Kurt Seligmann  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Kurt Seligmann (1900 - 1962) was a Swiss-American surrealist painter and engraver, known for depicting an imaginary world populated by medieval troubadors and jousting knights engaged in macabre rituals and executed with an expressive violence. His best known work is the 1938 L’Ultrameuble.


Seligmann was born in Basel, Switzerland, in 1900, the son of a furniture department store owner. His parents were not in favor of his artistic aspirations, but eventually relented. After study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Geneva, and several unhappy years working in his father's furniture business in Basel, Seligmann left for Paris where he looked up his old friends from Geneva, the sculptor Alberto Giacometti and the art critic Pierre Courthion. Through Giacometti he met Hans Arp and Jean Helion, who admired his pared down biomorphic paintings with a sinister cast and invited him to join their group, Abstraction-Création. In the mid-1930s his work began to take on a more baroque aspect, as he animated the prancing figural forms in his paintings and etchings with festoons of ribbons, drapery and heraldic paraphernalia. It was about this time (1935) that he met and married Arlette Paraf, a French girl who was a grandaughter of Nathan Wildenstein, founder of the Wildenstein Gallery in Paris, London and New York. Together the two traveled extensively, first around the world (a year-long honey-moon trip in 1936) and then to North America and the North West Coast of British Columbia (1938) to satisfy their interest in American ethnographic art and culture. In 1937, Seligmann was formally accepted as a member of the Surrealist group in Paris by André Breton, who collected his work and included him in Surrealist exhibitions.

At the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Seligmann was the first European Surrealist to arrive in New York, ostensibly for an exhibition of his work held then at the Karl Nierendorf Gallery. Once there, he began a concerted effort to aid his Surrealist colleagues left behind in France and bring them to safety. The copius correspondence he maintained during this difficult period is preserved today at the Beinicke Rare Book Library at Yale University.

Seligmann's art continued to evolve and really matured in the 1940s in the United States, where he did his best work. Beginning in 1940, he and Arlette lived at the Beaux Arts Building at 40th Street in New York, and later acquired a farm north of the city in the hamlet of Sugar Loaf, in Orange County. Seligmann befriended many American artists and became a close friend of the art historian Meyer Schapiro. With Schapiro as author of the text, he produced in 1944 a limited edition set of six etchings illustrating the Myth of Oedipus, surely his masterpiece in this medium and one of the greatest works of Surrealist printmaking. As the Surrealists' expert on magic, he also wrote The History of Magic (Pantheon Books, 1948). Mythology and esoterica always informed the fascinating and turbulent imagery of his "dance macabre" paintings, and his work began to be exhibited widely and acquired by museums throughout the United States and Europe after the war.

Seligmann taught for many years at various colleges around New York, particularly at Brooklyn College, from which he retired in 1958. The changing nature of the New York art world toward an embracement of Abstract Expressionism caused his work to be relegated to past history. Due to illness, he gave up his New York apartment and retired to his farm, where he died of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound in January 1962. His widow died in 1992.


  • Sawin, Martica, Surrealism in exile and the Beginning of the New York School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1995
  • Seligmann, Kurt, The History of Magic, Pantheon Books, 1948

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Kurt Seligmann" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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