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Biography

Kurt Seligmann was a Swiss-American Surrealist painter, graphic artist and writer. Kurt Seligmann was born in Basel as the second child of the furniture dealer Gustav Seligmann and his wife Helene Seligmann-Guggenheim, a relative of the art patron Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979). After Kurt Seligmann had already taken private art lessons in Basel with the painters Ernst Buchner (1886-1951) and Eugen Rudolf Ammann (1882-1978), he began studying art in Geneva at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1919. There he also met another local art student, Pierre Courthion (1902-1988), who became known as a poet, art critic and art historian and with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship. Another of Seligmann's fellow students was Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966). In February 1920 he had to break off his studies in order to reluctantly work in his parents' furniture shop. In 1927 he succeeded in freeing himself from this obligation. In 1928 he travelled to Florence, where he resumed his artistic training at the Accademia delle Arti. In January 1930 he took courses at the Académie moderne in the class of Fernand Léger (1881-1955), which he abandoned disappointedly after a few weeks. In the course of 1930, Seligmann's artistic development showed greater clarity and stylistic certainty, which was rooted in his intensive study of Arp's work. In October 1930 Seligmann had the opportunity to exhibit his works in the Salon des Surindépendants and thus was able to gain the first recognition of fellow artists. Seligmann re-established contact with Courthion, who had been living in Paris since 1927, and was encouraged by him to continue on the path he had taken.

At the instigation of Jeans Arp, Seligmann became a member of the Parisian artists' association Abstraction-Création at the beginning of 1931, thus overcoming his artistic isolation. Seligmann's paintings from this period show influences from Arp and Miro and bear witness to Seligmann's conflict between the anti-figurative doctrine as represented by Abstraction-Création and figurative Surrealism in order to find his own style. This conflict resulted in Seligmann's attempt, together with the Japanese Taro Okamoto (1911-1996), to proclaim neo-concretism, which, however, was unable to assert itself as an independent movement.

In February 1932 Seligmann exhibited at the Parisian gallery Jeanne Bucher, and in May 1932 various works by Seligmann were shown in Basel on the occasion of the opening of the Kunsthalle. With these exhibitions Seligmann's artistic breakthrough was achieved. During this time Seligman became a member of the Basel Group 33, followed by several exhibitions in France and England. At the end of 1933/beginning of 1934 two portfolios with etchings by Seligman were published by Les chroniques du jour in Paris: first the Protubérances cardiaques with 15 sheets, later the portfolio Les vagabondes héraldiques, also with 15 sheets, each of which was assigned to a poem by Courthion. In November 1934 André Breton (1896-1966), together with Hans Bellmer (1902-1975) and Richard Oelze (1900-1980), admitted Seligmann to the Surrealist movement.

In 1935 further exhibitions followed in Milan, Rome and again in Paris. On November 25, 1935 Seligmann married the six years younger Frenchwoman Arlette Paraf, the niece of the influential art dealer Georges Wildenstein; Max Ernst and Jean Arp appeared as witnesses. At the famous exhibition Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, which opened on 17 January 1938 in the Galerie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Seligmann was one of the most prominent artists after Max Ernst and Joan Miró with 13 works on display. On September 2, 1939, one day after the German invasion of Poland, the Seligmann couple left France to emigrate to the USA on the ocean liner Île de France. On September 9, 1939 the Seligmanns arrived in New York.

Already during his trip to Canada in October 1938, Seligmann visited the New York gallery owner Karl Nierendorf (1889-1947), a German art dealer who had already come to the USA in 1936 to examine exhibition possibilities for himself. On September 27, 1939, two and a half weeks after the Seligmanns' arrival in New York, Seligmann's first exhibition in the USA was opened in the rooms of the Nierendorf Gallery. At this time, Seligmann had already distanced himself sharply from Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), who was recognized in the USA as the "supreme surrealist", because of his pro-Nazi statements.

On January 17, 1940, the fourth international surrealism exhibition was opened at the Galeria de Arte in Mexico City with Seligmann's participation; in March of the same year he had a solo exhibition at the New York New School for Social Research. After he had purchased a printing press, Seligmann gave graphic art lessons in New York. Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996), professor of art history at the New School, whom Seligmann met as early as 1939, sent students to Seligmann and recommended him for a position as art teacher at Briarcliff Junior College, 40 km north of New York City on the Hudson River.

