About Alice Rahon

  • Biography
  • Art

Alice Marie Yvonne Philppot (Alice Rahon) was born in Chencey-Buillon, Quingey in Eastern France, on June 8, 1904. Raised in a humble family, her mother was a cook in a Parisian household, and her father worked as a valet. Her best childhood memories were from the days she spent in Roscoff, northwest of France, with her paternal grandparents, spending time on the beach amidst the sand, the waves, and the wind. At a very young age, Rahon had an accident that marked the rest of her life; she broke her right hip, and was forced to spend the following months and years on bed rest. Alice coped with this obstacle, by filling her days with reading, painting, and drawing—the beginning of a life-long creative endeavor. At age twelve, however, she suffered another accident and broke her leg, which actually alleviated her limp. Another great tragedy in Rahon’s life was the birth of a son who had a congenital anomaly and died very soon after. Not much more is known about who the father was or the story of her pregnancy, but the physical pain and the loss was something that followed her through out the rest of her life.

In 1931, Alice Rahon met Wolfgang Paalen, an Austrian painter, in Paris. Paris acted as the cradling arms for her creative life; it was here where she dabbled in poetry and was introduced to the surrealist movement. In March of 1934, she married Paalen. This first marriage was of great influence for her artistic life. Sharing the love for places and objects corresponding to prehistoric myths, the couple lived a nomadic life for the first years of their relationship.

Traveling to Spain in 1933, Rahon and Paalen toured the Altamira caves with its prehistoric paintings. Excursions to Greece, India, Alaska and Mexico appeared as influences in her writing and, later on, her painting. Her trip to India with the poet Valentine Penrose in 1936 was her intent to escape from a brief affair with Pablo Picasso. Alice encountered India, and fell in love with the light, the children, the mysticism, the dances, and the elephants. In these years her writing flourished. Her first collection of poems À même  la terre was published in 1936, and followed by Sablier couché in 1938, which received high praise from André Breton, known as the founder of Surrealism.

Although Rahon traveled extensively through Europe and Asia, Mexico stood as the epicenter of her art. In 1939, Paalen, Rahon, and Eva Sulzer  (one of Rahon’s most loyal friends), were invited by Frida Kahlo to travel to Mexico. First, they decided to visit Alaska and tour British Columbia, where they explored the mysticism of the prehistoric cultures. In September they settled in Mexico where they stayed, due to the outset of World War II and Alice abandoned writing to devote her life to painting. Mexico's colorful culture drove her to pick up the paintbrush and drop the fountain pen; she published her last collection of poems, Noir animal, in 1941. From that point forward she dedicated all her time to painting, heavily influenced by both her surroundings, as well as her husband. Paalen served as a promoter for her art; he founded and edited a magazine, Dyn, where some of her poems and illustrations are published.

Since 1944, she began exhibiting her works in Mexico, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Paris, and Lebanon. In 1946 she wrote and choreographed a ballet, Ballet de Orión; she envisioned this show as a story of birth, revelation, and hope, and was inspired by her trip to India, astrology, and mythology. She worked on this project and others with her second husband, Edward Fitzgerald, a Canadian set designer, but it was a short and failed marriage, divorcing in 1947.

Alice Rahon lived her final years painting, traveling, and visiting prominent artists like Anais Nin, Henry Miller, Octavio Paz, and others. She settled in her house Las Flores (The Flowers) in Acapulco, Mexico. After a harsh fall, she hurt her back and rejected any medical help, so she locked herself in her house. Alice Rahon has had two other major exhibitions: one in La Galeria de Arte Mexicano and the last—a dream come true— in el Palacio de Bellas Artes in 1986. After a harsh fall, she hurt her back and rejected any medical help, locking herself in her house. Following her last exhibition, she was admitted to an old people's nursing home where she died on in September of 1987 in Mexico City.

In the discussion of Alice Rahon as an artist, she must be remembered for the two roles she played: Rahon the writer and Rahon the painter. André Breton, the founder of the surrealist movement in Paris, praised her work as a writer, but this interaction with Breton and consequently, with surrealism launched her career as a painter. In her writing, Rahon blurs the line between the separation of her verses and her life. Many of her poems are autobiographical, and sometimes reveal intimate details about her life. But most importantly, her poetry is drenched with surrealistic imagery. One of her most evidently surrealistic poems emerges from the collection A même la terre (same land). It reads:

A woman who was beautiful
one day
ripped her face
her head was left smooth
blind and deaf
the coat of the mirrors
and the looks of love
In the reedbed of the sun
her head couldn’t be found
hatched by a hawk

The image of the woman ripping her face off and the head being hatched by a hawk resemble the surrealist paintings Breton admired. Similar to this untitled poem, her poetry usually resonates with a sense of sadness amidst the bizarre images. Although Rahon is mostly known for her paintings, her poetry is not to be ignored.

Wolfgang Paalen (1905-1959), her first husband, and André Breton (1896-1966) were very influential figures in her transition into the visual arts. Mexico also provided the space for Rahon to develop as a painter. One of the prominent images in her poetry and paintings is the unison of two rivers, which alludes to the union of humans and nature, as well as the natural separation between the two entities. On a lighter note, one might attribute this image to her lifelong commitment to swimming.

Her paintings reflect her many travels in search of myths and anthropological objects. Caves, tribal pictorials, traditions, myths, and legends are plastered on her canvases, and undeniably, Mexico is the setting for most of the scenes she paints. The country did not only provide her with many friendships, but it was also a source of inspiration. Pyramids and volcanoes appear in her paintings and the explosion of color marks Mexico as an important place for her art. Resembling many cave paintings, Rahon’s works portray her obsession with the mythological and the ancient, and she manages to evoke both the past and a mystical future in her paintings.

Some of her most interesting works were created as homages to her artist friends: Anaïs Nin, Virginia Woolf, Wolfgang Paalen, André Breton and, of course, Frida Kahlo. For example, The Ballad for Frida Kahlo narrates various encounters they had. Emphasizing the tones of blue, green, and red speckled through out the painting, Rahon paints a magical scene with cats, giraffes, pyramids, and a Ferris wheel. Dark and somber, the painting stands as a magnificent tribute to their friendship and to Kahlo. She also dedicates one of her works to Wolfgang Paalen, entitled The Toucan and the rainbow (1967) because of his connection with a beautiful toucan whose beak was an unusual array of rainbow colors. This painting is an exposure of her masterful use of color.

Leaving behind many paintings and poems for the world, Alice Rahon demonstrated her talent in these two forms of art. Channeling her countless trips and her admiration of the past, she brings all to bear through her artwork, and she emerges as a mythical figure through the strokes of her paintbrush and the words from her pen.