To understand Atlan, you have to know that he is Algerian. This partly explains the trace of his lines, his cacti and his saurian teeth. Europe did not leave its mark on him. He is predominantly African. His colours (matt red and ochre) are the colours of painted masks. …As an African artist he sculpts the spirit of the fire and the non-fire. Atlan painted a mixture of minerals, plants and animals.’ wrote Michel Ragon (writer and Art Critic)
Gertrude Stein (writer and collector): ‘Then, one day, I saw Atlan’s paintings. I was struck by the fact that he didn’t paint what his eyes had seen. He had an abstract view of the world and if there was anything concrete, it crept in as an emotion, but fundamentally it was as abstract as writing music and architecture are abstract, and yet it pleased the eye, not his eyes, but my eye.’
‘I’m not abstract from the perspective of ambience and the mood of my pieces, nor in terms of “execution”. I’m only interested in form if it’s alive (if I succeed in making it come alive) and then it’s not abstract: it’s alive!’
Jean-Michel Atlan was born into a Jewish family in Constantine in Algeria. His father was a very devote follower of Kabbalism. Because he had a well-to-do family, Jean-Michel was given the opportunity to attend grammar school. In 1930 he went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. He chose philosophy. Part of the course material taught him about Trotskyism and anti-colonialism. It affected him so profoundly that he graduated in Marxism. In 1939 he taught philosophy at the Laval grammar school, and then went on to teach at the Lycée Condorcet in Paris. During the Nazi occupation, in 1940, all Jewish teachers were dismissed from the school, including Atlan. This exclusion left a deep impression. It spurred him on to take up painting in 1941.
But he had other reasons as well. Atlan: ‘I switched from poetry to painting like a danser who discovers that dance reveals more, more than magic.’ His early work depicts fantasy figures which arose out of his interest in Eastern religions and in African magic.
The Nazis arrested him because of his Jewish background and his resistance activities. He strongly resisted arrest, for which he was sentenced to death. To try and stave off the execution, he pretended to be insane. It pulled off, and he was locked up at the Hôpital Sainte-Anne in Paris.
His confinement turned out to be an incredibly enriching experience for Atlan. He learnt how to withdraw from the normal world. Later on, he was to pass on the experiences he had gathered there to his Cobra colleagues.
Atlan started gaining fame for his paintings immediately after the war. In 1946, he was asked to take part in the first exhibition put on by the Parisian gallery Maeght. The title of the exhibition came from Matisse: Le noir est un couleur.
Other artists also showing work included Georges Braque, Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault, who had all acquired international reputations in the meantime. Atlan’s name was instantly established. In the same year, he exhibited with the same artists under the title Sur quatre murs and more exhibitions and commissions quickly followed.
His house and studio, in Rue de la Grande Chaumière in Montparnasse, became an open house for artists. It was a hive of activity because many of the guest artists were greatly attracted by his warm personality, his philosophical know-how and his connections. One of the guests was Asger Jorn, who visited Atlan in 1946, and subsequently got to know poet and art aficionado Édouard Jaguer and the writer Michel Ragon.
Atlan joined the Cobra group shortly after it was set up. Ragon and Jaguer were the authors of several Cobra publications and they wrote for the magazines. Atlan showed work in both of the big Cobra exhibitions: in Amsterdam, in 1949, as well as in Liège, in 1951, and he took part in many other exhibitions. It is highly likely that because of his contact with gallery Maeght, a Cobra exhibition was put on there in 1950. Atlan’s work was included in the exhibition in Librairie 73 in Paris (1951), which was curated by Ragon. In addition to a substantial body of work by Cobra artists, there were examples of many publications by Cobra and affiliated movements such as Reflex and Høst.
In addition, Atlan collaborated with others from the group, which was so typical of Cobra. He went to Brussels in 1950 to make a series of ‘peintures-mots’ with Dotremont in the ‘Cobra house’ on Rue de Marais. The word paintings were given the title Les Transformes.
After this intense Cobra period, things quietened down round Atlan. It was, more or less, of his own choosing. He was to repeat this period of quiet a few years later. He explained to several of his Japanese friends, ‘It is my destiny to leave the public arena, because if the locusts are on their way, it is better to move elsewhere. Fashion and painting do far more damage than the locusts.’ (Letter to Japanese friends, November 1959). In 1956, work by Atlan was on show in a big exhibition in gallery Bing. Atlan died of cancer in 1960 at the age of just forty seven.
Because of his early death, he is the only artist who was not extensively interviewed about his Cobra period.
His work is included in the collections of major international museums, such as MoMA in New York and Centre Pompidou in Paris.
The Ambassade Hotel Collection has recently acquired a lithograph by Atlan. All the elements peculiar to Atlan, and for which he became so well known, can be seen in this work. The plant-like forms are framed by thick black winding lines. They seem to be dancing. Atlan: ‘Like a dancer I’m able to make free use of my surface.’
translation Vivien Cook see for more about the international Cobra group in Cobra on the Canal (2013) publisher Samsara, Amsterdam
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Ons Erfdeel. Jaargang 18. Stichting Ons Erfdeel, Rekkem / Raamsdonk-Dorp 1975
Les juifs du lycée Condorcet dans la tourmente (The Jews of Lycée Condorcet in the Storm) Pierre Albertini: Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’histoire, No. 92 (Oct. – Dec., 2006), pp. 81-100
Alechinsky, Peintures et écrits, Lens Fine Art Anvers 1977
Atlan, Premieres periods 1940/1954 Musée des beaux arts De Nantes 1986
Michel Ragon, Atlan, Bibliotheque Cobra. 1950
Atlan Catalogue raisonne de l’oeuvre complet 1996