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The Artist’s Experience: Kurt Seligmann and the Spiritual in Art. An introduction to "The Winged Boat: Lectures and Lecteurs" a zine featuring Kurt Seligmann's 1940’s lectures for the New School of Social Research, "Artist Canvas Reality" with other selected authors, Seligmann Center for the Arts, New York. October 2016.



This article looks at the context of European artists who fled to North America during World War II, including Marcel Duchamp, Andre Breton, and Claude Levi-Strauss. Kurt Seligmann, who arrived in 1938, assisted Varian Fry in bringing others over. The article looks at his ideas in lectures he gave at the New School for Social Research in New York, c. 1942-45.
inged Boat
lectures and lecteurs
Artist Canvas Reality
by Kurt Seligmann
Talk 5
Artist Canvas Reality
Kurt Seligmann
Kurt Seligmann
e Lectures
Copyright 2016
Kurt Seligmann Center
Sugar Loaf, New York 10918
is publication produced by the Seligmann Committee.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced,
without written consent of the Seligmann Center at
the Orange County Citizens Foundation.
e Seligmann Zine Committee
Mary Altobelli-design and production
Olivia Baldwin
Janet Hamill
Daniel Mack
William Seaton
Foreword by Celia 6-11
Seligmann Lecture .............................pages 13-27
Jesse Bransford 12
David Horton 14
Olivia Baldwin 16
Bonnie Croskey 18
Janet Hamill 20
Daniel Mack 22
Mary 24
William Seaton 26
Summary by William Seaton 28-29
between the artists, Fry and institutions such as
the Museum of Modern Art to release artists from
Nazi occupied Europe including Max Ernst, André
Masson, André Breton, and Marcel Duchamp. He
petitioned Alfred Barr, Director of the Museum of
Modern in New York, to provide letters and visas to
come to the United States for those hidden by Fry
in the Villa Air Bel near Marseille. He urged Barr
and his wife Marga Scolari Barr, to invite Breton to
lecture at the Museum of Modern Art. Everyone
knew that this invitation provided a visitor’s visa,
and once in the United States Breton would stay.
Seligmann’s work to bring others to safety in World
War II remains uncharted, because his archives at
Yale are not catalogued.
Despite Seligmann’s eorts to secure his visa, Bret-
on expelled him from the surrealists in 1943 when
they disagreed on the meaning of a tarot card. Mey-
er Schapiro, who became Seligmann’s friend aer
they landed in New York in 1939 (on the same
boat) witnessed the exchange, described this even
in a 1991 interview:
ere was a falling out between Seligmann and Breton.
Breton was the head of a surrealist circle, which met regu-
larly to have discussions and to listen to talks on subjects
selected by Breton. At one meeting he included instructions
for the group’s next project: to occupy itself with the subject
of magic. He wanted them to try and create a new twen-
tieth-century set of Tarot cards, which would symbolize
moral states, practical states, social manners, and politics.
When Breton was explaining his plan to those who knew
nothing about the Tarot, Seligmann, who knew a great
deal about magic and later wrote a scholarly book about
it, corrected him. For this, Seligmann was ostracized by
Breton and forbidden to attend further meetings.
By the end of 1943, surrealist activities excluded
Andre Breton
e Artist’s Experience:
by Celia Rabinovitch
Director of Research, Seligmann Center for the Arts
July 2016
Kurt Seligmann wrote down his thoughts on the
artist’s experience in the early 1940’s. e years
1940-43 were extraordinary ones for him, combin-
ing wild successes with tragic ris. Seligmann lived
in New York City aer immigrating to the United
States in 1939. Earlier, in the summer of 1938, he
travelled to research the totems of the Gitxsan and
Tsimshian people in British Columbia, Canada.
is signicant ethnographic investigation was
conducted with respect for cultures he contacted.
His art was shown in the rst American surrealist
exhibitions, e First Papers of Surrealism, and
the Artists in Exile exhibition at the Pierre Matisse
Gallery in New York in 1942. ese shows placed
him in the avant-garde of European émigrés who
changed the course of American art, turning it from
social realism towards the artist’s gesture, a feeling
for materiality, and a commitment to the authentic
and automatic expression of the artist’s hand.
