Prelude to a Civilization

Artist: Victor Brauner (Romanian, Piatra Neamt 1903–1966 Paris)

Date: 1954

Medium: Encaustic and ink on Masonite

Dimensions: 51 x 79 3/4 in. (129.5 x 202.6 cm)

Classification: Paintings

Credit Line: Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998

Accession Number: 1999.363.13

Rights and Reproduction: © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


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.