In May 1940 the Seligmanns were naturalized by the US immigration authorities, not least because of their solid financial situation. In the same year, the American writer Charles Henri Ford (1913-2002) became aware of Seligmann and gave him the opportunity to publish his essay Terrestrial Sun in the yearbook of the literary journal New Directions in Pose & Poetry, which deals with the anthropocentric concept of hermeticism and thus touches upon occult themes.

In June 1941 André Breton and André Masson (1896-1987) arrived in New York with their families. Seligmann introduced the new arrivals to his gallery owner Nierendorf to give them the opportunity to contribute to their livelihood with their artistic activities. Due to Breton's immobility, the relationship turned out to be very difficult and since March 1943 the friendship between the two was severely disturbed after Seligmann had publicly corrected Breton in a discussion about the Tarot. In 1945, after Breton's return to Paris, there was a final break.

Already during his trip to Canada in October 1938, Seligmann visited the New York gallery owner Karl Nierendorf (1889-1947), a German art dealer who had already come to the USA in 1936 to examine exhibition possibilities for himself. On September 27, 1939, two and a half weeks after the Seligmanns' arrival in New York, Seligmann's first exhibition in the USA was opened in the rooms of the Nierendorf Gallery. At this time, Seligmann had already distanced himself sharply from Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), who was recognized in the USA as the "supreme surrealist", because of his pro-Nazi statements.

On January 17, 1940, the fourth international surrealism exhibition was opened at the Galeria de Arte in Mexico City with Seligmann's participation; in March of the same year he had a solo exhibition at the New York New School for Social Research. After he had purchased a printing press, Seligmann gave graphic art lessons in New York. Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996), professor of art history at the New School, whom Seligmann met as early as 1939, sent students to Seligmann and recommended him for a position as art teacher at Briarcliff Junior College, 40 km north of New York City on the Hudson River.

In May 1940 the Seligmanns were naturalized by the US immigration authorities, not least because of their solid financial situation. In the same year, the American writer Charles Henri Ford (1913-2002) became aware of Seligmann and gave him the opportunity to publish his essay Terrestrial Sun in the yearbook of the literary journal New Directions in Pose & Poetry, which deals with the anthropocentric concept of hermeticism and thus touches upon occult themes.

In June 1941 André Breton and André Masson (1896-1987) arrived in New York with their families. Seligmann introduced the new arrivals to his gallery owner Nierendorf in order to give them the opportunity to contribute to their livelihood with their artistic activities. Due to Breton's immobility, the relationship turned out to be very difficult and since March 1943 the friendship between the two was severely disturbed after Seligmann had publicly corrected Breton in a discussion about the Tarot. In 1945, after Breton's return to Paris, there was a final break.

From 1951 Seligmann took up a teaching position at the New School for Social Research through Schapiro's mediation; from 1953 he gave courses at the Department for Design at Brooklyn College; on his farm in Sugar Laof he offered summer courses in graphic techniques. He continued teaching at Brooklyn College until 1961. In November 1956 Seligmann went on another trip to Paris, which he extended until May 1957; it was his last, although he booked another passage to Europe for the summer of 1958, which he had to cancel for health reasons. In March 1958 Seligmann received notice to quit his studio in Bryant Park, which he finally gave up with a heavy heart at the end of 1959, and since then he has lived only in Sugar Loaf. On 31 March 1958 he suffered a heart attack, which he recovered from after six weeks.

Nevertheless, in June 1958 a planned solo exhibition of Seligmann's work was opened at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, which was also shown at the Pennsylvania State University in a slightly modified form. Also in 1958 Seligmann parted ways with his long-time art agent Kirk Askew (1903-1974). With the support of his new agent Otto M. Gerson (1902-1962), Seligmann was given the opportunity again after five years to show his new paintings in a solo exhibition at Fine Arts Associates, Inc. of which Gerson was the managing director.

In April 1961 Seligmann exhibited at the D'Arcy Galleries in New York, a few months after the first Surrealist exhibition in America since 1942 was shown in the same rooms, in which Seligmann was not allowed to participate at Breton's instigation. The exhibition was very extensive and already bore the character of a retrospective honouring of Seligmann's life's work. In November 1961 a delegation from the Whitney Museum of American Art visited Seligmann in Sugar Loaf to select a painting for the forthcoming annual exhibition of contemporary American painting. The choice fell on Fantoche, an oil painting from 1961.

Artworks Kurt Seligmann