In the summer of 1941, André Breton arrived in
New York with Claude Lévi-Strauss, for whom
Seligmann obtained a totem pole for the Musée de
l’Homme in Paris in 1938. Duchamp arrived the
following summer, and his friendship with Selig-
mann ourished as he visited the Seligmanns on
their new farm in Sugarloaf, New York, once ring
ve bullets into the base of the chicken coop wall.
Duchamp used a photograph of the bullet holes as
the catalog cover for the Papers of Surrealism, cu-
rated with André Breton in October 1942. Breton
recognized Seligmann as the surrealist authority
on magic; he was immersed in studies of the occult
and supernaturalism and had joined the surrealists
in 1937. In 1943 Seligmann contributed an engrav-
ing, “Magic Circle” as the frontispiece to André
Breton’s poem, Pleine Marge published by Nier-
endorf Gallery in New York. Seligmann’s creative
achievements pointed to the embrace of a great in-
tellectual and artistic community.
It is a neglected fact of history that Seligmann as-
sisted the young American classicist and diplomat,
Varian Fry, in the Emergency Rescue Committee of
the Red Cross to bring endangered European art-
ists and intellectuals to North America. Between
1939 and 1942, Seligmann maintained contacts
I. History and Personalities
Kurt Seligmann and the
Spiritual in Art
le to right - Max Ernst, Jacqueline Lamba, Benjamin Peret,
Andre Breton, Varian Fry
page layout and design by Mary T. Altobelli
a quest for meaning through art itself. New move-
ments in art transformed the occult revival of the
late 19th century, aligning it with new researches
in art, mind and science. e residue of late 19th
century ideas connected symbolism, premonition,
dreams, and the occult, to the psychoanalytic work
of Freud, Wilhelm Reich, and Jung. Wit, the un-
canny, eros, and psychosexual themes manifested in
works by Schiele, Munch, Beckmann, Picasso and
the early surrealists. Seligmann joined the Abstrac-
tion-Creation group founded by Hans Arp and
Jean Hélion in Paris in 1931, driving his impulse
towards the potential meanings of abstract art.
Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual In
Art (1912) depicted the modern artist as a prophet
whose truth was expressed in pure, mystical ab-
straction, and that colors were music that moved
the soul. eosophy leavened the mix with the pe-
rennial philosophy that found unifying force of the
world revealed through a change in perception. e
mystical experience of “the All in One, the One in
All” informs all of Seligmann’s work, reinforced
by his study of correspondences between symbols
and traditions as taught by the Christian Kabala.
He explored these currents to create a new view of
magic, the sacred and religions. With a small in-
heritance from his father, and an endowment aer
his marriage in 1935, he collected antique books in
Italian, Latin, Greek, and German. He read neo-
Platonists such as Marsilio Fincino and Pico Della
Mirandola, and the mysticism of the Kabala and Ja-
cob Boehme. e force of magic recurs as a theme
in his art, culminating in his book, e Mirror of
Magic, also titled Magic Supernaturalism and Re-
ligion, published in 1948 by Pantheon under Eu-
ropean émigrés Kurt and Helen Wol, who began
the press in 1942.
Seligmann’s talk centers on these three themes:
perception, imagination, and memory. Each aspect
of mind governs the artist’s creative process. He
oers an original theory of mind that grants the
imagination equal powers as abstract reason and
empirical perception:
Our plastic (author’s note: visual art) experience is a dou-
ble one: that of perceived reality and that of remembered
reality. To this we should add a third element, namely
imagined reality…
Perception – remembered reality – imagined reality - are
the three kinds of plastic experience. ey are interrelated,
acting one upon the other. (2,3)
is theory of mind derives from modernism,
whose thinkers understood art not as a product of
reason as in the Enlightenment, or as a direct ex-
pression of emotion, as in Romanticism, but as a
multi layered experience given visual form. While
both the Enlightenment and the Romantic artist
believed the world ordered by divine forces, the
modern world rejected religions and found spiri-
tual experience in aesthetic, psychological, or phe-
nomenological forms. World Wars I and II dealt
a mortal blow to traditional religious belief. Mo-
dernity boldly stemmed from thinkers as diverse as
William James, Sigmund Freud, and Gaston Bach-
elard. Virginia Woolf, and Henri Bergson explored
time in the stream of consciousness and duration,
while poets such as Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Wil-
liam Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens opened
the way to heightened perceptions. Eliot used am-
biguity and embedded meanings, Williams elicited
Seligmann, and friends ignored him to avoid Bret-
on’s disapproval, including his former student, Rob-
ert Motherwell. Seligmann was declared persona
non grata. Peggy Guggenheim, a distant cousin and
the wealthy art collector whom Seligmann worked
with on the Emergency Rescue Committee, com-
pounded the rejection by
pursuing a painting by Max
Ernst that the Seligmanns
owned. When Arlette and
Kurt refused to sell it to her,
she threatened to expunge
Seligmann’s art from her col-
lection, and in 1946 made
good on her word. Despite
the continued friendship of
other surrealists such as Yves
Tanguy, these events drove
Seligmann’s sense of personal
exile, rst from his native
Switzerland, then from Paris,
and now from his surrealist colleagues.
