Landscapes: Notes on Wolfgang Paalen’s Ruin Gazing

Kent Dickson


The painter and writer Wolfgang Paalen, who travelled through British Colombia and Southeastern Alaska in 1939, published a highly baroque travel account of the initial stages of his journey under the title “Paysage totémique” in Dyn (1942-44). Seeing Paalen’s text as an exemplary case of surrealist literary landscape in the Americas, the present article traces the ways in which concepts of ruination and mimeticism, in addition to Paalen’s particular theory of the origins of artistic vision, lead him to depict a landscape characterized by a series of cominglings. The observer and the landscape, the primitive work of art and the forest, the work or forest and primal myths whose origins go back to a magical/biological substrate—all of these dissolutions, mimickings or cominglings define a kind of liminal landscape that undercuts monolithic human subjectivity. Paalen applied the term “specific space” to the ways in which the work of art mimicked its environment and vice-versa, each standing in tension with the other. I propose that it is this very “specific space” of comingling which defines the totemic landscape for Paalen. His totem poles both arise from the forest through the mimetic processes, and decay back into the forest through a will to dissolution (or ruination) which is itself affected through mimetic processes. At the point where art blinks out, where with a slight shift of focus one sees a mythical bestiary either carved by human hands or by the chance agency of fire, Paalen sought the source of artistic vision.

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