Kurt Seligmann (1900-1962) was born on July 20, 1900 in Basel, Switzerland. In 1920, Seligmann studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Geneva. He later went on to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. In 1927, he moved to Paris and began exploring the style, technique, and vision of Surrealism in his art.
Seligmann’s career evolved during the late 1930s and 1940s, when he was a member of the Abstraction Creation Group in Paris. When he moved to New York with his wife Arlette in 1939, he became one of the first members from the Parisian surrealist movement to settle in the area. There he began exhibiting at the Karl Nierendorf Gallery, a space where such artists as Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Paul Klee (1879-1940) also showed. His move to New York allowed him to become immersed in the Abstract movement taking place in the city. In addition to having regular exhibitions in various New York galleries, Seligmann also taught at Brooklyn College and Briarcliff Junior College. It was during this time that he also designed sets for dance and ballet groups.
In 1940, Seligmann and his wife moved to a farm in the small town of Sugar Loaf, New York where, during his career, they had regular social interactions with his fellow surrealist colleagues, such as Alexander Calder (1898-1976), Yves Tanguy (1900-1955), Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967), and art historian and critic Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996). Throughout the 1940s, Seligmann continued to participate in exhibitions in New York, including one in which the proceeds benefited war relief for French children. In addition, Seligmann was interested in magic and the occult. In 1948, he wrote his first and only book on magic, entitled The Mirror of Magic.
Seligmann returned to Europe for vacations, though never for long stints. He and his wife kept a home in Paris that they frequently rented out to European painters. The couple made their final trip to Paris in 1949 to visit family and friends. Upon their return, Seligmann taught at Brooklyn College and gave lectures throughout the East Coast as both an artist and a professor. His style continued to be an inspiration to his fellow artists. Seligmann was long interested in psychoanalysis and implemented ideas of the theory in his work. His portfolio also included aspects of fantasy and the unrealistic. At the same time, it explores the inner psyche and the unconscious as it related to his artwork and surrealist inspirations.
The period between World War I and II was a tumultuous time in which Surrealism flourished. Seligmann’s explorations of the inner psyche are perhaps further commentaries on the general state of mind and disillusionment taking place at the time. His work, similar to fellow surrealist, Salvador Dali (1904-1989), explored not only the complications within the human mind, but also the instability of the outside world. During Seligmann’s time, this instability was the result of war. This instability manifested itself in his works through the way he manipulated abstract forms to resemble human figures. The reference to the human form is an acknowledgment that the artist has not neglected the reality of the physical realm in his work. By using human figures, along with surreal, fantasy-like figures, Seligmann reconciles the realm of the unconscious with that of the physical.
His imaginary sequences were feasts for the mind, with his bold use of color and enigmatic figures. Stephen Robeson Miller, of the Orange County Citizens Foundation, analyzed Seligmann’s work by saying “a characteristic Seligmann painting depicts a kind of dance macabre in which anthropomorphic figures- comprised of an amalgamation of armour, heraldic devices, ribbons, cloth, helmets, feathers, bone and ceremonial paraphernalia- cavort in unknown rituals in darkly cavernous, yet undetermined, space.” Miller goes on to explain that these characteristic Seligmann paintings are evidence of the psychoanalysis studies going on at the time, as well as the conflicts over war that were taking place. Just like human dreams can be vague and ambiguous, so are Seligmann’s paintings. In fact, he exploits this ambiguity to further his own cause, and express his own goals as an artist. His surreal sequences call for analysis and contemplation, just as the events in Europe at the time did.
Seligmann drew much inspiration from European art of earlier periods. The imaginative, visionary sequences he creates in his surrealistic paintings can be tied to fantasy paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries of Swiss and Bavarian art. In doing so, Seligmann creates a tie between the old world and the new world, adding a historic context to his art. Furthermore, Seligmann used different historic periods and artistic periods as inspiration for his own art. Seligmann took inspiration from artists such as Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), as many of his paintings employ cube-like geometric shapes, and Dali, with his dreamlike sequences. Some of his paintings are also allusions to Greek mythological figures. An example of a painting for which Seligmann used historical inspiration is his painting Leda (oil on canvas), dated 1958. The painting is a surreal depiction of the story of the Greek king of the gods, Zeus, who takes on the physical embodiment of a swan in order to seduce/rape a beautiful woman, Leda. Using muted colors, enigmatic, stringy shapes, and somewhat familiar figures, Seligmann transforms this centuries-old tale into a modern, fantasy-like scene.
From the 1930s, when he began his career as a Surrealist in Paris, until his death in 1962, Kurt Seligmann was a monumental figure within the Surrealist movement especially in America. During a time of psychological exploration, societal disillusionment, and international warfare, Seligmann’s work looked within. Using bold colors, enigmatic shapes and figures, and inspiration from other historical and artistic periods, he painted pictures of the irrational and scenes one can only understand in dreams. As Stephen Robeson Miller suggests, his paintings embody “aspects of his personality, background, and temperament.” Seligmann put himself behind his paintings, and used his background, his state of mind, and his own personality to create distinct works of art.
At the age of 61, Kurt Seligmann died of an accidental gunshot wound while on his farm in Sugar Loaf. His wife bequeathed part of his estate to the Orange County Citizens Foundation of Sugar Loaf, New York. She dedicated the rest of her life to preserving the memory of her husband.