Seligmann was at the center of the spiritual revo-
lution triggered by surrealism. But he was unlucky.
Shunned by Breton, and by Guggenheim, he de-
ned himself through his writing, art, and lectures.
Artist, Canvas, Reality appeared in a box labeled
New School- 1951 provided to the Beineke Library
in the 1990’s. It must have been presented earlier,
before the ri with Breton in 1943. e simple rea-
son is that Seligmann’s talk warmly cites a conver-
sation with André Breton concerning nature and
art that occurred three weeks earlier. ey had no
communication aer the ri in 1943, so the date
of 1951 is incorrect. Since he arrived in New York,
Seligmann was involved with the New School for
Social Research with an exhibition of etchings and
drawings in March 1940, and a group show, Adven-
tures in Surrealist Painting, in 1941. Severed from
Breton in 1943, it is incongruous that in 1951,
Seligmann would quote him with the high regard
of their early friendship, as he does in
the closing section on nature:
ree weeks ago (note: Seligmann crossed
out “three weeks ago”) a little girl om
Washington D.C. wrote André Breton, ask-
ing him whether children at school should
copy abstract paintings or work om na-
ture. Breton answered: “You will discover
yourself in a few years that there are artists
called abstracts who have been able to keep
in contact with nature. And you will nd
out that those who have lost this contact,
whether in their non-gurative or gura-
tive quest – have lost everything.
Seligmann may have taken Breton’s
comments from his Voice of America broadcasts
starting in 1942 that made him and other Europe-
an intellectuals a de facto propaganda voice of the
American government. Aer their violent estrange-
ment in 1943, Seligmann would not have quoted
Breton with this warmth and familiarity.
II. e Artist’s Experience
Art is an extroverted expression of the creative imagi-
nation, which when introverted, becomes religion.
When Kurt Seligmann arrived in Paris in 1929,
he entered a milieu eervescent with new ideas and
Yves Tanguy and Kurt Seligmann
ination rejects the special eects of glitzy imita-
tion and contemporary art’s love aair with digital
production, devoid of fallible ngerprints in the
surface. To the art of spectacle, he opposes the art
of imagination, where a lump of clay contains the
artist’s experience of intractable matter. is experi-
ence is also of our own materiality and corporeality,
and so of mortality. Matter reproaches our hubris
in thinking we can understand it all, at all.
For Seligmann art is an interpretation of an inter-
pretation (6) interweaving perception, reason, and
imagination. e artist creates an “awareness of
awareness” of how the imagination transforms re-
ality. Seligmann’s awareness of the creative process
brings the imagination to the fore. For the artist to
create what is seen in the imagination is dicult,
and imagination can only be loosely followed.
Imagination cannot be realized, only approximat-
ed. His ideas retain force for contemporary art:
For what we retain in our minds is very dierent om
what we retain upon the canvas. In the mind, the image
builds itself up with ease. e mind mixes colors with more
facility than the hand. What we imagine is strangely de-
materialized… and one realizes that the imagined is ap-
proximate. Perfect plastic relations can be thought of, but
our mind cannot visualize them. We have to endow them
with plastic reality. (8).
