Victor Brauner… a seer at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris


Grand Master of the Order of the Platypus, First Class Commander of the Legion of Saturn, an eccentric painter close to the Dada and Surrealist movements… Victor Brauner’s work is being shown at the Museum of Modern Art (MAM in Paris until 10 January 2021. We take this opportunity to recall some of the salient characteristics of his oeuvre, which, considering its daring originality, is relatively undervalued by the market.

The title of the major retrospective currently underway at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris (MAM) quotes the artist himself from a letter he addressed to André Breton in 1940: “I am the dream, I am the inspiration”. The show is a journey through a hundred visionary works, some of which are being shown in France for the first time since the artist’s last retrospective in Paris in 1972. Some are of course directly from the superb collection of 150 Victor Brauner works that were left to the museum by the artist’s widow, Jacqueline Victor Brauner. Others, such as La Porte and Le Surréaliste, have been borrowed from American collections, with titles clearly suggesting an experience beyond reality.

Victor Brauner was a painter of mystery. An artist-poet-esoteric and author of an intensely personal work imbued with syncretism and auto-mythology, nourished as much by dreams as by an immense culture plunging into the arcana of the Kabbalah and spiritualism. To be interested in Brauner’s work is to take a step into the unknown, leave the marked trails, accept the magic of painting and meet an artist who was also a visionary.

From ‘objective chance’… to wax

In 1931 Victor Brauner painted a Self-portrait that subsequently became famous as a premonition of things to come. Indeed, the painting became a living edifice of what the Surrealists called ‘objective chance’. Now part of the MAM’s permanent collection, this disturbing self-portrait depicts him without his left eye, seven years before the same eye was accidentally ripped out of his face when he intervened in a brawl between Oscar Dominguez and Esteban Frances (1938). The visionary artists became a single-eyed artist. The notion of ‘objective chance’ seemed to have been confirmed.

The painting, having emerging from the deepest zones of my instinct, also appeals to instinct… a kind of communication ‘without prejudice’. The subject of the painting is totemic; the painting is therefore magical, it establishes incantatory and direct relationships with the greatest reveries. primitive and material reveries.” (Victor Brauner, 1961)

Victor Brauner was first seduced by Surrealism at the end of the 1920s when he discovered paintings by Giorgio De Chirico. He joined the movement in 1933 through Alberto Giacometti and Yves Tanguy, but was subsequently excluded in November 1948 while defending Roberto Matta.

Between his membership and his exclusion, Brauner returned to Bucharest in 1935, then returned to Paris in 1938 and subsequently fled the Nazi invasion of France in 1940. He took refuge in the South of France, then in the Hautes-Alpes where he hid for three years. Without canvas and oil paints he worked on wood and included various materials at his disposal: wire, stones, earth, leaves, etc. He notably ‘reinvented’ wax paintings which he used to express various esoteric and alchemical ideas. As Didier Semin explains “Brauner spread it (the wax) over a board before etching it with a stylus like an engraving. He then ran ink or walnut stain over it and wiped it so that the colored liquid crept into the grooves.

Reception France / United States

Unable to obtain a visa to emigrate to the United States, Brauner’s work remained relatively unknown on the other side of the Atlantic, unlike that of the Surrealist Max Ersnt who was helped by Peggy Guggenheim to reach New York during the war. The rich heiress opened her New York gallery The Art of This Century in 1942 where she exhibited the work of Surrealist artists in exile. Victor Brauner was not so lucky and the conditions in France were difficult. The chances for a Surrealist artist seeking to exhibit in Paris during the occupation were zero. Even Dina Vierny (who was not yet a gallery owner at the time) failed to convince Louis Carré to exhibit Brauner in his Parisian gallery.

It was not until the end of WWII that Victor Brauner’s work began to enjoy a better reception. In 1947, he exhibited at the Galerie Maeght during the International Surrealist Exhibition organized by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp. His Loup-Table (now in the MAM Paris collection) caused a sensation. In 1952 he participated for the first time in the Venice Biennale and showed work the following year at Alexandre Lolas in New York, his main dealer. In the following years, he had several solo exhibitions in New York, Chicago, London and Paris until his death in 1966, the same year he was chosen to represent France at the Venice Biennale.

turnover brauner

Brauner’s auction turnover: France vs. United States, 2010-2020


A unique and inexpensive œuvre

An work on paper from his ‘wax paintings’ period titled Homme debout (1944) was offered for sale early this summer at Christie’s in Paris. Measuring 65 x 50 cm, the work is a superb wax crayon and wash and ink on paper depicting a somewhat duplicated human. With excellent provenance – the New York collection of Mr & Mrs Pierre Matisse, then Jacques Kaplan and Artel gallery (New York) before joining the galleries Claude Bernard (before 1975) and La Cour d’Ingres (Inna Solomon) in Paris – the work fetched approximately $24,000, a relatively low price if we compare it to works on paper by Max Ernsts, whose smallest formats usually sell for around $50,000.

Although much rarer, his paintings from this period are not necessarily in great demand either. Last year, Motan (1945, an oil, encaustic wax, ink and scraping) – a typical example of Brauner’s quest for “permanent archaic forms” – only reached $83,700 at Christie’s in Paris (October 2019).

Even more surprising… three important Brauner paintings, he two estimated above $100,000 and one above $200,000, have failed to sell since last June, in Paris, London and Switzerland, despite the retrospective announced at the Paris MAM. Although essential in the history of 20th century art, Victor Brauner’s work may be considered too singular for collectors of Modern art. In reality, he is the last great Surrealist without a millionaire auction result to his name… But this weakness may well be strength: lacking commercial recognition, Brauner’s work is all the more interesting from an investment viewpoint.


Surrealist Records:

Victor Brauner :  993.000$, Sotheby’s 07/05/2008 (Ultratableau biosensible)

Max Ernst :  16,3m$, Christie’s 01/11/2011 (The Stolen Mirror)

De Chirico : 14,2m$, Christie’s Paris & Pierre Bergé 23/02/2009 (Il Ritornante)

Roberto Matta : 5m$, Christie’s 22/05/2012 (La révolte des contraires)

Leonora Carrington : 2,6m$, Sotheby’s 24/11/2014 (The temptation of St. Anthony)