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Alice Rahon

Rahon

Alice Rahon. Self-Portrait and Autobiography, 1948. Wirt D. Walker Endowment, Major Acquisitions Centennial, Luella Thomas, Samuel A. Marx, Simeon B. Williams Endowment, and Maurice D. Gelleher funds.

Also known as
Alice Paalen, Alice Marie Yvonne Philppot, Alice Rahon Paalen
Date of birth
Date of death

Born in Chenecey-Buillon, France, Alice Rahon (born Marie Yvonne Philppot) attended Surrealist gatherings as a young woman living in Paris. Invited in 1935 by André Breton to join the Surrealist group, Rahon published several volumes of poetry, including À même la terre (On Bare Ground) (1936) and Sablier couché (Reclining Hourglass) (1938). While journeying through the Pacific Northwest alongside her husband, Austrian-born artist Wolfgang Paalen, and photographer Eva Sulzer in 1939, Rahon began making drawings that were inspired by the totemic carvings she encountered there. While Rahon and Paalen’s relocation to North America was intended as a brief respite from World War II, their self-imposed exile from Europe lasted decades. They joined the community of avant-garde artists in Mexico City and Rahon found a new creative voice in painting, pursued along with sculpture, marionette theatre, and filmmaking over the next 40 years.

Rahon’s first paintings were supposedly created from the leftover bits of paint that she scraped from Paalen’s palette, and images of her drawings and paintings were printed in the interdisciplinary journal he edited Dyn (1942–44). Drawn to the hybrid form of the tableau-poème, which combines text and image, Rahon first exhibited her paintings in January 1940 at the International Exhibition of Surrealism in Mexico City. Taking inspiration from the Mexican landscape, she incorporated natural elements—such as black sand and ash, as well as dried leaves, feathers, and occasionally butterfly wings—into her works. After establishing a richly textured surface, and often while it was still wet, she would incise the paint surface with a stylus, blending painting and drawing, and inscribe intricate networks of linear figures reminiscent of the earliest forms of Paleolithic painting (as in Peau de soleil, 1944). Her surfaces became increasingly matte and dry, evoking the texture and subtle luster of sandpaper overlaid with cloud-like applications of raw pigment (as in Self-Portrait and Autobiography, 1948). 

Recalling an influential 1933 visit to the famous early cave paintings in Altamira, Spain, Rahon remarked, “In earliest times painting was magical; it was a key to the invisible … the value of a work lay in its powers of conjuration, a power that talent alone could not achieve.” After becoming a Mexican citizen in 1946 and divorcing Paalen in 1947, the artist reanointed herself as Alice Rahon, claiming her mother’s maiden name and establishing an independent identity.

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