Victor Brauner grew up in a small town in Romania. His father, a passionate devotee of Spiritualism, regularly organized séances and corresponded with the famous mediums of the day. As an observer and participant, young Victor acquired a taste for the fantastic, which his art distinctly reflects. In 1930, Brauner settled in Paris, where he joined the Surrealist group in 1933. The subjects of his paintings of that period seem either to derive from the occult or to be rooted in private myths. They include bizarre creatures with huge totemic heads attached to plants or to the bodies of animals or human beings, and sprouting snakes, wings, and other forms.
In 1948, after he broke with the Surrealists, Brauner's work was more inspired by relics of archaic and primitive civilizations. Visitors to his studio in the Montmartre section of Paris often commented on his collection of primitive art, which comprised Oceanic cult objects as well as Native American artifacts. Gradually, his imagery became more heraldic, stark, and simplified, often evoking Egyptian or Pre-Columbian art.
Prelude to a Civilization represents a giant white animal in profile against a blue-and-green ground, within whose body are stylized renderings of some forty animals, figures, masks, and abstract symbols. Brauner may have based this composition on the pictographic robes of the Plains Indians. Such a robe-fashioned of animal hide-records its warrior-owner's exploits in decorative inscriptions covering the surface. Although the creatures Brauner depicts resemble Mexican codex illustrations, they also seem to be purely imaginative, and evoke the art of both Paul Klee and Max Ernst. Brauner executed this work in encaustic, a technique in which paint is mixed with molten wax. Into the resulting hardened surface, the artist incised the figures with pen and ink. He had first employed this medium after he was forced to take refuge from World War II in the Pyrenees and was unable to obtain his usual working materials. Here, the overall effect suggests an ancient cave painting.
Inscription: Signed and dated (lower right): VICTOR BRAUNER/ IIIx 1954
[Alexander Iolas Gallery, New York]; Jacques and Natasha Gelman, Mexico City and New York (1959–his d. 1986); Natasha Gelman, Mexico City and New York (1986–d. 1998; her bequest to MMA)
Paris. Galerie des "Cahiers d'Art". "Exposition d'oeuvres récentes de Victor Brauner," spring 1954.
Arts Club of Chicago. "Surrealism, Then and Now," October 1–30, 1958, no. 7.
Museum of Modern Art, New York. "Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage," March 27–June 9, 1968, no. 32.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage," July 16–September 8, 1968, no. 32.
Art Institute of Chicago. "Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage," October 19–December 8, 1968, no. 32.
Sydney. Art Gallery of New South Wales. "Modern Masters: Manet to Matisse," April 10–May 11, 1975, no. 15.
Melbourne. National Gallery of Victoria. "Modern Masters: Manet to Matisse," May 28–June 22, 1975, no. 15.
New York. Museum of Modern Art. "Modern Masters: Manet to Matisse," August 4–September 1, 1975, no. 15.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Twentieth-Century Modern Masters: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection," December 12, 1989–April 1, 1990, unnumbered cat. (p. 267).
London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Twentieth-Century Modern Masters: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection," April 19–July 15, 1990, unnumbered cat.
Mexico City. Centro Cultural Arte Contemporáneo. "La Colección de Pintura Mexicana de Jacques y Natasha Gelman," June 23–October 11, 1992.
Martigny. Fondation Pierre Gianadda. "De Matisse à Picasso: Collection Jacques et Natasha Gelman," June 18–November 1, 1994, unnumbered cat. (p. 291).
Hubert Juin. "Qui va au-devant de la matière. À propos de l'exposition d'oeuvres récentes de Victor Brauner à la galerie des 'Cahiers d'art'." Cahiers d'art 29 (October 1954), p. 243, ill. p. 239.
Julián Gállego. "Crónica de Paris." Goya no. 8 (1955), p. 132.
Dora Vallier. "Petite introduction à la peinture de Brauner." XXe Siècle 25, no. 22 (1963), ill. p. 37.
William S. Rubin. Dada and Surrealist Art. New York, 1968, p. 313, fig. 321, ill. p. 306.
Rolf-Gunter Dienst. "Ausstellungen in New York." Das Kunstwerk 21, nos. 7–8 (1968), pp. 30–31, ill.
Dominique Bozo. Victor Brauner. Exh. cat., Musée National d'Art Moderne. Paris, 1972, pp. 105, 117.
Dominique Bozo and Pierre Georgel. Les dessins de Victor Brauner au Musée National d'Art Moderne. Exh. cat., Musée National d'Art Moderne. Paris, 1975, unpaginated.
Hans Gercke. "Das Tier in der Kunst unseres Jahrhunderts." Das Kunstwerk 33, no. 4 (1980), ill. p. 19.
Evan Maurer in"Primitivism" in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. Ed. William Rubin. Exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York. New York, 1984, p. 577, ill. p. 584.
Giulio Urbinati. Victor Brauner: miti, presagi, simboli. Opere dal 1929 al 1965. Exh. cat., Villa Malpensata. Lugano, 1985, p. 119.
Sabine Rewald inTwentieth-Century Modern Masters: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection. Ed. William S. Lieberman. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1989, pp. 266–68, 296, ill. (color and bw).
William S. Lieberman inTwentieth-Century Modern Masters: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection. Ed. William S. Lieberman. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1989, p. 15.