Richard Oelze was born in Magdeburg, Germany, on June 29, 1900. He trained as a lithographer (1914-1918) and learned nude drawing in evening classes where he develops his artistic palette, served in World War I, and receives a scholarship (1919-1921) to study art with post-impressionist painter Kurt Tuch.
Then he joined the Bauhaus in Weimar and later in Dessau (1921-1925), studying with Walter Gropius (master of modern Architecture, founder of Bauhaus school), Moholy-Nagy (the avant-garde artist and designer) Swiss expressionist Johannes Itten and privately with Paul Klee the Swiss-German painter who by that time was part of The Blue Four (with Wassily Kandinsky et al). Little is know about Oelze early art-style.
He moved to Dresden in 1926, quickly becoming part of the local art scene, and met Will Grohmann, an art historian and the “Godfather of Modernism,” who was to influence his work considerably. Oelze took courses at Dresden’s Academy, where he studied the work of Otto Dix (German painter, Neue Sachlichkeit with depictions of brutal war) worked as an assistant at the Art School in Dresden. During that time he met Hans Richter (German Dadaist) with whom he collaborated on photography projects and film productions.
After moving to Ascone (Switzerland) in 1929 he encounters Surrealism for the first time. Oelze became friends with Paul Citroen (Holland-Dada created by the Dadaist Kurt Scwitters in Amsterdam) and after just a year in Switzerland and a divorce from his first wife back in Germany, Oelze left for Paris in 1932, where he became fascinated by the works of Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Max Ernst.
Although his social circle included Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Andre Breton, Rene Crevel, Tristan Tzara, Leonor Fini, Victor Brauner, and the art critic Mathilde Visser, not many people felt they knew much about him, other than that he was extremely introverted, had few language skills, lived in misery and was addicted to opium. Oelze rarely joined the surrealist activities such as “Cadavre exquis” (group collaborations), preferring to work alone: “they (surrealists) are afraid of me, that I will hit them for a loan” he confessed to Mina Loy.
To enter the Oelze’s paintings is to be immediately surrounded by embryonic forms floating through pre-human landscapes. The experience is, in the words of Andre Breton, “somewhat otherworldly,” and it comes courtesy of an artist as mysterious as his works.
Searching for the next genius artist, Julien Levy (Surrealist art dealer, with gallery in New York 1930) asked Mina Loy (who served as Parisian representative for his gallery) to contact Oelze. According to Carolyn Burke’s Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy: “Oelze suffered from a number of ills: an inability to communicate (he spoke only German), poverty, isolation and semi-starvation.” He saw himself as a character by Kafka, and in fact he was a persona non grata in France as a German subject, without residence papers.
Oelze opened up to Loy, in part because she spoke German, also because she “loaned” him money in lieu of future sales and was a perfect companion on his rare outings.
Loy and Oelze likely had an affair, though it was probably more a mental than a physical one. Although younger than Mina by 18 years, he was, as she observed, “strangely pitiable in a premature old age.” Her novel Insel, written 1933-36 in part from notes made from their conversations, features a Oelze-like character who hates his own naked body and is afraid to go to a public bath; every time he is touched he reacts with an involuntary nervous tic. He seems to be able to manage sex only with black prostitutes, often in pairs: “his ebony wives and his ivory eroticism in appraising thighs.”
In her essay “Insel and the Modern Genius” in Reading Mina Loy’s Autobiographies: Myth of the Modern Woman, (Bloomsbury, 2013), Sandeep Parmar writes, “Oelze’s story provides a backdrop for her [Loy] contemplations of the nature and condition of genius.”
In her novel Mina confesses that: “I saw why Insel (R.O.) and I had that fundamental understanding clochard to clochard of those who are fated to failure.” She felt a “primordial affinity with a presumed mad man.” “Insel himself had fearsome hands, narrow, and pallid like his face, with a hard, square ossification towards the base of the back, and then so tapering as if compressed in driving an instrument against some great resistance. (Insel, Mina Loy, Black Sparrow Press, 1991).
By the 1930s, nightmares and premonitions were becoming themes of his work and his paintings increasingly featured dream-creatures, a combination of animal and plant, plant and human, human and animal. In the painting Daily Tribulations (1934), the fears and difficulties experienced by Oelze one year after the Nazis had taken power in Germany, were given visual form. Morbid forms in a river dominate the composition and block like a hedge any view into depth.
As a painter, Oelze practiced semi-automatism paintings, akin to frottage (a technique similar to decalcomania, invented by Ernst), in which he randomly chose grains and textures and contours and painted them into a world of swirling chimeras and ghostly apparitions. Mina called him a “congenital surrealist.”
His canvas “Expectations” (1935-36, Museum of Modern Art), depicting 23 hat-wearing men and women with their back to the viewer staring up at a very dark sky, remained in Mina Loy’s apartment after Oelze left for Switzerland, haunting her. “Whenever I’m in a room with it,” she wrote, “ I catch myself looking at that sky—waiting for something to appear.” This particular oil on canvas is considered by art historians to be Oelze’s masterpiece of figurative surrealism before he abandoned it to more biomorphic/abstract surrealism. Under an ominous sky, the well-dressed group of onlookers appear as if scared by the sound of an invading aerial army, a premonition of June 14, 1940 German occupation of Paris, foreshadowing the historical tragedies to come. A creepy greenish light infuses the landscape as if sucking the crowd into the menacing landscape, as witnessed in the startled expression of two characters looking backwards toward the viewer. The deep perspective of this picture is unusual in Oelze’s work. The clarity of the realism of the human figures is contrasted with the dark forms of vegetal growth; both dissolved by a cool and alien coloration cast over them by the deep sky.
