Oelze studied at the Bauhaus in Weimar from 1921 to 1925 and was drawn to surrealism in 1921 after seeing reproductions of Max Ernst's work in Ascona, Switzerland. From 1933 to 1936 he lived in Paris, where he frequented the surrealist group and exhibited with them at the Salon des Surindépendants.
Oelze claimed that he could paint a landscape only if he had never seen it and found his imagery in his night or day dreams. Ingenious in employing the frottage technique, his paintings most often depicted figures frozen in apprehension of a catastrophe—for example, his hallucinatory female figures, Frieda, Judith or Cassandra. His most famous work of this period, L’Attente (1936, Museum of Modern Art, New York) inspires anxiety merely by showing the rear view of a crowd of men and women examining a menacing, stormy sky—the terror expressed in their attitudes is more striking than if he'd he revealed their frightened faces. Alfred Barr, Jr. who organized the exhibit Fantastic Art, said that he was particularly impressed upon visiting Oelze's wretched studio in Paris: "For weeks we were up to our necks in surrealist art, yet we had not seen anything as disturbing as Oelze's work." Barr chose the painting Tourments quotidiens and the drawing Frieda for this famous event, which introduced surrealism on a broad scale in the United States. In 1936 Oelze was also invited to show at the International Surrealist Exhibition, in London, and in Paris in 1938. After working as a cartographer in Positano, he was drafted into the German army during the war and captured by the Americans. Upon his release, he settled at Worpswede, a village in Northern Germany, then at Postelholz. His painting evolved toward highly tormented anthropomorphic landscapes, similar topsychic states. He created imaginary little animals and homunculi; larval creatures looming from the walls, swarming in low-hanging clouds or standing out against tragic horizons. According to Wieland Schmied, his paintings became "images after the catastrophe [when] the calamity has befallen," and we contemplate the consequences with morose delectation: "Surviving forms hesitate to bury themselves underground and roam like ghosts in the inbetween realm of a half-reality." Oelze received countless honors in the last fifteen years of his life, including a tribute from the government of Lower Saxony for his sixty-fifth birthday in 1965; the First Grand Prize of the Rhineland in 1966; the Max Beckman Award from the City of Frankfurt in 1978; and posthumously, on May 27,1980, the Grand Prize of Lower Saxony. This growing official recognition is paradoxical with regard to an artist who, by his shyness, anxiety and concern for authenticity, seemed fated to be misunderstood or ignored.
Born 1900 in Magdeburg, Germany; died 1980 in Postelholz, Germany.
Invention of a Dream, 1960