Nova, 1946, the cataclysmic nuclear explosion caused by the accretion of hydrogen on the surface of a white dwarf star, was among the works that Wolfgang Paalen created beginning in 1941, in which he transmits an emotional synthesis between the macrocosm and microcosm. This "magnetic field of emotion"--as referred to by Gustav Regler in the monograph written with Paalen's aid and which illustrates this work on the cover--was developed as World War II was raging. Paalen, who believed in the possible, as opposed to what could not be, sought to convey interstellar spaces through constellations that evoked human faces as survivors of destruction. When he exhibited them in Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery in New York City, in April 1945, he wrote in the catalogue that they were meant to evoke cosmic consciousness by confronting the viewer with the question "What do you represent, you passerby?
Although painted in San Angel, Mexico, where Paalen arrived and settled on September 7, 1939, and although its psychological origin was an attempt to create a poetic transcendence out of the ravages of war, Nova has its iconographic roots in Amerindian Art. Paalen had collected artifacts and other objects during his travels along the northwest coast of North America, including Alaska, Canada, and British Columbia, where he was surprised to find an art that he had imagined and painted long before he knew of its existence and which became the visual source of the imagery that he created thereafter until shortly before his untimely death.
Yet, Paalen's quest was much more complex than it appeared. In 1940, he began the struggle to integrate in his work answers to questions such as, "What is right with science and why does it work?" and "What is wrong with art in our time and why does it not work?" What Paalen was really struggling with was a need to understand creative imagination further. He wrote to André Breton attempting to engage him in a friendly dialogue, wanting him to redefine his theory of Surrealism. When Breton declined, a disappointed Paalen broke away philosophically from Hans Arp, André Breton, Paul Eluard, Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, Man Ray, Joan Miró, and Yves Tanguy, and from the movement that had embraced him so wholeheartedly just fours years earlier and whose ideas he had embraced in becoming an important artist and theoretician.
Paalen's creative force was not, however, one to be inhibited or stopped, certainly not by the opinions of others. To conceptualize his newfound theories, Paalen offered words to accompany the series of face paintings that preceded the creation of Nova, providing also a reading of this work: "I do not imitate your eyes, the picture says, but I am your dreamy look. Do you recognize me? Tomorrow I may belong to someone else. I may be wiped out by the desperate painter, because you have destroyed me in yourself, I am not insisting on being, because I am only the link in the chain. I may say with the old image, 'I am the short stretch where the parabola comes out of the infinite, turns and returns into the infinite.'" (1)
Salomon Grimberg, Dallas, Texas, March 12, 2008
(1) G. Regler, Wolfgang Paalen, New York: Nierendorf Editions, 1946, 65.