To perception, reason and imagination, Seligmann
brings another order of knowledge –the senses. In
this direction, he forms a new theory of mind that
predicts current developments of neuro-plasticity
an d
al intelligence. e
senses are a source of knowl-
edge and imagination that fuel the soul-
force of the psyche, a powerful motor in its own
Reason is mind through which we perceive, imagine and
remember. Reason guides the sculptor’s chisel, the painters’
hand. But not reason alone. For our psyche is as powerful an
impulse to creation…let us remember that our repressions and
desires, that the unconscious that escapes the controls of reason,
are mysterious forces active in the creative process. Our head
is ruled by Mind and Psyche. In the mind is contained intel-
lect and reason. But om our psyche depend our impulses, our
Our characters, our intellectual faculties, our talent, belong to
the domain of the Mind. But the transformation of the mind-
image into the reality of the art work requires the intervention
of Psyche. It is not a curious annex of the mind, but a powerful
motor in its own right. It completes our experience of reality,
which we perceive, lest we not forget, through our senses. (7)
In this passage, we nd the artist, complete.
1 In search of MOMA’s lost history, Uncovering eorts to rescue artists and their patrons.
ing-eorts-to-rescue-artists-and-their patrons
2 James ompson and Susan Raines, “A Vermont Visit with Meyer Schapiro,” Oxford Art Journal-17: 1 1994. 5, 6
3 Seligmann, Artist Canvas Reality, unpublished paper (c. 1941-51) 8. Henceforth pages noted in text.
4 Ellen E. Adams, Aer the Rain: Surrealism and the Post World War II Avant-Garde, 1940-50 dissertation, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, September 2007. 63, 64, 97, 310.
5 G. Wilson Knight, e Crown of Life, (London: Routledge, 2002; Oxford University Press, 1932) 12.
6 Wallace Stevens, A Primitive Like an Orb, (New York: e Gotham Book Mart, e Banyan Press, 1948.) Kurt Seligmann. 1st edition,
7 William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, (New York: New Directions, 1947). His rhetorical method is discussed by Christopher Norris, “Introduction: Empson as a Literary eorist.”
William Empson: e Critical Achievement, ed. by Christopher Norris and Nigel Mapp. Cambridge University Press, 1993
8 James Elkins, Pictures and Tears, (London: Routledge, 2004) p. vi.
the materiality of the image, and Stein used repeti-
tion to create a tangible reality.
Each of these thinkers focused on extraordinary
states of mind that compressed spiritual insight,
the dream, metaphor, and moments of time into a
modern spirituality. In 1948 Seligmann illustrated
Wallace Stevens’ long poem, A Primitive Like an
Orb. e poem uctuates like a prism between
images and ideas to celebrate the supreme ction,
the “central poem” from which all others arise. e
metaphor for the “all in one, and the one in all”
arises from mysticism, but for the artist and poet,
the “central poem” is the creative experience of the
One poem proves another and the whole,
For the clairvoyant men that need no proof:
e lover, the believer and the poet,
eir words are chosen out of their desire,
e joy of language, when it is themselves.
With these they celebrate the central poem,
e fulllment of fulllments
In his talk, Artist Canvas Reality, Seligmann draws
ideas in reverse chronology from the movements
that inuenced him: surrealism, the Abstraction/
Creation movement, and medieval and Renais-
sance art. He suggests that the artist’s struggle be-
tween mind and matter is between creative will and the
stern material which must be conquered. (5) He analyzes
the artist’s process in the stone carvings from the
Basel cathedral that use distortions in the carvings
intended to be perceived from below in foreshort-
ened perspective. From the experience of stone,
Seligmann shows that the artist works through
matter: Artistic creation is not imitation. Mysterious
transubstantiation… had taken place: Stone had become
men, garments, attributes, yet…it had remained stone
as well. Nowhere did it suggest any other material than
stone, it had been treated as stone with perfect mastery. (5)
Seligmann’s talk uses a “lemon-squeezing” preci-
sion in his examples, following his contemporaries
Freud, T.S. Eliot and the literary theorist, William
Empson, who pioneered close readings and empiri-
cal examples. Delivered over 70 years ago, Selig-
mann’s talk may require the reader’s patience to
reap its nuanced rewards – but its core is rich.
