Alice Rahon, artist and poet, was inspired by the symbols and textures of pre-historic, pre-Columbian, and Native American artifacts. She both experimented with and incorporated sand and other natural objects into her paintings and assemblages.
Born in France, Rahon spent three years of childhood immobilized in a cast that went from her neck to her ankles. Often left alone in the garden for long periods of time, she looked to nature for comfort and later on as a source of artistic and poetic inspiration. Her early paintings were childlike impressions from nature.
She became involved with the Surrealists in Paris in 1931 when she met the Austrian painter and writer Wolfgang Paalen, whom she married in 1934. In 1939, with Paalen and close friend, Swiss photographer Eva Sulzer, she visited North America to study the indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest where Sulzer photographed indigenous communities, Haida sculptures, and totem poles in British Columbia. Rahon created sketches of the magnificent totems carved in the trunks of ancient cedar trees. Later that same year Rahon and Sulzer visited New York City before settling in Mexico City with encouragement from artist Frida Kahlo.
In Mexico City, Rahon who began as a poet in the Surrealist movement, switched her focus from poetry to painting. She went from the written word to the painted image, fusing the two in what she called a “tableau-poeme.” One example is her 1939 “La sourire de la mort,” (“The Smile of Death”) where she juxtaposes text and image. She was influenced by the myths and legends of Mexican culture especially the Codex Azoyu, particularly in the glyph of Ehecatl, which she used as a motif in her paintings.
Rahon exhibited at the 1940 International Exhibition of Surrealism in Mexico City. In 1943, her series “Crystals in Space,” consisted of drawings in white gouache on black paper. This experimental project led to her painting with white ink on black paper as in her 1946 “L’oiseau de paradis” (“The Bird of Paradise”) and her use of white wire to make her marionette “Orion ballet: Juglar” (“Orion Ballet: Juggler”). She would mix her oils with sand, volcanic ash, feathers, dried leaves, and butterfly wings to show the colorful landscape of Mexico. In her paintings the shapes of pyramids and volcanoes and the painterly tones of wind, water, earth, and fire appeared like apparitions.
Her first solo exhibition was held in 1944 at the Galeria de Arte Mexicano. She designed costumes and puppets for an unrealized dance production, “Ballet de Orion,” in the mid-1940s. In 1946, she and Paalen divorced, and he married Venezuelan designer and artist Lucita Hurtado. The three lived together in harmony.
Rahon exhibited regularly in Mexico, New York, France, and California. Her work was shown at the 2012 Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s exhibition, “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States.” One of her paintings “The Ballad for Frida Kahlo,” 1955-56, nearly six feet wide, was shown in 2021 in “Surrealism Beyond Borders” and then at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Recently the Art Institute of Chicago acquired two of her works.