Shapeshifter: Bisexual Surrealist Poet Alice Paalen Rahon Unmasked in New Compilation

by Mark William Norby

Bay Area Reporter

Tuesday September 14, 2021

author Alice Paalen Rahon with a necklace by Pablo Picasso
author Alice Paalen Rahon with a necklace by Pablo Picasso   

Surreal, Surrealist, Surrealism. How often the words are used to describe an inner eddy of image and energy, cosmic forces, deep inner angels and avatars emerging from within, born into existence without. Enter Alice Paalen Rahon, frequently simply Alice Rahon, a Surrealist poet and painter largely overlooked but reemerging in a new compilation of poetry.

In the new complete collection "Shapeshifter" (New York Review Books), Rahon rises again, this time having found her true place in the world. She gave shape to Surrealism that didn't die with André Breton in 1966, or even eventually with the death of Salvador Dalí in 1989.

"Shapeshifter" presents both the original French poems and brilliant English translations by Mary Ann Caws, distinguished professor emerita of French, English, and Comparative Literature PhD program at the Graduate School of the City University of New York.

Alice Paalen Rahon was born in Chenecey-Buillon, France, June 8, 1904. "Shapeshifter" is the first complete compilation of Rahon's three books of poetry, most of them extremely rare and virtually impossible to find. One, "Sablier couché - Reclining Hourglass," has only six known copies. Infused with mythology, magic, memory, meaning, Rahon's poems and paintings awaken psyche, soul, mind and the agency of primitive spiritual hauntings found in dreamwork.

Valentine Penrose and Alice in India in 1936.
Valentine Penrose and Alice in India in 1936.  

She married Austrian-Mexican painter, sculptor, and art philosopher Wolfgang Paalen in 1934. As Alice Paalen, the two traveled widely, joining inner circles which included, among others, writers André Breton, Phillipe Soupault, Valentine and Roland Penrose, Paul Éluard, and Anaïs Nin; filmmaker Luis Buñuel; painters and visual artists Pablo Picasso (with whom she had a love affair), Leonora Carrington, Paul Klee, Man Ray, Joan Miró, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo.

To understand the complex conditions of early 20th century socio-cultural artistic movements in Europe from which she came, consider Futurism (beginning about 1909), Dada (commencing in and around 1916), and Surrealism (1919-1920 onwards). Not only overlapping in chronologies but in similarities, the developments contained in their artistic breakthrough possessed calls to smear and to blur one's self in the bewilderments and fantasies of art.

The art movements resisted the shackling madness of world wars and what followed, from the birth of the liberal Weimar Republic to the contrasting rise of Adolph Hitler in 1933, and the devastation that followed. Artists in these movements were driven abroad, many into exile. As Futurism largely died out due to its developing fascistic leanings — in 1924 the socialists, communists and anarchists walked out of the Milan Futurist Congress — Dada carried on.

Revealing Stories, Exalting Mysteries
In 1917, Dadaist Guillaume Apollinaire introduced Soupault to Breton, the latter known as the principal theorist and father of Surrealism. In 1924, Breton issued the "Surrealist Manifesto" after having broken with Tristan Tzara and the Dadaists. By breaking with the group, Breton embarked on an adventure to marry Surrealist writings, particularly poetry, with painting. Breton envisioned poems as the voice of paintings, revealing stories, exalting mysteries displayed upon canvases and, together, talismans to viewers.

Four years earlier, Breton and Soupault released the first book of Automatic Writing, "The Magnetic Fields" (New York Review Books, 2020). It was through automatic writing where Rahon found herself on multitudinous journeys across the globe and into her unconscious mind, where the Surrealists believed art lived and waited to be unleashed upon the world.

In 1936, "Éditions Surrealistes" published Rahon's first work, "À même la terre - On Bare Earth," her first poetry collection, which caught Breton's attention. That same year, during Rahon's journey to India, she met up with poet Valentine Penrose, whom she had first met in Europe. Her first reported love affair with a woman, Rahon's life enlivened, both women expressed lesbian attributes present in their work at that time.

Rahon found previously unexpressed love with Penrose, the two women consummating their affair in India (her unconsummated marriage to Paalen eventually ended in divorce). In India with Penrose, new work emerged, a more liberated voice, fresh content and Surrealism evolving, her bisexual tendencies first appeared in "Sablier couché - Reclining Hourglass" and, later, in "Noir Animal - Bone Black."

Here, as collected in "Shapeshifter," Rahon rattles the cage of love unrealized, love yearning for release. Taken from "A même la terre - On Bare Earth":

"Grotte de bronze / Grotto of Bronze"

Grotto of bronze
amplifier of tempests
of the two hemispheres
where shadows cannot die

the stone owl's head
keeps watch
over the town of the sailors
Limbos of unborn springs
of stifled loves
under false lovers coupled
false presences
false windows
to the walls of night
false virtue of the weak

our bones curling in fire
desert turned ash from waiting
where the madwoman with the mirror reigns


"Deux petits rideaux blanc / Two Little White Curtains"

Two little white curtains
side by side
Like two parakeets
Await all winter
For the reign of the North to arrive

And these granite rooms
stretch out their arms in vain
to shivering singers all winter
oh stool
stool
bird of all the
collapsible tenderness


"Si une boule se repose de rouler / If a Ball Stops Rolling"

If a ball stops rolling
if trees flower flaming in the winter
if the markers wait where the roads meet
if the seat to the right of the Father is always taken
what does it matter

I want to remove from your dress
these thorns keeping you
under this vaul
where tenderness the knot
of all the roads does not shine
archer arrow of his bow

A painting by Alice Paalen Rahon
A painting by Alice Paalen Rahon  

A deep Camaraderie
Ultimately Rahon returned to Europe. Still married to Wolfgang Paalen, the two went on extensive travels through British Columbia and the United States. The photographer Eva Sulzer joined them at one point. Kahlo knew the Paalens and Sulzer were on the North American continent and invited them to Mexico City. The Paalens and Sulzer took up her invitation.

Kahlo and Alice Paalen Rahon found deep camaraderie in their physical impairments, both severely injured in the pelvic region in accidents during childhood. Through a shared love of canvas and color, their bond grew, and Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera invited the Paalens into their inner circle of artists in Coyoacan, the location in Mexico City of Casa Azul — the Blue House, Kahlo's family home she inherited from her father.

But in Mexico, unsettled inside, she began to turn away from writing and turned to the canvas. With Kahlo she was able to flower, becoming the brilliant painter she is known more so than as a poet. In reading "Shapeshifter," one can find the two art forms are, in fact, inseparable, as Breton had seen them a hundred years ago. Riches fill the collection, photographs, poems that break out to prose and complete prose texts originally published in Wolfgang Paalen's art magazine, Dyn.

Eventually, in 1947, the Paalens divorced and Alice changed her name to Rahon, spending the rest of her life in Mexico City. In her new home in the San Ángel neighborhood, not far from Kahlo at Casa Azul in Coyoacan, Rahon became a pivotal figure in bringing abstract expression to Mexico.

New York Review Books publishes vast collections of the finest literature in the world. The book publishing arm of The New York Review of Books, their published works are available at www.nyrb.com and at independent booksellers — City Lights in North Beach and Fabulosa in the Castro.

For direct connection to the paintings of Alice Rahon, contact Gallery Wendi Norris in San Francisco. www.gallerywendinorris.com

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