For Seligman, imitation is not creative because
its aim is deception and simulation: Imitative skill
is not creativeness. (When) the natural and the articial
are mixed, the result is deception rather than creation. In
times of decadence, deceptive means make their appearance
in the arts. Late Roman statues are enlivened with enamel
eyes and bronze eye lashes. An embarrassing duality ham-
pers our active participation. Apollonius of Tayancia who
lived in the rst century said rightly that art is the work of
imagination, not imitation. (5)
ose who see art as index cards for intellectual
debate discount the artist’s engagement with mat-
ter and the hand’s imprint. Others have artisans
make their art. Seligmann’s understanding of imag-
Kurt Seligmann on the far right
12 13
At 4 a.m. Montparnasse stills
& empties. Reducing itself
to a treeless piazza accommodating
the young Italian painter of statues
& his statues. Window shopping
green lamp light under arcades
pink kid gloves. Corsets. Lace
Bordeaux. Baguettes & madeleines
to eat o the folds of chiseled robes
e body. e blood. e body & blood
It’s not an accident. If marble
feathers fall. Elongated egg eyes
protrude from sockets. Hearts beat
stone. Weathered by wind. Rain
moss & ice. e stone is as white
as the moon. & the moon knows
the secret. Written in invisible ink
above the entrance to a dreary studio
in Rue Campagne Première
e body. e blood. e body & blood
20 21
22 23
24 25
26 27
partial and coded, and thus a claim to realism
is always false. Vulgar mimesis is incapable
of “creation” and can produce only a “decep-
tion.” For him “there is not such a thing as
objective reality.” On the other hand “Reality
is the All,” the contents of the artist’s mind no
less than the tree before his eyes.
Breton treated reason with contempt, say-
ing it was operative only upon trivial occa-
sions (dismissing at the same time aesthetic
and moral concerns) while to Seligmann ra-
tional conscious planning was critical to art.
He directly challenges Breton by declaring
that spontaneous or automatic creation can-
not exist. For Seligmann Mind takes an equal
role with what he calls Psyche in the “struggle
upon the canvas” that generates a successful
Experience to Seligmann is inevitably sub-
jective. Art is “an interpretation of an inter-
pretation” which is again reinterpreted by the
viewer, but, far from a diminished vision (as
it seemed to Plato), this subtle process is for
Seligmann the precise way to signify human
experience. Whereas Breton had dened Sur-
realism as “psychic automatism,” “free from
any control,” Seligmann pursued art that re-
ected the human mind, committed at once
to the objective and subjective, the conscious
and unconscious. Instead of shing for truth
in the deep waters of dreams, or even beyond,
in the chartless realms of chance, Seligmann
sought out of the dialectic between the ratio-
nal and the irrational to produce the “myste-
rious transubstantiation” of art.
For years Kurt Seligmann was a member of
the Surrealist circle, his membership sanc-
tioned by André Breton, and conrmed by
his close associations with Ernst and Tanguy
among others. Nonetheless, his own theory
and practice remained idiosyncratic. Selig-
mann’s statements on aesthetics, accessible
from his American lectures such as “Artist
Canvas Reality,” while incorporating certain
critical Surrealist tendencies, suggest a signi-
cantly moderated version of those announced
so dramatically in Bretons rst ”Manifesto of
In that historic document, Breton calls for
the overthrow of reason, insisting that logic
has no signicant use. He praises the child’s
mind, the madman’s consciousness, and the
signicance of dreams and chance. He cel-
ebrates “the marvelous,” declaring realism
At the outset of his lecture “Artist Canvas Reality” Kurt Selig-
mann admits the partial character of his own analysis and suggests
that some elements of art may remain forever mysterious. He then
directly addresses his audience, suggesting “I may perhaps give you
an impulse for further exploration.” ese comments are a re-
sponse to the artist’s invitation.
by William Seaton
“the lowest of tastes,” and delights in what
Reverdy calls “a juxtaposition of two more or
less remote realities” proceeding then to il-
lustrate the point with a series of quotations
such as this from Roger Vitrac: “No sooner
had I summoned the marble-admiral than he
pirouetted on his heels like a horse rearing
at the pole star and showed me in the plane
of his bicorn hat a region where I ought to
spend my life.” To Breton what is important
is to compose “without any intervention on
the part of the critical faculties,” “unencum-
bered by the slightest inhibition.” Surrealism
to him is a drug capable of producing “an ar-
ticial paradise.”
In his talk titled “Artist Canvas Reality,”
Seligmann likewise rejects realism but then
poses an alternative quite dierent from Bret-
on’s. To Seligmann every representation is
Kurt Seligmann’s Moderate Surrealism
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