Jean-Michel Atlan (1913-1960)
Born in 1913 in Constantine, Jean-Michel Atlan left Algeria for Paris at the age of 17. In Paris he enrolled at the Sorbonne to study Philosophy. In 1939, he became professor of philosophy at Lycée de Laval, later returning to Paris to teach at Lycée Condorcet. During this period he wrote surrealist poems. In Des mots pour un orage, he wrote: “Machine à déchirer la nuit / Nous avons recouvert le visage des jours / Murmure demeuré vivant / Oriflamme de la furie des étés”. Because he was Jewish he lost his teaching license during the German Occupation. It is during this period that he became interested in painting and began to work on his first canvases. He was arrested in 1942 for participating in the Resistance but was able to escape being sent to a camp by feigning insanity, which led to his admission in the Sainte-Anne asylum for two years. This period had profound effects on his artistic universe.
In 1944, Atlan exhibited his canvases in the Salon des Surindépendants and organised his first exhibition at the Galerie de l’Arc-en-ciel in Paris. The same year he published his poems in Le Sang profond (The Deep Blood). In 1945, he met Gertrude Stein, who introduced his work to her fellow art patron friends, and she showed his canvases in London and New York.
The following year, Atlan met the Danish artist Asger Jorn, who was one of the founders of the experimental art movement CoBrA. Atlan became very close to the group but refused to be claimed as one of them. ‘It is my destiny to abandon the roads overly travelled’ he said, ‘because when grasshoppers arrive it is better to set up one’s tent elsewhere. And passing trends in painting cause greater devastation than grasshoppers.’ In the same period, Atlan made illustrations for Kafka’s Description of a Struggle, which were exhibited in Galerie Maeght. Despite this success and his friends in the intellectual circle, most of the poet-painter’s life was spent in misery.
1956 brought positive changes to his life with an exhibition at Galerie Bing in Paris, which was met with great success. Atlan also designed a poster for the exhibition of the new École de Paris at Galerie Charpentier, which earned him significant attention as a proponent of this new movement. His work was appreciated internationally, in Japan, England, and the United States. Shortly thereafter in 1960 he died suddenly of cancer. He left behind more than 200 works filled with figures of animals, humans, and abstract forms, of which the coloured forms are enclosed in black contours.
‘The forms that seem to us the most acceptable today, as much by their plastic structure as by their expressive intensity, are strictly speaking not truly abstract nor figurative,’ said Jean-Michel Atlan. ‘They belong precisely to the cosmic powers of the metamorphosis where true adventure is found.’
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Art works from Jean-Michel Atlan
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