Oelze work is full of dreamscapes and strange accumulations of biomorphic creatures, mostly faces and eyes tucked deep into sockets, to form dilapidated structures as in Troglodyte Wall (1957, oil on canvas) or Instead of Flowers and Blood (1963, oil on canvas), an “installation” of bellybuttons and soft cheeks, sexual nooks and crannies.
The war caused a nearly 10-year break with work that began in 1940, when Oelze was drafted by Nazi-Germany, then after the defeat, held as a POW. His renewed artistic search in the 1950s was a direct product of those lost years, featuring vaguely human silhouettes gazing at improbable landscapes, such as At the River of Complaints (1955, oil on masonite), and innumerable other works rife with smoking eyes and ethereal faces, all in geomorphic, drug-induced distortion. One of the most striking works of that period titled In One of the Following Years (When Also of Another Beauty II) (1967, oil on canvas), which depicts a female colossus staring at the viewer, small homunculus apparitions covering her body.
Oelze explores Frottage and unusual patterns with biomorphic figures and distorted faces as if they are made out of melting wax, some morphing into birds, plants, phantasmagorical animals or indiscernible vaguely human, nightmarish ghosts.
Gerard Durozoi in History of Surrealist Movement (in English by Alison Anderson-University of Chicago Press, 2002) notes: “Oelze depicted signs of imminent catastrophe landscapes in shreds devastated by winds of mysterious origin, figures pray to an uncertain waiting (Expectative, 1935)…painting was (to R.O.) a companion to clairvoyance”, (with it’s) “diffuse and disturbing ambiance, belonging to an extension of German Romanticism with it’s taste for dark and turbulent earth, a lack of differentiation between the background and the figure.”
As Durozoi comments: “The visionary automatism (of R.O.) seemed rich in warnings but offered no message, content to show what might be aroused in what was for Oelze undoubtedly to come an imminent future.”
As predicted he suffered the humiliations of a conscript in a support crew for the Luftwaffe during WWII and at the end as a prisoner of war. This suffering triggered severe depression and Oelze ceased all art activity for ten years.
Oelze was represented in most of the important Surrealist exhibitions, starting with the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington in London and Fantastic Art, Dada & Surrealism at MoMA, both in 1936, followed by Marcel Duchamp’s First Papers of Surrealism (1942) in New York.
After the war he went back to an artists colony at Worpswede where he worked till 1962.
Considered by art historians as the one of the important German surrealists Oelze was invited to the international exhibits in Germany, Documenta II (1959) and Documenta III (1964) in Kassel as it happens together with Christian d’Orgix a painter profoundly influence by Oelze’s whose work he encountered as a young artist in Berlin 1955.
In Valley of Josaphat (1969) we see stacked figures like the dead trophies in a catacomb ossuary as in Paris. Most of their eyes are closed except for a reclining figure peering over its shoulder towards the figure with eyes rounded in fear. The title refers to the biblical passage: “I will gather together all nations, and will bring them down into the valley of Josaphat: “Then I will enter into judgment with them there”, on behalf of my people and for My inheritance Israel, whom they have scattered among the nations and they have divided up My land.”
Another aspect of his work are the imaginary portraits, such as Der Jacobiner (1951), super-imposed medieval face upon a revolutionary bust, with ghostlike eyes as if the image were disappearing beneath the viewers gaze. In Imaginary Portrait, a figure of indeterminate gender with rouged lips and with dark hair in the shape of a beret, possibly of mixed race, stares intently. In Head Study (1954), a distorted face is split evenly between female and male halves, the female with an angry glare and the male icily calm behind the glare of a monocle.
According to Roberta Smith, “But mostly the animate and inanimate collapse into strange, pulpy edifices and landscapes composed of little, fistlike mounds of flesh that are pocked with hooded eyes, stubby profiles or nonspecific protuberances; sometimes faces and figures are discernible. These organic facades vary in density from fog-bound, land-locked solidity to levitating, torn-paper thinness, with sky showing between the cracks.
But they are primarily velvety accumulations of marks and textures, gauzy and layered like a series of scrims, a kind of eyes-wide-open automatism in which Oelze explored his dreams and his obvious loneliness while revealing the world’s fertile rottenness”. (Oelze’s works from the 50’s & 60’@ Ubu Gallery: NYT-Apr.27, 2007).
In the Art Dictionary: Surrealism (Hatje Cantz, 2002) entry on Oelze: “Equally ghostly and unsettling are the dream-worlds created by Oelze, the most significant German surrealist. His landscapes are populated by teeming plant-life and demonic beings.” In several studies for paintings hybrid creatures dominate, such as the horse-and-bird compilation of Ornithology Portrait (1968) and in that for The Many Worlds Ends (1967), a humanoid male and feline chimera that appears also in the final version in a sphinx-like stance.
Another subject of his research into self-representation are a series of selfportraits. In a photograph, he’s seen looking into a mirror while behind the mirror is his face again transposed onto canvas while yet another portrait lurks darkly in his shadow, as if another personality emerged from behind.
Later in life, when he was 62, Oelze moved to Weserbergland and lived there in almost total isolation. “I never want to look like a painter (“Ich möchte nie wie ein Maler aussehen”), but his work still turned up in numerous shows. With time he grew too weak to paint and too nervous even to venture out of the house. Toward the end of his life he received many recognitions and awards (among them Max-Beckmann-Preis) and was elected a member of the Academy in Berlin (1965). He died in Postholz near Hameln May 27, 1980, one month shy of his 80th birthday.
Physical isolation for periods of sometimes longer than a decade did not prevent him from an abundance of images and visions in his mind, characterized by a fusion of imagined landscapes and figural composition with details in the manner of the old masters.
First published 2019 in The International Encyclopedia of Surrealism, edited by Michael Richardson, Vol II, p. 135.