The Artist (Wolfgang Paalen) And War- And Profit/Money-mongers*

Who are these monstrous creatures with contrast between their bright faces and their prosaic bodies? They are not physical heads on the physical bodies, as monstrous as they are. They’re the “heads” of the social hierarchies of countries, political systems, armies or financial corporations – they are signifying the social leadership and the decision-making. The bodies of the heads, we see on the painting, don’t belong to the physical heads – as soon as the heads are not physical but symbolic their bodies signify their own symbolic identity – the social masses including soldiers which follow “heads’” commands, orders and ideas. It is these “heads” decide the destinies of national and global competition and wars and use and sacrifice regular people’s lives and minds for the sake of their own luminosity and military and financial victories.
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Paalen’s painting is stylized (bestialized) dystopia of ferocious rivalry and wars as a gloomily glorious life and death of post-humanity
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Wolfgang Paalen, “Combat of the Saturnian Princes”, 1938

Paalen’s representation of his magnificent, in their monstrosity, giant creatures whom he calls “Saturnian Princes”, hints at quite earthly inhabitants with tremendous megalomania explaining their ferocity and yearning to dominate one another. We see, that there are more Saturnian princes’ heads than bodies, and that tells us that these horrifyingly remarkable creations know how to lose bodies while keeping their heads. As earthly creatures Saturnian princes are by no means anthropomorphic, they’re quite artificial, robotic, but not in today’s, cartoonish-technological sense of man-like machine-figures, but rather as personifications of large groups (armies, corporations, etc.) in frenzy of endless battles and consumption of one another.

It’s in competitions, clashes and wars between nations or financial corporations or political systems we see this degree of disproportion between the (social) tops and the (social) bottoms, between the decision-makers and the followers, “heads” and “bodies”, when leadership destroys the human flesh and human and natural resources and takes charge of the enemy’s (or nationalized earlier in its own countries) wealth and what is left for appropriation and domination. Indeed, in human wars there are much more “heads” left alive in comparison with human bodies – “heads” survive defeated armies and even find a way to continue to preside over remaining masses through adapting their policies to the will of the victors.

The poetic inspiration of the artist created a beautiful zoological facade of Saturnian princes as metaphors – their lit heads (presiding over social life) and their bodies (soldiers falling to their death in the battle for the sake of their leadership). We discern a skull of a horse, as if, “melting” in the wind, and the aggressively opened muzzles and gray bodies on the way to the bottom – to the soil consisting of bone-like corpses whose dead flesh was, as if, sucked up by the victors. We see only three body-bones, which are still connected to the ground and have lost their flesh by the cannibalistic greed of princes-conquerors. These still skeletal body-bones are on the way down to the soil-graveyard. But we count at least six alive heads full of shining aggressive vitality, with faces of red, orange, pink and yellow colors, as if infused with light from inside as a reaction on the noble excitement of battle. These alive heads which have lost bodies (their soldiers and servile mass at their service) try to parasitize on competing heads’ bodies. How many dead bodies the heads (tops of the social hierarchies) can use and survive on?

Leaders of societies and/or corporations are already don’t function as human beings but are a kind of superhuman zoo-robots. They follow not the logic of human individual life, but the logic of thirst for domination of the large organizations, whose survival and victories over rivaling groups are much more important than the survival of tiny human individuals. And when they have lost all or most their troops-bodies they fight with other “heads” by the “magic” ability to soar up and while fighting keep themselves in the air without support. They are transformed into something like Saturnian “air force”.

In Paalen’s painting we witness not just his apocalyptic vision, but one that is remarkably particular for the age of global combats between financial or high-tech weapons corporate heads trying to outlive one another, outlive the world and to take into their possession resources not only on Earth, Saturn, of Solar system, etc.

In Paalen’s time the “Saturnian Princes” was a metaphor of the Western countries which fought each other with a hate that is hardly compatible with Christian tradition. No question that then many business people already made a lot of money on human deprivations and suffering inseparable from war time and war-time economic rivalry. But the artist’s intuition is showing earthly combats in an essential way – he depicts war-mongering and war-doing as passionate, monumental and cosmically universal affair, transcending concrete historical periods and planetary locations. Today, in the 21st century Paalen’s painting addresses the future of post-democratic societies, not just our past and present.

The very Saturnian soil is represented by Paalen as bodies-bones of the killed in the Combats of the Saturnian princes. It is not our earth anymore – it’s the property of the winners, human bones as natural resource. Saturnian heads’ wars are already not for killing enemies’ bodies, but for colonizing – cannibalizing the dying and dead bodies to continue to survive on them.

*Paalen’s Saturnian creations are metaphoric superhuman zoo-robots which are, in their essence, in their spirit, presiding over massive human communities already today. They are not robots imitating human individuals but the one which are organic mutation of old-fashion human race. Saturnian princes are, literally, the heads-leaders of social life and not only global but galactic worriers with godly ambitions and with bodies consisting of low rank fighters.


Wolfgang Paalen in Paris, 1933