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Circus at the End of History:

Wols in the Late Thirties and Early Forties*

Joseph , University
of British

lesintellectuels de lafin
franais desannes trente, C'estdansce contexte qu'ilfautreplacerla production la
de dessins,
quirejetaient laparticipation
politiquerdactiond'aphorismes et la prparationd'unvasteprojetmulti-mdia,
Pouretlarsignation ilnerestait
dmissionnaire, souvent qu'une sortede itinrant
etpopulaire, leCircus
Wols,quipermirent l'artiste une
rvolte dontlaconduite
del'inespoir deBataille
etsapolitiquedel'impossiblepriodeapparaissant plusieurs
comme unevritable fin
modlederfrence.QuantWols, cetAllemanddevenu l'informalit
et l'insignifiance
radicaledugribouillis, olafigure
apatride autour
quigravitait de ce milieuparisien
engag,ilexprimenta humaine effectueunrepli versl'animalit
etlaviecellulaire,se prsentent
danslamonte de ladroite
gnralise etdansladclaration
de laguerre comme unestratgied'ultimersistance Ilenvade
face ladsintgration.
biendavantagequ'uneforme d'alination ilfutincarcr
morale: pendantmme del'laborationducirque,unlieusymbolique dontlaviseprincipale
plusd'unandsledbut duconflit. serait
de rendrel'homme heureux.

takesas itsfocusdrawings
article andaphorisms produced
inFranceinthelatethirties by Otto Wolfgang Schulze, more
This commonly knownunderthepseudonym Wols.Theaccount
thatfollows willattempt to retrieve tracesofan individual history
from a periodviewedatthetimeas theendofhistory, a periodthat
almostsucceededin rendering a figure likeWols,a German-born
artistin Franceon theeveofwar,intocomplete anonymity. Draw-
ingssuchas thetwo-headed Janus portant l'aquarium (fig.1), and
Le cirque quej'adore(fig.2), hiswritten aphorisms, andhisintended
multi-media projectCircusWolswillbeviewedas mediations seek-
ing to continue a criticalproject within a politicsof the impossi-
ble.1Europeaneventsofthelatethirties placedtighter andtighter
constraints on Wols'personal freedom, anditbecameincreasingly
difficult foran engagedartist andintellectual to haveanyfaithin
traditional of and
systems politics thought. Wols* angryand fre-
netically scribbled his and
drawings, pathetic pessimistic exhorta-
tionsin writing, will be seen as objectsrepresenting his own
particular stateofnothingness anddisplacement at theendofhis-
To putit another way,thisessaywillattempt to construct a
history ofsomeone whohasnohistory. Already problems arise:how
is itpossibleto keepan accountofWolsfromturning intoa study
oftheindividual artist/authors interior emotive state,sincetheonly
tracesthatareleftfromthistimearetheworksthemselves? How
can a history of "le peintremaudit," a tormented and misunder-
stoodgeniusdrivenbytheinnerturmoil ofhiscreative lifeto an
existence tragicallymarred bypoverty anddrunkenness, beavoided?
Theseapproaches arethetakeofthemajority oftheWolslitera-
ture,including thatofhispost-war spokesman Werner Haftmann,
whoopenedhisdeluxe1965 coffee tablebookon Wolswiththe
artistsfollowing aphorism as a frontispiece: "Fromtheoutsetlife
acquaintsyou/ withsuffering/ and suffering helps. . . / it brings
out/whatis in you(avalanches thatcannotbe heldback)".2And
withthesocialhistory ofartandpoststructuralisms assaulton the
formal andbiographical approach to theindividual andhisorher
worksin favour ofmethodology incorporating analyses '.Janus
ofinstitu- Figure portant ,ca1940,
l'aquarium penand ink
ongrey-green 27x 18cm,
paper, private
tionalanddiscursive frameworks thatare,in thecaseofarthistory collection I993/YIS*ART
(Wols Copyright
anyway, circulation, reception, function, and market playof art dealers,no critics,no collectors,and no patronage.Leftwiththe
objects, how can a study of Wols be but
anything reactionary? For and
drawings writings alone,often done on whateverscrapsofpa-
thereis nextto no market forhisworkin thisperiodto study, no perhecouldscrounge, theaforementioned lacunascouldveryeasily


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